The art of a play date: The choreography required can honestly feel on par with hosting guests for a dinner party. There are snacks to provide, conversation starters to brainstorm—assuming it’s not a drop-off situation—and entertainment options to dream up. (Hell, even if it’s just a new set of bubble wands, you want to have a plan in place.) You also need an exit strategy i.e. a plan for wrapping things up. So, how do parents do it? What are their secrets for nailing it and maximizing kid friendships, which is the whole point? We went straight to the experts, aka the parents who have been getting “spontaneous” meetups right for years. Here, their wisdom—and five rules for success.
Our Kids Have Had 16,907 Playdates. Here Are Our 5 Rules for Hosting a Successful One
Rule #1: No Unexpected Siblings (aka The Rule of Upfront Logistics)
A playdate pet peeve of many a parent we spoke with: The unexpected sibling. When hosting other kiddos for the first—or 15th—time, it’s helpful to spell out exactly who the attendees will be (say, mom, Ben W. and Ben W.’s younger sister) just so everyone can prepare. Even if it’s just making sure there’s an age-appropriate activity for a guest of a different age, it makes a difference knowing who will be joining up front. (Also, on the caregiver front, it averts any awkwardness if you know before the playdate begins whether parents are staying or dropping off.)
More logistics to sort in advance: Any allergies. Also, the length of the visit. Most moms we spoke with made it clear that a successful playdate is one that is short and sweet. (One mom lamented the play date that carried on for five hours, eep!) Spelling out these specifics in advance—and via text—is often all it takes to make things go extra smooth: “Hi [insert name of Ben W.’s mom]! Looking forward to seeing you this weekend. Will anyone else be joining you and Ben? Asking because we want to have plenty of snacks and activities on hand. Thinking we can all hang from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Also, any allergies, let us know. Can’t wait!”
Rule #2: Manage Expectations (Even If That Means Teaching Your Kid to Expect the Unexpected)
Playdates can be overwhelming, even with a close friend: That’s why one of the moms we chatted with says that she likes to talk through the details with her kid before a friend arrives. Things like what they will plan to do and any supplies they might need to carry out those ideas are worth loosely mapping out in advance. Also, how to be flexible since playdates very rarely go as planned. Another aspect to think through: An ice breaker such as a small gift for the arriving kid. “My daughter made a bracelet out of beads and a matching one for herself, then presented the gift right when her friend arrived,” she explains. Bottom line: It helps to think of an opener—then the kids can take it from there.
Rule #3: Plan Snacks Like You Would a Dinner Party
Snacks for the kids, snacks for the caregiver or fellow parent: You’ll want to think this through in advance. (This is where that earlier Q about allergies comes in—also, are you serving up hors d’oeuvres like cheese and crackers to Ben W.’s dad? Map it out.) More than anything, you want to have beverages to offer the kids—water should suffice, but you could also offer juice boxes—and a non-sugary snack option like fruit. (That’s not to say that sugary treats are off-limits, but you’ll probably want to parse them out.) It’s also smart to make a plan for when snacks will be served. For example, “You girls can play for an hour, then I’ll bring down some nibbles.” Otherwise, you will find Addison searching through your pantry for gushers 12 minutes in.
Rule #4: The Three S’s: Screens, Safety and Squabbles
We got a chorus of opinions about these specific topics from parents: If screentime—from binge watching Bluey to learning TikTok dance moves—is on the table, you want to address it head on. (If you’re hosting, ask the parent what their comfort level is, but also don’t be afraid to speak about your own: “We typically save screens for the weekend if that’s OK!”) Ditto safety, something you absolutely want to discuss ahead of a play date drop-off. This includes everything from pool fencing to guns. (A simple script for the latter: “Quick question, which I know is awkward, but have to ask: Do you have guns in the house? If so, how are they stored and locked?”) Finally, squabbles. This applies more to the younger set, but if a fight breaks out over a beloved toy, be firm on your policy. (One mom resorts to setting a timer for usage, which she says is a playdate failsafe.)
Rule #5: Loose Supervision—Not Conversation—Is Required
This is one of the trickier areas to define: For younger kids, supervision is required, but encouraging independence—and parallel play—is a virtue. For kids 5 and up, one of the moms we chatted with swears by the play date fade-out: She’s in proximity, but largely out of sight, meaning she’s keeping tabs, but not hovering. This also allows for parental conversation, a nice-to-have. “I never expect it,” she says. “A good expectation to set for yourself ahead of hosting is that adult conversations most likely won’t happen.” But that’s the job. As for keeping a watchful eye, it also helps to spell out rooms that are off-limits. (This warning came from a mom with a wandering houseguest: She took her eyes off the kids for a few seconds and the next thing she knew they were in her and her husband’s bedroom playing with a few unmentionables found in her bedside table. Lesson learned!)