When Sawyer Margolin has a playdate with his friend Olivia Feuerman, the kids' moms never know how much they will actually play. One minute, the 3-year-olds are inseparable; the next, they're off in their own little worlds. Even though the two have been playdate pals for a year, "they sometimes seem sort of oblivious to each other," says Rene Feuerman, Olivia's mom. "Then, suddenly they'll start playing together."
That's typical of children this age, who are definitely starting to take an interest in one another -- yet aren't quite ready to give up parallel play. But even if your toddler doesn't seem to spend much time interacting with his friends, it doesn't mean that scheduling playdates for him is a waste of time. "First friendships teach kids important social skills such as sharing, manners, and cooperation," says Annie Thiel, PhD, author of The Playdate Kids series. Even the inevitable squabbles provide valuable experiences in learning to compromise and make decisions. To get the most out of your toddler's next playdate, follow these golden rules.
Prepare ahead of time. Avoid fights and meltdowns by scheduling playdates at times when toddlers are likely to be in a good mood, such as in the morning or the late afternoon (post-nap, of course). If the playdate will be at your house, be sure to double-check your childproofing beforehand -- your little guest may get into something your child knows is off-limits.
Keep it small. Try to limit get-togethers to one friend at a time, especially if the kids are playing indoors. Your toddler will have a much easier time learning to socialize with just one other child; plus, fewer kids means there's less chance a fight will break out. It's a rule Farrah Griffin, mom of 2-1/2-year-old Kennedy, swears she won't break again. "When I set up a group playdate with Kennedy and her friend and my older son and his friends, there were tons of tears and battles," says the mom from Renton, Washington. "It's definitely easier for toddlers to interact one on one."
Go over the house rules. Tell the kids what they can and can't do, but keep the list short and simple ("We always eat in the kitchen, and we don't play in Mommy and Daddy's bedroom"). The longer you lecture, the more they'll forget.
Let the kids choose the agenda. Plan a few activities you think they'll like, but let them decide what they want to do. (Just make sure you come up with plenty of ideas, since toddlers have a notoriously short attention span.) If they simply play alongside each other at first, don't be concerned. They're still learning social skills by watching and mimicking each other, so there's no need to force them to interact.
Turn off the TV and computer. Toddlers won't learn social skills staring at a screen. The exception: Watching a DVD or playing a computer game can help the kids wind down when their perfect playdate comes to an end.
Don't let the date drag on indefinitely. Kids this age don't need marathon playdates. Most will get bored and cranky after one hour -- 90 minutes, tops.
Don't forget: Location matters. Toddlers can get possessive when they're on their own turf, especially when it comes to sharing their toys. Holding the playdate in neutral territory, such as a playground or the children's room at the library, will limit the tears and cries of "Mine!"
Don't hover. Always stay close by to supervise, but intervene only when you absolutely have to (such as when one kid is hitting the other or they start calling each other names). If you step in during every little disagreement, your child won't learn how to work out his problems for himself.
Don't make sharing harder than it is. Minimize meltdowns by warning your toddler ahead of time that you expect her to share her toys. However, if she has a special possession you know she'll resist handing over, put it away until after the playdate. Set out toys that are easy to share, such as balls or blocks, or give the kids a bunch of the same type of toy, like dolls or cars, says Carren Joye, author of A Stay-at-Home Mom's Complete Guide to Playgroups. Even better: Suggest a gear-free activity such as dancing.
When your kids are very young, you'll probably be the one choosing their friends, says Dr. Thiel. But how do you know which kids could be great potential pals? Keep these factors in mind:
Age. Ideally, the kids should be close in age, but do invite an older child over occasionally: Your toddler will learn a lot by mimicking his socially savvier guest.
Temperament. Consider your child's playtime personality. A loud, extroverted child may not be the best choice of buddy if your toddler is quiet and slow to warm up.
The other child's parents. Ask yourself whether they share your values. If your parenting styles don't mesh, it could spell trouble.
The scenario: Your toddler has a death grip on his favorite truck and won't share it with his pal. Tears ensue.
The fix: Say, "Tommy, will you let Sarah know when it's her turn?" Toddlers won't mind giving up a toy as much if they feel they have some control.
The scenario: The kids don't want the playdate at the park to end.
The fix: Give warnings. Start with, "Fifteen minutes until we go home!" and count down every five minutes. Then, make sure they have something else to look forward to, such as a toy waiting for them in the car.
The scenario: Even though you made your office off-limits, you find your kid's pal poking around there anyway.
The fix: Distraction is your best bet. Take the nosy visitor by the hand and say, "Why don't we go color in the den?"
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the February 2008 issue of Parents magazine.