26 Secrets for Perfect Playdates by Briony Jenkins
It's hard enough keeping your own toddlers amused, so entertaining little playmates can present quite a challenge. The key is to prepare beforehand, especially if the winter weather means everyone is stuck indoors. Having a few games up your sleeve will help keep even the trickiest tot amused.
Can You Come To My House?
Successful playdates start at the planning stage, so take time to think things through before you issue the invite, and then invest in some pre-playdate propaganda (see #4) to increase your chances of success.
1. Timing is everything. Choose a time of day when you know the children will be at their best. This is often in the morning, before or including an early lunch. It usually means mum has more energy, too!
2. Select your guest with care. Ask your own child before you issue the invite - the guest of honour should be his choice, not yours. Sometimes young children are reluctant to invite others home, so don't force the issue. If he picks a friend he likes (rather than the child of your best friend, for example), you have a much better chance of a tantrum-free playdate.
3. Little ones tend to manage a maximum of two or three hours on a playdate before they self-combust, so don't overdo it or everyone will end up in tears.
4. Start talking about the importance of taking turns and sharing before the playdate. Remind your child that his friend will want to play with his toys, and that sharing is fun because you get to play together.
5. Remove any special toys and put them well out of the way - your child may think some items are simply too precious to share with anyone, so avoid a difficult situation by taking them out of the equation.
Mummy - They're Here!
Young children adore visiting friends, but they can become clingy or shy when they first arrive. A few little tricks will help break the ice, and dissolve any teeny terrors in the first few minutes.
6. Set out some toys or games you think your guest would like - perhaps a train set, a race track or some dolls with clothes and accessories. It gives the children something to focus on immediately, and provides an opportunity for them to play together.
7. Explain to your child that his playmate may be a little shy at the beginning, so it is his job to be as friendly and helpful as possible, especially when the guest first arrives. A big smile is always welcoming.
8. Make sure the visiting child knows your name, and explain that she can ask you if she needs help or is worried about anything.
9. Walk your guest to the toilet so she knows how to find it when the occasion arises! Point out paper, soap and towels.
10. Before mum leaves, ensure you confirm what time she will return, and make a note of telephone numbers (including a mobile) in case of emergency.
11. If you have any house rules - such as no jumping on the bed - explain them clearly, and make sure the children understand.
12. Try not to 'hover'. The kids will relax and play better together if they don't have an adult interfering in everything. Stay close enough to keep a watchful eye, but allow them to play independently. This also encourages them to interact with each other.
Making Mealtime Fun
Check beforehand if there are any foods you should avoid (always steer clear of nuts in any case), and then work out snacks or meal options in advance. Ask yourself - what's easy and convenient and still a hit with the kids? Playdates are not the time to enforce the 'five a day' rule, but they are a good time to include favourite fruits and veg.
13. Small mouths and fingers love little snacks, and variety is definitely the spice of life. Arrange handfuls of different foods on a big plate for the kids to select from themselves. Using party-style paper plates adds to the fun and saves washing up, too - as does the use of cartons of juice with requisite straws!
14. Suggested snacks include crackers, cheese sticks, wafers or biscuits, and chopped fruit such as strawberries, bananas, melon or kiwi.
15. For a tasty change, freeze some of those tubes of yoghurt you can buy in most supermarkets. They are a real favourite when frozen in our house; nearly as good as ice cream.
16. If a 'real meal' such as lunch or dinner is involved, keep it simple. You'll want to focus your attention on the toddlers, not the oven, and the children will be more interested in playing than eating.
17. Keep mess to the minimum by serving 'dry' style food - little sandwiches or wraps, slices of quiche or frittata, chicken nuggets, sticks of cucumber or cooked broccoli florets, mini sausages or bite size muffins.
18. Involve the kids in making their own snack. Get a packet of plain biscuits or some cup cakes, little icing tubes and a tub of hundreds and thousands. Put them all on the table, and let the kids decorate their own biscuits or cakes.
What Can We Do Now?
Take a tip from nursery schools - prepare a selection of different activities so that if the kids begin to get fractious, you can distract them. Remember, toddlers have a short attention span so allow no more than 20 minutes for each game. However, if they are enjoying themselves with toys or imaginary play - leave them to it. You don't have to maintain a schedule; follow their lead.
19. Sharing can sometimes become an issue after a while, so inject an activity where each child has their own identical item to play with, such as Play-Doh or bubble blowers.
20. Too wet to play in the garden? Kids love to play ball, but it's not always practical indoors. Make house-friendly missiles by screwing up sheets of paper into balls and throwing these. Use a bucket and see who can aim, fire and shoot to win. Play catch, or practise dribbling them round cushions for a ready-made obstacle course.
21. Build a tower and knock it down! Toddler Lego or Sticky Bricks are great for this. See how high they can make it, then let them destroy it and start again. You'll be amazed how many times they'll want to play this.
22. Take a leaf out of granny's book and sing and dance to nursery rhymes. Ring a Ring of Roses and Old MacDonald's Farm are always favourites. The kids will soon be making requests, and they won't worry if your singing voice will never win a place on The X Factor.
23. Make something your little guest can take home. A simple collage is easy, and you can tailor it to suit whatever you have to hand. In good weather, organise a collection of leaves and flowers to make a picture. Otherwise, cut out some pictures from magazines beforehand, or you could collect scraps of fabric or buttons for the kids to choose from. Hand out a glue stick each (I like the coloured ones which dry clear but show kids where the glue is on the paper), and let them stick to their hearts content. The brave among you can finish up with glitter glue sticks to add a splash of pizzazz!
24. If little ones need to expend some energy but you don't want anything too boisterous, try the old game of 'hot and cold'. Pick a teddy, then hide it somewhere in the room. The kids then have to find it - when they are way off you tell them they are 'cold', and as they get closer you say 'warm, warmer, hot' and so on.
25. Colouring may not seem exciting to you, but toddlers of all ages seem to love it. Print off some pages of their favourite television characters from websites, or pictures of animals, princesses and pirates. They'll enjoy the novelty, and it's another souvenir to take home, too.
Mummy Will Be Here Soon!
26. Give the children a ten minute warning that the playdate will soon be over. Take time to make sure you find your guest's coat, shoes, craft items and any other belongings. Then tell the kids to make the most of their last few minutes. Give mum a brief overview of how the date went, and what the children did. Encourage your child to thank his guest for coming over, then give yourself a pat on the back for organising such a good playdate!
DID YOU KNOW?
- Play is so important to a child's well being and development that the United Nations recognises it as a fundamental right in their Declaration of the Rights of the Child: www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/25.htm
- For more ideas on entertaining your children, check out these archived features also by Briony Jenkins:
Briony Jenkins was a freelance writer and journalist specialising in pregnancy, parenting and young children. She wrote 'How to Cope with Breast Cancer When You Have Children: Parenting for Breast Cancer Mums'. Briony, devoted mother to Charlie and Lucie, passed away in September 2016.