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Timing is everything
Sarah Wills, a Brooklin, ON, mom of three, plans playdates for times when her kids are most likely to be at their best. "Grumpy, hungry or tired kids are not themselves and can totally change the tone of a playdate," cautions Wills. "We plan around naptimes and mealtimes."
Keep playdates relatively short when kids are young, suggests Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto-based child and family therapist. For four-year-olds, 90 minutes to two hours is plenty of time. Older kids can go a bit longer, but pay attention to your child's mood and know when to wrap a playdate up. "The point when you think, ‘Oh, this is going really well,' is usually when you should end it," says Kolari.
Prep for play
Help prevent potential hard feelings by asking your child to go through his toys beforehand, then put away any he finds too hard to share. Remind him that everything else is fair game. Practice what to do if there's a fight over a toy, suggests Kolari, and consider scripting some lines in language your kids might actually use. Sentences like, ‘I had that first. Do you think you could share?' can help your child know what to say if there's a dispute.
If your child's toys seem to pop up everywhere in the house, it might be time to declutter. Here's how to organize your child's toys.
Set ground rules
When a guest arrives, take a few minutes to explain the house rules. "Set up any boundaries around things like pushing and shoving," says Kolari. Will the playdate end if fighting happens? If so, let the kids know, then prepare to follow through if necessary. Let the other parent know the rules, too, just in case you have to call for an early pickup.
No matter how thoroughly you prepare, the occasional playdate spat will happen. How to handle them depends largely on the children, says Kolari. If you're dealing with bossy or aggressive behaviour, you might need to intervene and suggest a solution before things get out of hand. If your child generally does well with playdates and the kids have a low-grade disagreement in the middle, let them work it out. "That's how children learn conflict resolution," notes Kolari.
Have a snack plan
If you notice energy flagging, a well-timed snack break can be a welcome distraction and a chance to refuel. Have some healthy options available such as sliced fruit and whole wheat crackers with cheese. If you're hosting, make sure to ask ahead of time about any food allergies your guests might have. If you've made or bought sweet treats for the occasion, ask the other child's parents if that's okay with them.
If your child wants to make their own snacks, here are 10 healthy snacks they can make all on their own.
Provide a kick-start
Before a guest arrives, it's a good idea to put toys and games in the space where you want the kids to play. Later, if the kids lose steam and need a little nudge, Kolari suggests you "make a suggestion or two about games or activities, then withdraw and let the kids play on their own again." A small craft project prepped ahead of time can do wonders to refocus kids. Heading outdoors is another time-tested way to breathe life back into a playdate. With that in mind, ask guests to bring appropriate outdoor clothes (coats, rain boots, etc.) or even specific sports gear if you predict a road hockey game or a short bike ride might be on the agenda.
And don't be concerned if younger kids don't play together during the entirety of the playdate. "Lots of four-year-olds still parallel play," says Kolari. As kids get older, they'll spend more time engaging in cooperative play.
Take it off-site
If two hours with a playmate at home is a tall order for your child, consider an outing. The novelty of an excursion will make the time pass quickly and give the kids a common focus. Go to a movie, go bowling, or just take a simple trip to the playground, suggests Kolari. It's a pressure-free way to help your child achieve a little social success.
If you're having a little trouble figuring out what to do outdoors with your child and their friends, here are some entertaining outdoor games you can try out.
Factor in transition time
If the playdate is at home, setting aside clean-up time near the end will help kids ease into the idea of leaving. Of course, it helps if kids know what "clean" looks like. Wills makes sure all the toys in the playroom are where they belong at the start of the playdate. "That way, when the chaos is over, they can help put things where they found them," says Wills. If all goes well, you'll wind up with a relatively tidy house, happy kids who say good-bye without meltdowns, and plans for another playdate sometime soon.