Positive playdates

Try these 10 tips for launching your child's first friendships.

Learning Stages

By Melissa Catalano


Melissa Catalano is a schoolteacher and runs My Play Place, a play-based parent-participation toddler program where kids learn, create and socialize in a fun and safe setting. She holds a B.A. in Human Biology and an M.A. in Education from Stanford University. In a day filled with teaching and running a business, parenting is the job that still provides the most challenges and rewards.

Chances are that your preschooler looks forward to seeing his friends at school and may even be asking for playdates. In these years between 3 and 5, children are moving away from the parallel-play stage of toddlerhood and into true cooperative play that involves negotiation, communication and some amount of compromise. The tricky part of this stage is that children have the desire to have friendships, but not all of the social skills necessary to peacefully navigate these new relationships. This is where we come in!

What are preschool friendships based on?

It’s often impossible to know why two children form a friendship. There can be a bond between children that they don’t have the language to convey and we, as the adults, can’t fully understand. We do know, however, that friendships at this age are often spurred on by two factors: opportunity and similarity. Children who see each other a lot because of daycare or preschool, live near each other, or whose parents are already friends have many opportunities to form friendships. And, they are more likely to want to be friends if they share some common interests. The children at preschool who always gravitate towards the building toys will often call each other friends simply because they spend a lot of time together doing the same thing.

Plan a great playdate

Before I had children, I cringed at the words “playdate.” It seemed so contrived and unlike what I was used to from my own childhood. But the reality is that playdates are contrived. We, as parents, set them up so that our kids have more opportunities to socialize. I know that when my children were first forming friendships in preschool, I wanted them to have more opportunities to play with peers besides the few hours a day they attended preschool. And, of course, they were asking for them constantly. Here are a few hints for planning and supervising successful playdates for your preschool-age children: 

  1. To stay or not to stay? Clearly communicate with the parent of the other child and discuss whether you expect them to stay or are okay with them leaving. Every child has a different temperament and amount of experience being at other people’s houses, so expect every family to have a different expectation for this. The best thing is to be open and be clear so there are no misunderstandings or awkward moments.
  2. Start small. The best playdates often just involve two children.
  3. Keep it short. Gauge your own child’s tolerance for stimulation and err on the side of shorter than you think they may be able to handle. It’s much better to end a date with the children wanting more than with the children melting down.
  4. Have reasonable expectations. You probably won’t get to peacefully weed your garden or do your taxes while another child is playing at your house. There will probably be rough patches that you need to help the children negotiate. Remember, they are very new to this friendship thing and need lots of clues about how good friends act. If sharing toys is still hard for your child, allow her to put a few special items away before the playdate. This might help her feel more willing to share the items that she still has out.
  5. Consider neutral ground. If you think there may be too many sharing issues at one house or the other, consider having a playdate at the park, or other neutral setting. If you do choose a park, try to choose a less crowded area so you don’t risk one child running off with a new friend.
  6. Set up a starter activity. If you think the children may have trouble figuring out what to do first, consider setting up an activity such as play dough, drawing or building blocks to help them get warmed up.
  7. Be clear about household rules. If you have rules that your guest may not know, be sure to share them right away before they get broken. For example, if you don’t allow your children to get on the top bunk, make your little guest aware of this. You also don’t want to put your child in the position of policing her friend.
  8. Get in the mix. Be prepared to play with your child and his friend at first if they are having trouble getting started or things are tense. Don’t be afraid to feed your child lines like, “Do you want to see my rock collection?” or “Should we play outside?”
  9. Supervise without hovering. Busy yourself near enough to the play that you can hear if things get tense. At the same time, give them enough space to work small issues out themselves.
  10. Change it up. Offer your child a variety of different play opportunities with different children. Just like adults, children like different things about different people. Avoid the “best friend” scenario where your child only wants to play with one child. Children who connect with a variety of different kids develop a wider variety of social skills and can successfully navigate more situations.

Your preschooler is learning so many great skills that she will take with her into all the relationships still to come in her life. Take the time to lay a good foundation by providing lots of rich friendship opportunities. Get ready for a fun but rocky road and remember to laugh along the way.

Parents, share your tips for planning great playdates!