It’s never too early for kids to make their “first” friends, but just how much should parents help the process along? Are playdates necessary?
The question often comes up among parents of toddlers, preschoolers and school-age kids — after all, in our so-called “playdate society,” it’s less likely for neighborhood kids to stop over and more common for parents to pre-arrange social opportunities for their kids in advance.
And with the COVID-19 pandemic, even those pre-arranged social gatherings stopped.
So just how important are playdates? That depends, says Christina Mirtes, Ph.D., assistant professor of early childhood education at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.
“Social interaction is such a very important part of how children develop,” Mirtes says. “Research supports that social interaction with peers supports development in all domains, and it’s parents’ responsibility to ensure that their children are engaged in appropriate play situations.”
Playdates are one of those play situations that can be beneficial.
“What happens during playdates can really support healthy development,” she says. “Social interaction with other children is a very healthy way to develop in all domains, including social, emotional, cognitive, language and physical domains.”
In today’s world of over-scheduled kids and families, unstructured playtime with a friend can be a nice break.
“Allowing children time for periods of uninterrupted peer play is important for their development and playdates are one way of doing that,” she says.
The parents or caregivers often enjoy the companionship of other moms and dads, too. Another benefit of playdates is simply “getting (kids) away from technology,” Mirtes says – a major consideration for today’s young children
Is school enough?
So are playdates necessary to get all those benefits? Not always. For very young children, plenty of free play with peers might already be happening in a preschool program.
“If children are enrolled in a preschool or similar environment where the setting is conducive to social interactions, that’s one way to facilitate play situations,” Mirtes explains.
As kids get older, though, it’s important for play to occur outside of school, too. Recess times have been reduced in many schools and many programs are more academic-focused than ever before, she says.
“Sometimes social skills can fall to the wayside,” Mirtes points out, making play opportunities even more important for school-age kids. “I wouldn’t say that playdates are the only way, but it’s certainly one way that we can help support social interactions.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and kids weren’t able to see their friends at or outside of school, pandemic pods became a way for kids to get the social interaction they were missing.
You can read up on pandemic pods and how they help kids socialize during social distancing here.
Some parents may not have the time or the interest to set up individual playdates with other children, or they may not know any other parents of young children nearby to ask. In that case, consider some alternatives.
Library (or during COVID times, virtual) story times are a great place for kids to interact, Mirtes says.
When the pandemic passes and social distancing is no longer a factor, other play opportunities might be available at the zoo, a children’s museum, churches, “mommy and me” groups and community centers.
“Even just going to the park, you’ll eventually bump into someone,” she adds. “You’re not going to find someone sitting at your own house, though.”
Too old for playdates?
The same parents wondering “are playdates necessary?” might be glad to know that the playdate “phase” does eventually end. In fact, parents should encourage kids’ independence in choosing friends and play opportunities as they get older – which is also something think about when considering whether to bring older siblings to playdates.
“I think it’s important that we actually encourage children to reach out on their own and engage in play, and that it becomes initiated by children,” Mirtes explains. “As they get older you want to give them some more freedom to initiate some of these interactions with peers but also still kind of monitor it.”
In other words, mom and dad shouldn’t be organizing “playdates” for their tweens or trying to choose their friends for them.
“You have to balance out them having the freedom with the responsibility of making good choices,” she says.
Another consideration, of course, is that playdates shouldn’t become yet another thing that keeps your kids from having any “down time” at all.
“We need to be mindful not to overbook our children,” Mirtes emphasizes. “I do think (playdates are) good but we need to be mindful not to overbook our children’s time.”
What do you think? Are playdates necessary? Do you hate playdates, love them – or do you have some other feelings on the subject? Let us know in the comments.
This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly.