Help with play dates

Q. I am looking for some advice on helping my daughter, who is an only child, when she has her friends over to play. She has just started back in senior infants and lots of the girls in the class are visiting each other’s houses for play dates, and so on, and she has been asking about this. Up until last year I was working full-time but now I have reduced hours to three and a half days. Last year I tried to arrange play dates in our house and used to have a few of her classmates over on my days off. However, frequently it wouldn’t go so well, with my daughter becoming bossy and refusing to share, and so on. She was keen to have them over but then found it hard when they came. I am a little bit worried about her mixing with other children in these situations. What can I do to help her and what is the best way to organise play dates?

A. As they grow up, friendships are very important to children in lots of different ways. While some children seem to effortlessly make friends, many find it hard at times and need special support from their parents. Navigating friendships in schools can be a particular challenge when, as a parent, you are not there to help your child. Organising play dates and activities with other children is an excellent way to support children making friends – though as you have discovered, these can take a bit of care and attention to set up.

Stages of friendships
In senior infants, when children are five or six years old, they are just at the beginning stages of making choices about friendships. As pre-schoolers, children are generally happy to let their parents decide what other children they might meet on visits but once they start school they begin to develop their own preferences. At this age, they begin to discover their own special interests and talents and seek out other children who might share these common interests. They might not yet be at the stage of developing “best friends” but can clearly get on better with certain children. As a parent, it is important to be sensitive to your children’s preferences while also making sure to continue to introduce them to a wide range of children so they can learn how to get on with lots of different people.

Set up one-to-one play dates in your home
Play dates and visits are best kept one to one, especially if you feel your daughter needs extra support with learning to mix and share. Play dates with three or more children are fraught with problems such as exclusion and competition which can make them extra challenging. In particular, the “host” child can find it hard to manage two children in her home and to let them share her toys and games.

While it is a good idea to introduce your daughter to lots of different children, generally this is best done one to one at different times of the week.

One-to-one visits make it easier for your daughter to learn to share and to build friendships. In addition, it lets you observe which children she particularly gets on with so you can continue to support those friendships.

Making play visits go well
Below are some tips to making a play date go well in your own home:
Pick a child you feel your daughter might share a connection with ( maybe a child she talks about in school?). If you are unsure, talk to the teacher about which children he/she feels your daughter gets on with and then approach that parent.
Plan the play date with your daughter – what games she wants to play? And what toys she wants to share? (Put away things she does not want to share or play.)
– Have a structure for the play time, (arrival, play time in garden, snack, play time in house, dropping home) and keep the time short enough so it has a chance to be successful but is not too long to drag.
– If there are other children in the house, ensure they are occupied for at least some of the time so the children do get some one-to-one time .
– Provide some support in getting the children started (J has left out her favourite dolls) then fade to the background to let them get on with it, while being ready to provide encouragement as needed.
– Chat with your daughter after the play date – what she enjoyed and so on.

Supporting social skills
Before the play date, take time to coach your daughter about the specific skills she might need. For example, “When S comes over, it is nice to ask her what she wants to play and do that first.” Or when you want to change the game, say politely, “Can we play my game after this?” You can model these skills and the correct polite tones of voice in games or by reading books with your daughter.

Once the play date starts, provide encouragement any time you see good social behaviour – “You both took turns, that is nice to see.” If the two children get into a dispute, avoid taking a side or becoming critical of one child. Instead, remind them both of the rules and support them resolving the problem – “In this house we share. Let’s see how we can sort this out now.” Listen to their sides and encourage a shared solution. If this is hard for them, try to distract them with a new activity – “Let’s go out in the garden”; “I think it is time for our snack now.”

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, September 2013. John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.