Planning the perfect playdate

The term “playdate” was a foreign concept to me before my children started preschool, but I have quickly learned it is an important part of their early socialization. Playdates can be wonderful, but they can also be a bit nerve-wracking for both children and parents. Here are a few of my secrets to help ensure a successful playdate.

Scheduling: For preschoolers, timing is everything. A playdate too close to or during naptime can be a recipe for disaster. Ideally, you want to find a time that your children are going to be at their best so they will be able to enjoy the experience without being overtired. Second to timing is making sure your child is ready and comfortable with a “drop-off” playdate. This may mean you invite the parent to come and stay for the first playdate or you might also want to meet at a park or museum with both parents present.

Communication with the other parent is paramount for scheduling and necessary to establish a level of trust. If I am hosting someone else’s child, I always like to find out about any food allergies or special concerns. I also make sure to exchange contact information including phone numbers, e-mail, and home addresses. Finally, agree on a pick-up time and be on time. The key for preschoolers is to keep playdates short and sweet – one and a half to two hours is plenty of time.

The invite: For toddlers, playdates are about getting the parents together, so it makes sense to target children whose parents you like. By preschool, many children are ready for a drop-off playdate and usually have ideas or opinions about whom they would like to invite. The parents should always handle the actual invitation, but it is important to let your child take the lead on whom to invite. In our house, after several stressful playdates, we now limit the invite to just one other friend. Whether it is a sibling or another friend, the old saying really is true – “three is a crowd.” When one sibling has a playdate, it can be hard for the other sibling who wants to be included. I try to give the child who is not having the playdate special time and keep him or her distracted with a separate project or game.

Activities: Planning ahead and having a few fun activities ready will help get things off to a good start and help break the ice. I always like to include food or a snack as an activity. Low blood sugar can really derail a playdate quickly. Cooking and art projects are great ways to keep the children engaged and it gives them something to take home as a memento. Baking cookies or making crepe paper mosaics are a few of our favorites. Games are also a great way to get everyone engaged, but do not be surprised if all the children want to do is “play.” It is very exciting to be at someone else’s house and exploring all his or her toys. This can also be hard for young children who are still mastering the art of sharing. We put away any toys or special things that my children think they might not be able to share before the playdate starts, and this helps reduce any arguments.

In our house, the only hard rule on activities we have is no “screen time” during playdates. This means no television shows, movies or iPad games. There is definitely a time for these things, but I believe it is best to stay clear of media time and let the children enjoy each other and use their imagination to play. Cleanup time is always the last activity – though necessary, it is not always the most fun in their minds. I usually like to give a 10-minute warning before cleanup starts and then try to make it fun by turning on some music to see if they can clean everything up before the song ends. It always amazes me how motivating music can be.

Playdates are a great way to help children work on social skills like sharing and conflict resolution. As parents, our role is to be present but not to hover. It is important to communicate rules and be there to help resolve any scuffles but also to give them space to work things out on their own.

So whether you are planning a playdate for the last few weeks of summer or as a way to get to know a new classmate in the fall, I hope these tips help ensure your next playdate goes off without a hitch.

Liz Farrell lives in San Francisco and is the mother of two young children. She was formerly a television producer in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. E-mail: