Ah, the playdate. That charming 90 minutes where a parent gets to stand awkwardly in a semi-stranger's kitchen, eating baby carrots and making strained small talk, while silently praying their child doesn't climb inside the person's antique china cabinet like last time. We all know playdates can be exhausting. But they can also be really great social teachers for our kiddos, and not having enough playdates could be not-so-great. They offer excellent sharing practice, as well as numerous opportunities for etiquette lessons — such as why one doesn't smuggle a Transformer out of someone's home via their undergarments.
Romper spoke with Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical Psychologist, School Consultant, and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, and as one might imagine from her book title, she's a big fan of human-to-human interactions, especially for little ones. "Playdates are where we develop social and emotional intelligence — often by trial and error — how to listen to others, read social cues, share, co-create, express our feelings, wait our turn, self regulate when we don’t get our way, develop empathy, and comfort a friend," she tells Romper.
So how do you know when your little angel could do with some more time at Alex's house? I've rounded up a few tell-tale signs to watch for.
You've just argued at length with your 5-year-old about why the over-sized rubber cricket is clearly unqualified to be principal of Bug School, and why the position should go to the translucent plastic centipede, whose CV is impeccable.
While many parents like to picture themselves as the perfect playmate — zooming about the lawn with their children in whimsical cardboard jetpacks — the truth is, such idyllic scenes mainly exist in commercials for cholesterol medication.
Parents have so many different things swirling through their brains at once, it can sometimes be hard to access the wonderful and bizarro realm that is a child's mind. No doubt many of us have been met with sighs of contempt after our child handed us an empty paper towel tube, and we didn't immediately recognize it as a nuclear scream extractor.
"Adults interact differently with children, and children need to learn these SEL (social and emotional learning) tools with their own cohort," says Steiner-Adair. "Children need to play with other children as soon as possible, with decreasing adult interference. They need to learn to express themselves, discuss and negotiate, solve conflicts among themselves, and be there as a source of reassurance, support and empathy for a peer."
In short — sometimes parents need to tag out, and tap in a peer who really gets their kid. Preferably someone who won't lay out the sexual harassment policies of bug school in detail.
Your child has decreed their 4000 toys to be boring and has opted to spend the afternoon attempting to wind dental floss around the cat.
Sometimes kids need to get out of their own space and go wind floss around someone else's. For kids, visiting a playmate's home can be wildly exciting, and like a portal to another world. I vividly remember the childhood home of my very first friend, Amelia Barbie. Her last name was literally Barbie, which only further drove in the spike of jealousy when I took in her doll's tiny pink corvette and miniature plastic jacuzzi. Looking back on these first memories of play, I now feel it's important every child learn that some kids have the Barbie Dreamhouse with an elevator because clearly their parents must love them more.
In all seriousness, playdates can be like world travel for little ones. Says Steiner-Adair: "It's good for kids to go to different homes to see how different families interact, eat different foods, have different rules, etc. It broadens their understanding of people, identities, cultures. The more children play with children from other cultures, the more skilled they will be interacting in school, work, and love."
When you're 5, visiting Kayley's apartment for an hour can seem as exotic as five days in Marrakech. Maybe Kayley's mommy collects porcelain squirrels. Or has a doorbell that plays "My Heart Will Go On". Or maybe her house always reeks of turkey bacon. A playdate can be a unique sensory experience that offers lasting life lessons, like that other's people's houses smell weird.
Your kid has never thrown lunchmeat at the ceiling.
Yes, children get a lot of socialization at school. But let's be real: unstructured play away from the hawk-like gaze of Miss Jessica is often where the real magic happens. Kids tend to behave differently in a school environment, and a playdate gives them a new arena in which to stretch their social legs, as well as their imaginations. My childhood friend Krissy and I might never have discovered that bologna sticks to the ceiling had we not had a playdate that gave us the freedom to explore, as well as old-timey parents who believed slices of bologna to be a totally legit after-school snack.
Steiner-Adair puts the idea a bit more succinctly: "When children play together, they are practicing educational tools as well as co-creating partner/project-based learning, leading and following, listening and discussing, and integrating different perspectives.
i.e. When one child says, "Should we throw our bologna at the ceiling?" The peer then integrates her perspective by answering: "Absolutely. What a great idea."
You haven't wanted to burn everything in your home lately.
Have you found yourself looking around your living room with satisfaction and thinking, "The place looks great! I knew mandarin orange was a good choice for that accent wall!" Well, then it's most certainly time to schedule a playdate. Visiting someone else's home and watching your child frolic upon a sleek West Elm sofa beneath artfully arranged black and white photographs will quickly remind you that your own home looks like a hideous dirt-hole decorated by drunk Cirque du Soleil performers, and that you need to start an argument with your partner post-haste about buying a new rug. And wait, does your house always smell like turkey bacon?