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.
Before a playdate, think ahead about activities and toys that will help get the good times rolling -- and what might cause a sharing showdown. If your child has a favorite doll or a special car, put it away or leave it home so she isn't forced to lend it out, says Dr. Rode. Little kids don't yet grasp that when another child uses their toy they'll get it back, so they can quickly become upset.
If your little one gets worked up when her buddy starts playing with the shape sorter she was using, say "I know you really like playing with that toy. You can get a turn with it again after Sophie is done." (Then distract her with another item that she enjoys -- a toy phone, for example.) You'll probably have to do this many times before the concept of taking turns sinks in, but your child will learn it faster if you start now.
While sharing one toy might not be easy for toddlers, they can have a great time sharing an activity together, Gold says. "Let the kids throw balls into a net, or set up bowling pins for them to take turns knocking down," she suggests. More ideas for group play: doing the hokey- pokey, playing dress-up, building with blocks, dancing (or bouncing) along to some kid-friendly music, drawing with paper and crayons, or making things out of Play-Doh.
Before everyone arrives, collect items that the kids might want to play with, but don't force a particular activity. You might have a painting playdate in mind, but your child may prefer to bang on plastic bowls alongside her new buddy.
Toddlers don't yet have the words to express themselves, so they sometimes use physical force to get the things they want -- including another child's attention. That's why your kid might, say, throw blocks at his playmate (or why a pal might suddenly grab the book out of your son's hands). "Plus, toddlers don't know their own strength and they're still learning the consequences of their own behavior," Dr. Rode adds.
If your child ends up injuring his playmate, immediately respond in a calm but firm way. How you react to the situation teaches important lessons about the right way to treat others, so show sympathy by saying something like, "Charlie is crying because the hard block hit him." Then apologize to your little one's playmate. (Don't insist on an apology from your toddler; very young children don't yet understand what it means. But he'll begin to learn from hearing and watching you.) Of course, feel free to pipe up with words of praise when you see good behavior in action too.
Still, resist the urge to intervene the second things grow the slightest bit physical. "If it's just a little pushing and no one's getting hurt, give kids a bit of space to work things out on their own," Dr. Rode says. By stepping back, you allow your child the chance to explore the social situation on his own -- and find out for himself how to behave among friends.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Parents magazine.