Susan Stone remembers play dates as walking down the street and knocking on the door of a friend's house to ask if she could play. They would disappear for hours, building forts, playing tag and riding their bikes everywhere.

"Adults were nowhere to be found, and I knew it was time to come home when my mom rang the cowbell," said the 30-year-old Andover resident.

Times have changed.

"It makes me a little sad, but I can't imagine letting my kid do that now," she said.

To combat the decline in children's freedom to play and explore on their own, and to counteract the effects of being overscheduled and inundated with electronics and media, the play date has been adopted as an accepted ­— and expected — part of childhood.

Childhood get-togethers are a whole lot more complicated today thanks to busier schedules, less connected neighborhoods, increased fear of our children's safety and technology. The neighbor kid is more likely to show up on an iPad than on a bike. Add in fears about unvaccinated children and food allergies, and many parents call the modern play date a "necessary evil."

"There's this exaggerated fear that so many parents are caught up in where they don't give their children freedom in all kinds of ways, largely because of the fear of stranger danger, which research shows is a greatly exaggerated threat," 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 often starts with parents obsessing over their 2-month-olds not getting enough socialization. They scour church, day-care drop-off and the library's story time group for potential play date prospects.

"It feels like we are auditioning for possible play date pair-ups," said Shawna den Otter of Minneapolis.

"I need mom business cards that say, 'My name is Shawna. I have a toddler. We like splashpads and cheddar bunnies. Call us!' "

While Stone and her group of mommy friends seemed to have mastered the art of the simple, effective play date, others take play dates to the extreme.

Idea boards pepper Pinterest: "10 indoor play date ideas." "8 surefire ways to host a successful group play date." "7 tips for the perfect play date lunch."

In New York City, wealthy parents hire "experts" for $400 an hour to organize play dates for their children.

There's even an app, a Tinder of sorts for tots, where busy parents can schedule play dates for their children.

The play date has become an event with trays of snacks and a craft project to take home at the end, a parting gift of sorts.

"It's like hosting a party or a small get-together with your adult friends," said Shestin Czaplewski of Brooklyn Park. "Except no cocktails and the finger food becomes chicken nuggets and mac 'n' cheese."

Banish play dates?

Despite the societal expectations of these newfangled kiddie rendezvous, the hoopla of it all has turned some parents off to the idea.

"In this day and age, everyone thinks that everything needs to be scheduled, planned and micromanaged," wrote Emily Franks, an Eden Prairie mom, on Facebook. "The world we live in now is much different from the world I grew up in, but I think kids need to learn how to make something out of nothing, i.e., use their imaginations."

Fears of committing maternal faux pas abound. Will you be outcast if your tantrum-throwing toddler finger-paints the wall? Do you have to serve grapes when your own kid likes fruit snacks?

Then there's the awkwardness among parents who hardly know one another and might not have as much in common as their "Frozen"-loving 2-year-olds. A helicopter mom paired with a free-range mom could be a recipe for disaster.

While play dates can provide free play opportunities, especially for children who don't live in neighborhoods with a lot of other children, experts say they can be stifling if not done correctly.

"Overscheduling or micromanaging your child's free time may not be in his or her best interest. There is a risk that if all play activities are orchestrated by parents, self-reliance and creativity could suffer," said Dr. Thomas Stealey, a pediatrician at Metropolitan Pediatrics in Edina. "We are losing the ability to truly relax. When kids have simple, unorganized play, they have a better chance to relax and enjoy."

Remember when you could tell where all the neighborhood kids were hanging out by the number of bikes parked in the front yard? Some parents are calling for a return to this nostalgic vision of childhood.

Chicago blogger Chris Bernholdt says we should banish play dates. "This play date garbage is ruining our kids," he wrote on "This idea that two kids playing together has to be an event is altering the spontaneity of our children."

Others say it's not so easy. With more families with two adults working, less connectivity in neighborhoods and busier schedules in general, the old way of doing things is no longer practical. Play dates, they say, are a necessary part of modern parenting.

"We are so busy and scheduled, so if we don't schedule play dates, too, they won't happen," said Sarah Rostance, a Minneapolis mom. "It's rare for people to have a Saturday where they just do nothing."

Aimee Blanchette • 612-673-1715