When my daughter invited her friend over for a playdate, I was surprised that the girls were bickering within minutes. Even if kids have had plenty of playdates before, experts say that glitches are common at this age. "Most kids have shifted from parallel play (where they play independently next to each other) to cooperative play (where they actively play with the other kid). However, they still want the other child to play what they want and on their terms," explains Caron Farrell, M.D., Ph.D., a child psychiatrist at the Seton Mind Institute, in Austin. If your child's last playdate was a disaster, try these tips for a happy get-together.
Playdates are less likely to be successful when kids are tired. So if you find that hosting them right after a full day of school or camp results in two cranky kids, consider switching to weekend mornings, when everyone is well-rested. And don't let get-togethers drag on. "An hour is actually a long time for a kindergartner to play," says Dr. Farrell. "An hour breaks into about three to five different play scenarios with time for a healthy snack." Even for kids who are used to playing together, cap playdates at two hours.
Before the other child comes over, talk with your kid about how to be a good host. Remind him to take turns picking what to play and prepare him by rehearsing common scenarios, like how to respond if he and his friend can't agree on an activity. Explain that if his toys are out, they are fair game and the other child can play with them. Then give him the option to put away anything special he doesn't want to share, like that Lego tower he spent hours building the night before. If your child really seems to have a hard time sharing his possessions, Dr. Farrell recommends moving playdates to neutral territory -- such as the playground or the library -- for a few months, until he warms up to the idea.
While Candy Land is an excellent game for you to play with your 5-year-old, it's best to avoid games that could leave one child in tears. "Quite simply, kids this age are not good losers -- even waiting patiently to take their turn is a challenge," explains Susan Diamond, a speech-language pathologist and author of Social Rules for Kids. "Instead, encourage noncompetitive activities like playing outside on the swingset or running around in the yard." Five- and 6-year-olds are often fascinated with anything that involves pouring, measuring, and basic counting, so baking (with your help) is also a great option, as are crafts or playing house. Finally, electronics like Wii can be a (small) part of the playdate if both kids enjoy it. "Children today interact and relate by playing video games together," says Diamond. "Just set a timer for 20 minutes. When time is up, the electronics go off and they need to choose a new activity."
While your child may want some independence and privacy when she has a friend over, kids this age need to know that you are present. "It's a good idea to check in regularly by showing up in the doorway every five to ten minutes," says Diamond. Another option: Listen in on playdates with a strategically placed old baby monitor if your child and her friend are playing out of sight. Of course, don't forget to offer up praise if they're playing nicely when you check in. "Positive reinforcement goes a long way at this age," says Diamond. "Give kids specifics like, 'I love how you're taking turns with the rocket ship! I'll check back in ten minutes.' Rewarding them with a little more space will encourage them to repeat the good behavior."
Resist the urge to jump in at the first sign of trouble. "Kids squabble; that's how they learn to solve their differences. So give them a few minutes to try to work out disagreements on their own," suggests Daniel Hilliker, Ph.D., a child psychologist at the Mayo Clinic Children's Center in Rochester, Minnesota. However, if the situation turns to shouting, becomes physical, or the kids seem to be unable to come up with a solution, then you need to get involved. When tensions rise, first separate the children for a few minutes so they can calm down. After that, briefly talk it out and provide some suggestions for compromise. Then, have each child apologize to the other before quickly moving on to a diversion, such as a new activity or game. Should you tell the other parent when things go south during a playdate? "If there were a few harmless spats, then there's no real need to bring it up," says Dr. Hilliker. "However, if the other child consistently refused to follow your rules or things got physical, you should talk about it with the child's parents. Think to yourself, 'What would I want to know?' and use that as your guide."
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Parents magazine.