My son was 14 months old by the time I hosted our first official play date. For the first year of Henry’s life, we filled our days with neighborhood outings and met up with new friends at all of our favorite places: the library, playgrounds, parks, museums, and the local book store.
When Henry turned one in October, the weather grew colder and my baby seemed more like a toddler each day. As Henry and his friends became more mobile, indoor neighborhood outings became more difficult to manage. The local book store is a little less fun when your child is wandering around, grabbing toys and books off every shelf within reach.
I put off playdates for as long as possible, but knew they were our best bet for a winter social life. Like most challenges related to living in New York City, my hesitation was purely a concern about space. I love our cozy Manhattan apartment. It’s perfect for our little family (three humans and one cat), but the idea of inviting additional toddlers and parents into our home was a little overwhelming.
I was absolutely elated after hosting our first play date. It was incredible watching Henry interact with other young children in the space where he feels most comfortable. It felt like a luxury to stay put in our warm home after Henry’s morning nap, rather than rushing out to meet friends.
If you have any hesitation about hosting playdates in your home, or if you’ve had your fair share of difficult playdate experiences, check out these tips on how to host a happy playdate.
Coordinating children’s routines can be tricky. Do your best to invite friends over when your own child is likely to be well-rested and cheerful. Henry is still taking two naps (most days), so I try to schedule play dates immediately after his morning nap. Even if it ends up being on the shorter side, I know that a morning nap will help him recharge from a busy morning of play.
For school-aged children, consider how tired or overstimulated your child may feel after a busy day of school. Some children do best with an hour of downtime before friends come over to play. Others are perfectly happy to leave school with friends and continue socializing throughout the afternoon. Weekend playdates are a great option for many families, too.
Involve your child in playdate prep
Even very young children can help prepare your home for guests. Start by providing your child with choices of which snacks to offer or what music to play. “Do you think Lucas would like to eat apple slices or blueberries?” Depending on your child’s age and level of interest, he or she may even enjoy helping you wash and chop fruit/veggies for the playdate. Older children may have their own suggestions, so you could simply ask, “What do you think your friends would like to eat when they visit?”
I try to involve Henry in as much prep as possible, making an effort to incorporate his favorite things. “You love dancing to Mumford and Sons music. Let’s put some music on before Jack and Molly get here! I think they like to dance, too.” When your child helps you prepare food, tidy up, or choose a special playlist, he or she is learning different ways to help guests feel comfortable and happy in your home.
Successfully prepare your child to share
Sharing can be tough. Really tough. One strategy is to gather similar toys and place them in the same area of your home. Encourage your child to help you with the heavy lifting. “I noticed we only have one truck in the living room. Let’s bring in the basket of cars and trucks from your bedroom, so there are enough for you and Penelope.”
Board games that encourage children to work together and achieve one specific goal are generally a safer bet than games where there is one clear winner. Two of my favorite cooperative board games include Snail’s Pace Race by Ravenburger and HABA’s Orchard. I recently learned that there are several versions of Orchard designed for younger children. I can’t wait to play with Henry one day!
Another strategy is to put away one or two toys that feel “too special to share”. During a recent playdate, a friend reached into Henry’s crib and pulled out his panda bear lovey. Henry protested with a squeal that I had never heard before! Panda bear now spends playdates in Henry’s closet, safe and sound. Involve your child in the decision-making process if you feel that he or she can grasp this concept. Validate his or her feelings by explaining that it can be difficult to share our most special possessions.
Due to the sharing factor, most children have an easier time attending playdates at someone else’s home, rather than hosting a playdate at their own. If you frequently play with the same child or group of children, try to rotate homes so the children can take turns hosting and visiting one another.
Have snacks or meals ready to go
A healthy snack is my go-to when Henry is cranky or irritable. Food fuels us and keeps us happy; no one in our family can go too long without putting something in our belly! Our playdates tend to happen around Henry’s morning snack time or lunch, so I make sure to have food prepped before our guests arrive. Recent crowd pleasers include: grapes (cut in half, lengthwise), berries, apple slices (tossed in lemon juice to prevent browning), chopped orange segments, chickpea pasta with tomato basil sauce, and hummus toast.
We are a nut-loving family, but I avoid offering Henry nut butter before playdates because it always seems to end up on his clothes and in his hair! I’ve also learned to check the labels on everything. Even the jarred pasta sauce that I keep in our pantry is made in a facility that processes peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs!
Don’t forget about the grown-ups
I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even offer a glass of water to my mommy friend during our first playdate! I was so worried about the kids being happy and fed, that I completely forgot about us grown-ups. Luckily, Tess has become one of my closest friends. She’s such an incredible, fully-present mother to her twins, I’m guessing she didn’t even notice. I mean, who has time to drink a glass of water when outnumbered by toddlers? I now make a conscious effort to have drinks and extra snacks prepared for us, too. When our three kids are peacefully seated at the table, we try to take a few gulps and bites for ourselves.
Be honest (and flexible)
The past 16 months have taught me that life as a parent is pretty unpredictable. Your child may wake from a nap with an unexpected fever or skip a nap entirely and experience meltdowns by the minute. It’s important to be honest with other parents and caregivers, especially when you suspect that your child may be ill. I have sent countless texts like this one: “Henry has a runny nose but seems totally healthy otherwise. No pressure if you want to reschedule. Let me know!”
Most of the families we know are open to getting together when the children have mild colds. (Thank goodness. Otherwise, we’d never see one another!) However, families with upcoming travel plans or younger babies at home may feel more comfortable rescheduling. It’s certainly disappointing to have a last-minute change in plans, but it’s kindest to share when your child seems “off” in any way. I’m grateful when our friends do the same for us.
I wish you and your children many happy playdates!
Do you have any of your own happy playdate tips?
What was your most disastrous playdate experience and how have you prevented history from repeating itself?
This article was originally published in Rose & Rex.
About the author
Lauren Vien moved to Manhattan as an undergrad to pursue a career in musical theatre. While studying at NYU, one babysitting gig led to another; Lauren soon learned that she was happiest when working with young children. She returned to NYU for a masters in Early Childhood Education and Special Education. She has taught in private preschools for over 10 years and lives on the Upper West Side with her husband, son, and cat. Outside of the classroom, Lauren’s greatest passions are: practicing yoga, preparing plant-based meals, planning her family’s next outdoor adventure, and enjoying all that their lovely neighborhood has to offer!