Toddler's first play date? Activities, tips, and tricks to prepare!
Do you remember the last time you had an awkward first meeting? It may have been a stressful job interview or a 'friend date' with a new pal. While these situations may have been tough, you probably knew how to navigate them by focusing on your strengths or staying curious about the other person.
That instinctive knowledge comes from a lifetime of socialization, which begins as children — enter play dates!
Play dates are an important milestone in a child’s journey and for a toddler or preschooler just making friends, it can be a huge deal! But even with adults, first meets can be filled with awkward pauses, misunderstandings, and seldom go perfectly.
So how can we ensure that two little ones colliding worlds have a fun, stress-free time, and safe time? Read on to find out!
Setting up your toddler's first play date
1. Find the right playmate - Inviting over the right friend (or potential friend!) is one of the most important parts of a play date. Begin with inviting just one or two kids so it won’t be overwhelming. If there’s someone your child wants to call home from preschool or your circle, let them choose. If you are setting it up, look for children whose temperament and interests match your little one’s.
2. Keep it short - Slot an hour or two for the play date. If all goes well, this will give the kids something to look forward to doing again soon. And if the children are struggling to connect, a quick play session will mean that they don’t feel defeated, and will be more open to trying again.
3. Limit the play area - Limiting the play area and planning some activities and games in advance could be particularly useful for children who feel stressed around making choices or initiating conversation. Boundaries around where and what will help them play to their strengths and shine!
4. Practice some roleplaying - While play dates themselves are a space to practice social skills, it would be good to prepare your child for some common roadblocks they may face. Through roleplay, you can teach them how to ask for a toy, how to keep playing if the other child does not pay them much attention, how to express their thoughts and ideas confidently, and so on. Make sure you also have a chat about respecting and valuing the differences they notice in others.
5. Handle toys with care - If you are inviting a child home, expect some rough play! So keep aside any delicate toys and tell your child about this in advance so they won’t feel confused and throw a fit for a toy you’ve shelved. If you are invited for a play date, remind your child to handle every toy with extra care, and to pick up after themselves once they are done playing.
Fun activities for a toddler play date
What kind of play date would you like to host? While you can mix and match ideas, we recommend sticking with one or two ‘big activities’ to avoid chaos. Let’s look at some indoor and outdoor play ideas that toddlers and preschoolers are sure to love!
Indoor play date ideas
1. Recreate Home, School, or Restaurant!
Pretend play is the perfect way to get two children to take off their armor and start talking! Whether they are a chef at a restaurant, preparing for teddy's birthday party, or taking turns being teacher and student, there’s nothing like a bond built over dreaming together!
2. Experiment with multi-player games
Games that require 2 or more kids to play are another excellent choice. If your child is always looking for a buddy to play card games with or to challenge in a puzzle match, a play date is a great chance for this!
3. Have an arts & crafts party
Who doesn’t enjoy a good artsy session? Toddlers love making cards or drawings that they can put up on the fridge or give their parents and siblings! Get some stickers, stamps, child-safe paints, and paper and let them get creating! You could even combine art and pretend play with a play dough set. Turn it into a pancake, rotis, or a snake in the forest!
Looking for simple at-home DIY activities that the kids are going to love? Check out our Co-Create series, designed by moms for moms!
4. Enjoy a free play session
If you’d rather give the children space to make up their own games, consider a free play session. Set up the room with a few open-ended toys they can explore in different ways. Montessori arches, colorful wooden blocks, or open-ended play sets are all good ideas as children can build these in different ways. You could also throw in items from around the house like cardboard boxes, toilet paper rolls, or paper cups filled with beans or macaroni shells and see how they collaborate to add these into their play!
5. Have a bookish play date
While you may want to give the kids some alone time to mingle, you could also step in for a fun reading session. Pick a book that your child loves and ask them to help tell the story to their new friend. You could even get the kids to put on a puppet show once they know the story!
Not sure if you are a good Puppet Master? Here are 6 easy & effective ways to use puppets in storytelling and play!
Outdoor play date ideas
1. Team up for a treasure hunt
As with adults, the outdoors is a great place for children to bond too! Set up a treasure hunt with an adventurous story line or a scavenger hunt with tons of little surprises along the way. Give the kids a chance to work together as a team, which will surely create a sense of camaraderie between them. Bonus — they exert energy and hone their gross motor skills too!
Ever wondered what exactly 'gross motor skills' are? Watch this quick explainer video to find out.
2. Host a garden tea party
It’s always time for some tea and biscuits! Grab some munchies, juice, and toy cups and saucers and set the stage for a garden tea party. You could even carry along a foldable table and some themed DIY games like a Woodland Animal Sequence game, a Popsicle Puzzle, or a Honey Bee Ten Frame. An outdoor tea party is also perfect for the adults to catch up while keeping an eye on the little ones!
3. Run around an obstacle course
Obstacle courses are not just a fantastic way to dispel any anxious energy, but they encourage open-ended play and some healthy competition too! Just like a treasure hunt, you could add a story line and many different sensory and cognitive elements to an obstacle course. For more ideas, check out our blog on designing an awesome kids' obstacle course.
4. Cozy up in a balcony camp
How about a campfire night at home? Pitching a kids’ tent in your balcony or front yard can create a special bonding room for two children. Cozy it up with pillows and cushions, bring in a torch and a good book, and keep a flask with hot chocolate ready!
5. Free play outside
If you are hosting two or more kids who are little energy balls, taking them to a playground or a park might do wonders! They can enjoy the swings, slides, and see-saws, or simply run around playing tag. Keep scootys, a ball, or skipping ropes around to make room for some fun parallel play.
Making friends takes time!
Like us, children also take time to find the right people and make good friends. So as you keep inviting little ones over and sending your child on play dates, remember that 'finding a best friend' is not necessarily the goal.
The main purpose of play dates is to strengthen your child's ability to connect with other kids. What’s most important is that your child feels safe and curious during the play date and leaves wanting to try again!