Getting the Most from Play Dates: Teaching Kids about Friendship

Two young boys playing with blocks at a table

Some children are born social butterflies, eagerly navigating the waters of making new friends with relative ease. And some children need more support when it comes to meeting new people and developing friendships. It’s common for children – even adults, really! – who are naturally quiet or reserved to feel uncomfortable with initiating a conversation. Young children are often just beginning to learn how to read social cues, share toys, and take turns in a conversation.  

No matter where children fit along the social development range, they can benefit from your nurturing guidance and example. Modeling how to be a friend is one of the most powerful lessons you can teach a child about friendship. Strike up conversations at the park with other adults. Be friendly and considerate to neighbors, teachers, and people throughout the community. Talk with your child about appropriate ways to get someone’s attention, ask questions, and introduce themselves. All of these steps pave the way for later social interactions. 

Once your child has learned some basic social conventions, play dates can help further with social development. Initially, it might be less overwhelming for everyone to invite just one child. As your child matures and gains experience, play dates will become increasingly independent and may come about more naturally, requiring less direction from you. 

Tips for Teaching Friendship Through Play Dates 

Focus on interests and commonalities. Sure, learning to relate with diverse people is a valuable life skill, but for your child’s early friendships, seek out children with similar temperaments and interests. Conversation will flow more freely, and your child will gain confidence and create friendships more quickly. Playgrounds, sport and activity classes are natural settings for children to meet potential friends with similar interests. 

Two young children in painting aprons smiling at the camera

Arrange a play date. Ideally, you’ll have opportunities to meet other parents before you coordinate a play date, and if not, invite the parents over for a brief get-together. When both children and parents seem ready, play dates might be feasible without both parents. Keep play dates brief, as two or three hours can be plenty for younger children. 

Be ready to offer ideas while remaining flexible. In a perfect world, play dates would always run smoothly, with children happily exploring and creating together. The reality is often something different. What if your child refuses to share or play with the other child? Brainstorm some activities ahead of time, providing items like play dough or puzzles as ice breakers. Setting physical boundaries and talking through the activities can also help with expectations and transitions. Be prepared to kindly and firmly redirect behavior. Avoid hovering and stay nearby to intervene if the children need assistance in navigating varying situations. Sometimes, simply offering another activity is all that’s needed: “It’s not safe to jump on the bed. Let’s go outside and do sidewalk chalk.” 

Children hugging

Use play dates to build social skills. When it comes to social skills, young children are eager learners. Subtly observing your child during a play date can help you understand her social strengths and weaknesses. After a play date, make a few gentle comments to nudge learning. Point out positive behaviors, such as, “I noticed that you let Layla swing first on the swing. That was thoughtful of you.” These comments can help children identify how to be a good friend and increase the chances of those behaviors being repeated. You can also help your child learn, adopt new behaviors, and develop emotionally. “It was hard to share your new truck, wasn’t it? How do you think Julian felt when you yelled at him?” 

From the playground to media, children are exposed to widely varying depictions of social interactions—some of them positive and some of them less desired. Play dates put parents back in the driver’s seat, allowing you to model and foster respectful communication, gracious manners, and supportive friendships. 

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