6 Secrets to a Successful Playdate

Stressed out over drama-filled playdates? We have a few tips for how to keep your toddler's next playdate a little more playful.

“Mine mine mine mine mine!” One little boy at the YMCA playroom was having a really hard time. “It didn’t matter whether or not he was even playing with it, if another kid touched a toy, he had to have it,” remembers Leigh, an, Ontario mom to two-year-old Jon.

Jon is an easygoing toddler who hasn’t, so far, had a lot of problems with sharing toys or getting along with other children, but that “mine” stage exhibited by the playmate is very common, says Victoria Campbell, a registered early childhood educator at Our Place Family Resource and Early Years Centre in Kitchener, Ont. It’s just one of the normal challenges involved with playdates for toddlers.

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“Toddlers are still very self-absorbed and egocentric,” explains Campbell. “They have a hard time understanding people’s feelings. They don’t understand sharing, so they need a lot of support with that. And they don’t play independently for more than a few minutes, especially in a group.”

So playdates at this age are not exactly relaxing. If you have your heart set on having a good yak in the kitchen while the kids entertain themselves in the family room, you’ll need to wait another year or so. But playdates are well worth the effort.

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Kate of Calgary has a couple of good friends she’s hung out with since her first pregnancy. Her little girl, Bowie, is now almost three and she’s noticed the children play much more by themselves now. But when they were a year younger, she says, “Playdates were much more hands-on. They would play more with us than with each other, and we’d have to help them get involved in the activities.” But that still left plenty of time to enjoy some adult conversation and share support. “Now some of us are on our second, and it’s great to share ideas about how to deal with this new balancing act.”

Be Prepared For Your Playdate

Even though young toddlers tend to play side by side rather than with each other, they still work on their developing social skills and enjoy just being around each other. Campbell has these tips to help keep your next playdate a happy experience:

  • Time It Right: “Keep visits short and leave while it’s still fun,” suggests Campbell. And choose a time of day when the kids will be well rested (early morning or post nap) and fed.
  • Make Smart Snacks: A snack is great way to restore flagging energy, but not if it turns out one of your guests can’t have what you’re serving. Ask about any dietary restrictions before getting together.
  • Think Multiples: You can’t go out and buy three of every toy, but try to have several options on hand—one ride-on toy and three toddlers is not a recipe for peace! For activities like playdough or crayons, set up several little stations to allow for parallel play with their own materials.
  • Intervene Early: When trouble is brewing (and it will), it’s better to head it off at the pass than wait, says Campbell. Redirection is a great strategy to prevent squabbles, such as “Hey, Annie, look what we have here! This little toy puppy wants to play with you!” or simply bundle the kids up for a little outside play at the park.
  • Teach Them About Sharing Sharing, as Campbell points out, is “quite a general word that means lots of different things. So when adults just bark out, ‘Share!’ a toddler really doesn’t know what that means.” Instead, provide specific strategies: “There are lots of blocks here. You can have all these, and Simon can have the other half,” or “Jack is using the ball now, but when he’s done, it will be your turn.”
  • Have Realistic Expectations: “Understand that conflict is normal—it’s a learning process,” says Campbell. And like other aspects of development, social skills come sooner and easier to some children than others.

Playdates Are Meant To Be Fun

On the days when the kids have fun and the parents have a great visit, playdates can be the highlight of the week. Seeing your toddler’s first little companions become real friends is a truly heartwarming experience. Hounjet recalls the last time they left a playmate: “Quinn had to run back and hug and kiss her friend goodbye. It was really sweet.”


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