We may envision a peaceful playdate with two children happily playing together—and that may happen for short stretches of time—but adult involvement will still be crucial. Children don’t necessarily progress through the stages of collaborative play on their own; they need help, time, and practice.
At 30 months, many children start separating more easily from their families in familiar environments, which gives them more leeway to relax their hold on your leg and go play with their friend 🙂 For children who aren’t in daycare or preschool, playdates provide an opportunity to socialize with a peer; for those who mostly play with other children in groups, spending time with a single playmate can be a more focused experience.
One-on-one playdates for babies and toddlers are a great time to practice turn-taking, build friendships, explore pretend play, and act as both guest and host. Note that many two-year-olds are still too young for a drop-off play date.
Here’s how to support your two-year-old before and during a play date with a friend:
Consider the location
Playdates can happen anywhere kids play: a home, park, field, or backyard. Sometimes meeting on neutral ground can help alleviate possessiveness about personal space, belongings, even pets or people. A familiar setting, like a neighborhood park, can allow your child and their friend to switch easily between playing together and exploring on their own.
No matter the venue, practicing certain interactions ahead of time can help your child prepare, giving them time to rehearse what they can say and do when certain challenges arise. Here are a few situations to role play:
- Invitation to play. Your child may spend much of the playdate on their own, but you can start teaching them how to invite others to join them. Offer your child a few short sentences to try out with their friend, like “do you want to build blocks with me?” or “can I play chase with you?”
- Hurt feelings. Practicing what to do and what to say when feelings are hurt can help. In the moment you’ll likely want to offer guidance, but having a few phrases handy ahead of time can make a difference: “I didn’t like that” and “can I give you a hug?”
- Nonverbal cues: Children understand so much more than they can articulate—offering your child nonverbal ways to communicate is good practice regardless of where they are with expressive language. Role playing nonverbal communication is great practice for a playdate: “I have a smile on my face and I’m pointing at my blocks. That means ‘come play with me’!”
Books can help the idea of a play date come alive and show how children and adults react in different situations.
In “The Play Date,” for example, Zoe goes to visit her friend Ansel. They play together nicely for a while, but after a disagreement over a toy car, the big feelings come out. As you read, talk about what’s going on: “look, Ansel wanted both cars, and it looks like he’s really mad about it. He’s lying on the floor and his mouth is open wide. Zoe looks sad, too. Look how her mom helps her, and how they talk about what happened. Now Zoe and Ansel both feel better and are back to playing!”
Our other favorite books about playdates are:
- “Llama Llama Time to Share” by Anna Dewdney — Llama Llama meets his new neighbor, Nelly Gnu. The playdate is going well, until Nelly wants to play with Llama’s favorite dolly. That’s when the llama drama ensues. But Llama’s mama has a solution.
- “Yo! Yes?” by Chris Raschka — It only takes a few kind words exchanged between these two young strangers before they strike up a friendship and stroll off to play together.
If you’re the host
Letting your child know they have a friend coming over is a good idea, but if you tell them too far in advance (even the day before), they may have a hard time waiting. Your child’s understanding of time at this point is relative: they are just starting to understand terms like soon, tomorrow, and after. The morning of the playdate is a good time to mention it: “your friend will be coming over after breakfast!”
In addition to excitement, your child could experience a range of emotions before a friend comes over to play, including nervousness, shyness, and even worry. As much as you can, remember that these feelings are normal and won’t necessarily last for the whole playdate.
Put precious items away
Just before the play date begins, talk to your child about the fact that their friend will be playing with some of their toys. If certain toys, books, loveys, and other playthings are particularly meaningful to your child, consider putting them away before a playdate. While learning to share is a long-term goal, you can also reassure your child that certain items don’t ever need to be shared.
Though impractical for most toys, having a few duplicates of high-interest playthings can be a big help for children engaging in parallel play. A block set for example, can be easily divided into equal parts.
If you’re the guest
A playdate at someone else’s home can be a good opportunity to talk about how to treat someone else’s belongings: “we treat our friend’s toys extra carefully, because those toys are special to them, just as your toys are special to you.”
When you’re on your way over, you can also go over how to behave in someone else’s home, and how their friend’s family may do things a little differently than yours. Even young children can begin learning how to be a good guest, like knocking on the door or ringing the bell and taking their shoes off once inside.
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