The play date itself isn't stifling kids, said Marti Erickson, owner and co-host of the Mom Enough website and podcast and a retired developmental psychologist at the University of Minnesota. It's the technology and hyperscheduling that happen during play dates. Instead of boycotting the play date, she said, just do it right.
We asked the experts — parents included — how to best navigate the modern world of play dates. Here's their advice:
1. Keep it short. Under two hours is best — especially for first-time play dates and for younger children.
2. Share the responsibilities between parents. Take turns hosting, driving/picking up, etc.
3. Serve food. A meal or snack is almost always expected. If Pinterest-perfect hors d'oeuvres are your thing, great. Otherwise, keep it simple. Conflicted over serving Cheetos or carrot sticks? Serve both. Hopefully the kids will be too busy playing to care much, anyway. Let the other parents know what meals or snacks might be served. If your child has a food allergy, let the host know and consider packing your own food.
4. Lose the cruise director persona. Instead of orchestrating their every move, sit back at a comfortable distance and allow kids to structure their own time. "To plan specific activities is a reflection of a misguided approach to parenting that's all too common today," Erickson said.
5. Be upfront. If you have concerns about what your child will be doing during a play date, Andover mom Susan Stone suggests asking one simple question: "What will they be doing?" It's a fair question to ask without sounding as though you don't trust the other parent.
6. Choose a neutral location. If hosting a play date at your home has you nervous about which toys to put out or how clean your house should be, move the location to a park or the zoo.
7. Monitor screen activity. Not everyone has the same idea of what's appropriate. Besides, two kids playing "Minecraft" defeats the purpose of a play date. "Parents need to be more intentional about moving children away from those opportunities," said Donald Sysyn, supervisor for St. Paul Public Schools Early Childhood Family Education.
8. Disappear. Once your child reaches school age, allow play dates to happen more naturally and without adult supervision. Be upfront about your expectations of whether you want a parent to stay during the play date. "I would feel obligated to stay unless I had been told otherwise," Stone said.
9. Be honest. Let others know if you have anything in your home that could make them uncomfortable. "As an active member of the [National Rifle Association], I make sure I leave my firearm in the car when going to a play date at someone else's house," said Shestin Czaplewski of Brooklyn Park. "If I were to have a play date at my house, I would communicate to the other mothers that we do have firearms; however, they are all locked in a safe."
10. Be empathetic. "In one of my play groups, one mom stopped coming because her kid threw a massive tantrum one day and everyone just sat and stared at her," said Amy Korkki of Crystal. "Let them know that it's OK and your kids do those things, too. Motherhood is hard enough without feeling judged by those around you."
11. Look for a common connection. Ideally, before you arrange the get-together, the children should be acquainted or you should know the parents.
12. Relax. Casual is key. If you're stressing out over the play date, you're doing it wrong.