Playmates and Playdates: How to Facilitate Children’s Social Play

By Christina Davis, Teacher

Parents know that a successful playdate isn’t always “as easy as child’s play.” And while playdates provide valuable opportunities for building friendships and developing social skills, they can turn stressful for children and adults alike. At the parent seminar in May, Bing parents gained insights on facilitating positive playdate experiences from the East PM teaching team: Christina Davis, Colin Johnson, Matt Linden, Adrienne Lomangino, Amanda Otte and Kim Taylor. Highlights of the discussion follow:

What’s a playdate?

Playdates are one-on-one or small-group gatherings that allow children to create and foster friendships.

How do children benefit from playdates?

Playdates can help children to practice sharing their own space, or become more comfortable entering into new environments. Social play provides opportunities for children to develop physically, emotionally, cognitively and linguistically. Through playdates, children can develop their sense of self-concept, self-control, empathy and altruistic behavior. These pro-social characteristics are integral to building strong relationships throughout their lives.

Who makes a good playdate-mate?

Children with whom a child is interested in playing will make the most successful playmates. These are often the children they play with at school, or talk about at home. Teachers may also have suggestions for other children who have a similar temperament, or who may have shared interests.

How many children should take part?

The playgroup should be kept small and increased only when the skill of all the players permits. If the group size increases before the group is ready, the result could be exclusionary play as the children try to limit the group size on their own. The planner should factor in the presence of siblings. Siblings increase the group size and add a sibling dynamic that can cause some children to behave in ways they may not otherwise.

How does play change as children develop?

As children gain skill as players, they go through several stages of play. Young children engage in solitary play. As they grow, they move into parallel play—playing side by side with little interaction. This evolves into cooperative play, where children share their ideas with one another.

What can adults do to help friendships grow?

Once cooperative play has been established, adults can support the transition from play into friendship. Adults can play a crucial role in turning a momentary transient interaction into a trusting, valuable relationship. It helps if the adult follows the child’s lead in social situations, recognizing that there are a wide variety of personalities, and these require a wide variety of support for social development. Some children will need help to make a social overture, while others will need help to respect another’s personal space. It is essential to recognize their individual needs, and also to realize that one personality type does not make a child a better friend than another.

What goes into planning a successful playdate?

Simply making a plan is great start—but the plan should be flexible. Decide ahead of time a few activities to suggest, or items the child may want to share. These activities are designed to get the play rolling, not to limit the play. If either the child or the adult becomes too attached to the plan, then departure from it could hinder the success of the playdate. It is also important to take the limitations of the child into consideration. If a particular item is difficult for the child to share, it is appropriate to put that item away and save it for a time when the child is playing alone.

A snack can provide an excellent transition activity or a shift of focus. A snack can also combat fatigue and hunger, which can bring even the most successful play to a halt. The playdate is a success when it ends with all involved wishing it had been longer. This is an excellent set up for the next playdate. An hour is a good amount of time for the first playdate. It can be increased to an hour and half when all are ready. Play is hard work for children and like anyone they are most successful when they are not overworked.

What role do adults play?

During a playdate, the adult role is to be available to support play. Make children aware that adults are available to help. It is best for an adult to be within eyeshot and earshot of the play and step in when support is needed, rather than waiting for play to fall apart. As the group has more experiences playing together, the support needed will change. Initially, the group may need help to feel comfortable and initiate play. Once engaged, the group is likely to test out their roles and may need support resolving conflicts. After this, the group may test the boundaries of their environment. At this time, adults are needed to provide structure and enforce house rules. Once the group establishes itself, the adult role changes to include more observation. It is important to give the group some space, but to be available in case conflict comes up or support is needed.

Children may benefit from assistance in verbally resolving conflicts and finding meaningful solutions. Adults can guide children in listening to each other. Help them to express their feelings using speech. It may be necessary to interpret the problem for the children. Use words that children understand and clearly define the problem for them. Once the problem is established, it may be helpful to brainstorm solutions. It is important to allow the children to come up with the solutions. It may seem like a short cut for the adult to choose a solution, but it is likely to result in less of an investment from the players. Once a solution is chosen, allow the play to continue. If the solution is unsuccessful, the process may need to be repeated.

Play is challenging work for children, but with proper adult support they can become skilled at working with others to develop and maintain quality friendships.