Thursday, November 5, 2009

Positive Playdates: Building Social Skills

Building social skills in children is always a key objective for both parents and nannies. Playdates can be positive experiences for building skills before those formal school years. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when planning playdate experiences.

Age Appropriate: Most children three and younger use parallel play rather than shared play, but this is a good time to introduce interactive play with another child of about the same age. Typically four-year-olds are really getting the hang of playing with another child, especially if they have had opportunities to practice.

Plan Ahead: You may want to have a few activities that everyone can do, whether playing together or side-by-side. Options might include puzzles, modeling dough, art materials, building materials, balls, or music and movement equipment (scarves, rhythm instruments). Having enough supplies readily available encourages sharing while leaving no one out.

Snack Time: Serving a nutritious, fun, simple snack can be a highlight of the playdate especially if you include the children in the preparation. It’s another opportunity to build cooperative, sharing skills with a nice treat at the end of the activity.

Conflict Resolution: Playdates are a great time to build resolution skills. When children are together conflicts arise. The challenge is to strike the balance between intervening when necessary but not interfering in the process. Allowing preschoolers to work out their own solutions is a best case scenario, but they may need adult guidance. Asking them how they want to work out the problem allows them to focus on possible options instead of the conflict itself. Getting both parties to agree to a solution allows for everyone to verbalize the plan. You may need to help them follow through with their plan of action. Here’s where having plenty of other activities ready can help ease sticky situations.

Set Limits: Keep the child’s normal routine in mind when planning the playdate – skipping naps or changing mealtimes for playdates can lead to frustration and crankiness, not a good recipe for encouraging cooperative play. One and a half to two hours is plenty for most preschoolers. This time frame can be lengthened as children mature and their relationships develop. You may also want to limit the number of children involved in the playdate. For younger, less experienced children getting together with one other child is often best. Also, odd numbers of children can sometimes add to potential conflicts. Having enough adult supervision is another key to success. As children get older “drop off” playdates can be an option and encourage greater independence.

Ending the Playdate: Give everyone a warning before the playdate comes to an end. A “five minute warning” can work well for most children, but if you know a child needs more time make allowance for that. Abruptly ending the playdate can set up negative responses. Clean-up is always the last thing before good-byes are said. Everyone should share in the clean-up so no one is left with a mess. I suggest giving a warning before starting clean-up, so in fact you may need to start the transition 10 or 15 minutes before the playdate ends.

Playdate Options: First playdate experiences often start in the child’s own home or their friend’s home. A home environment is comfortable for everyone. But as children’s relationships grow and they mature you may want to consider other locations for playdates such as outings to local parks and playgrounds, community centers, special child related programs, museums or other facilities.

Playdates that are well planned, age appropriate, and guided by attentive adults who allow children to work through situations can be positive skill building experiences. Children who have experienced a variety of social situations typically have an easier transition to more formal group settings such as preschool, kindergarten or other organized groups.
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