Veronica McDaniel loves seeing her 21-month-old light up each time he finds out he's headed to a playdate. "Christian gets so excited knowing that he'll get to play with new toys and different friends," says the Toms River, New Jersey, mom.
Like Veronica, many moms keep their toddler's (and their own) schedule full of playdates. No wonder: Not only are get-togethers a great way to keep your child occupied (while giving you some much-needed time to socialize with adults), they also offer a wealth of developmental benefits, from encouraging independence to boosting language skills, notes Elizabeth Berger, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids With Character. Of course, given toddlers' frequent moodiness and unpredictability, even the most carefully planned gatherings aren't foolproof, but there's plenty you can do to encourage everyone to play nice.
For starters, limit meet-ups to two hours, and try not to divert from your daily routine too much (for example, be sure to time gatherings so they don't cut into naptime). Be prepared to pack up your diaper bag early when your child seems cranky or tired. "If your toddler isn't having fun after 30 minutes, maybe it's not the best activity for her that day, and that's okay. You can try again next time," says therapist and parent coach Tammy Gold, owner of Gold Parent Coaching, in Short Hills, New Jersey.
Two to four toddlers (with an adult for each) is ideal for a playdate -- any more can make things overwhelming for kids. No matter who's been invited, don't feel bad if your little one doesn't really engage very much with her playmates, says Cheryl Rode, Ph.D., clinical director of the San Diego Center for Children. It's perfectly normal if she mostly plays next to them. "Parallel play is typical during the toddler years, when children don't yet have the skills to truly interact with each other," assures Dr. Rode. Over time, kids will begin to imitate each other's actions. For instance, if your daughter's playmate starts running around the room, she might join him -- and then start jumping up and down, which he'll begin to copy too. This is a sign of children's growing social awareness, and an early step toward developing friendships.
Even if you meet up once a week with the same families, your child may initially latch on to you each time, says Dr. Berger, since young kids are prone to separation anxiety. Other issues can cause clinginess too; perhaps your toddler is wary of a strange toy, or there's more noise or stimulation than he's used to at home. Whatever is behind his sudden reticence, you can help ease him into the situation by staying close to him on the floor for a while, says Gold. "Don't push him to interact without you. If he wants to sit on your lap, let him," she says. To get him interested in playing, start by introducing just one or two simple toys. "Eventually, he'll start to feel more comfortable," Gold assures. Once your kid is fully engaged in an activity, you can try moving a few feet away to the couch.