Planning a better playdate

We all know we need playdates. They give our little ones a chance to socialize with a peer and for us — actually, the benefit is exactly the same for us.

But we’ve all had playdates that fizzle or leave us with more stress than we started with. What went wrong? This handy little primer will help you iron out the wrinkles so you and your wee ones can enjoy the socialization — and dare I say downtime — you so richly deserve. Nothing Pinterest-worthy required.

Let’s assume you already have a mutual agreement to have a playdate. What should you do next? Set yourself up for success by starting out with good communication, reasonable expectations and knowing when to leave. Here are some factors to consider:


  • A mid-morning playdate is usually safest for working around naps, hangriness and tantrums.
  • Once you’ve had a few playdates with someone, start scheduling afternoon playdates! We all get a little desperate around 4 p.m. and an afternoon playdate with someone who won’t judge you— can be a lifesaver.
  • For school-age kids, after school playdates are a typical way for kids to get to know each other. The key to making these playdates work is to minimize transitions and keep them short and sweet. Consider walking to the park down the hill from school and keeping your time together to around an hour.
  • If your children are old enough to go to each other’s houses unchaperoned, consider having one parent pick both of the kids up from school and then the other parent arrive about an hour in to get a little grown-up time before it’s time to go home.
  • Don’t forget about the weekends! A little Sunday afternoon park time with a buddy might be a nice, low-key option.

Whatever time you pick, maybe sure you’re on the same page about promptness. We’ve all been derailed by a blow-out, a meltdown or a kid who suddenly needs to take an epic poop right when it’s time to go out the door. So start your playdate off right by setting reasonable — a.k.a. low — expectations on timeliness – and text to let them know if something comes up.

So. Much. Food.

Pack way more than you think you’ll need. I mean WAY more. Assume your kid will be eating all of the other family’s food and their kid will be eating all of your food. Oh, and that you might want to be eating food as well.

If you’ve just picked your kid up from school, assume they will spend the first 30 minutes of the playdate eating. That’s OK.

The first 10 minutes

You may be picturing a blissful scene where the children play trains on the floor while the parents chat over tea. And you know what? You’ll probably get it. Just not in the first 10 minutes, or maybe 30 minutes, or maybe not this first play date, depending on your children. Assume that your children will be glued to you in the beginning and you’ll pretty much be tandem parenting until they get comfortable.

Plan to be present with your kids at first. Then be present with each other when they warm up.

Keep it simple

This is a skill that’s key to your happiness, and your children’s as well. So stick with one location or two close ones that are walking distance. If you’re the host, don’t feel obligated to re-organize your craft area, buy four kinds of tea for the grownups or plan a series of elaborate activities. A simple, hands-on activity (that requires no prep time on your part) can be a nice way to welcome a new kiddo to your house. Like setting out a few balls of play dough or stickers and stamps.

We’ve already addressed expectations on timeliness. But here are some other things to consider:

  • FOOD! What happens when you arrive at the park with a lunch all packed and find the other parent planning to hit a nearby deli? Or maybe you’re looking forward to eating together but they want to take off beforehand? I’ve found it works well to plan to have lunch together at the hosting house and then have the visiting family leave soon after. But maybe something different will work for you. Just make sure you let your date know your plans so no one is disappointed.
  • SIBLINGS! It may work well for the family with more kids to host so they can have age-appropriate play options for their other kiddos. Or maybe everyone will have the most fun at the park. Just make sure any sibling needs are communicated to the person you’re meeting so there won’t be any surprises.
  • COFFEE! Honestly, I’ve had a half-dozen playdates go south because one of the parents needs coffee and can’t think about anything else. Really! If you know you need coffee to function, go ahead and take that extra 10 minutes to brew yourself a cup or hit the coffee shop before we meet up. I’d rather have you late than grumpy or leaving early seeking java.
    Have an end time in mind and stick to it

Have an end time in mind and stick to it

Overstaying is the single most common factor I’ve had derail an otherwise blissful playdate. When your playdate just keeps lingering on, you start to feel more hostage than host. A park or other neutral location makes it easier to make a getaway when you need to, of course, but it can still be a challenge. It can be maddening to have to leave when you’re having fun, for kids and adults, but stick to roughly the time you planned for and you’ll be recharged and ready for round 2.

You do you

Everyone is a little different and those differences will be on display at playdates. No doubt one of you will be stricter about food, one will let their kid climb higher, one kid will be pickier while the other is bossier, one slower to warm up and one who struggles more with sharing. It’s all OK.

You may have moments of mortification at your child’s behavior, or surprise to see your friend parent in a way you don’t. Go into the playdate expecting these things to happen. Remember: you’re seeking a similar spirit to vent with while your kids play reasonably well. Also, we all have bad days. Sometimes we have really bad days. Be forgiving with the other family — and yourself. Playdates aren’t parenting pageants. I wish I’d learned that earlier. Now, I let it alllll hang out on playdates. I’m so much happier for it!

You might find that your third playdate with someone is when you really click. Or maybe that’s the date that makes clear you can’t stand them. Either way, you got out of the house! The more playdates you have, the less work they will be. Some friends, you’ll prefer to meet at parks. Always. Others, you’ll meet at home. For others, you’ll prefer the kids to play without parent time. It takes a little trial and error, and of course, like all things kiddos, playdates are an ever-evolving creature. But you will find people you connect with, and people your kids connect with. Eventually, it will even feel like a break. Really!

About the Author

Shawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter who occasionally catalogs her personal chaos at Critical Playdate. She is mama to Quinn, 8, Ruby, 6, and Nora, 3. In her quiet moments, Shawna loves writing, reading and avoiding eye contact with her laundry pile.

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