Pleasing the preschool set can be daunting – here’s how to plan it with panache

Story by Mara Severin

My friend Andrea hosts playdates so wonderful that my daughter doesn’t want to come home.

I’ve thrown cocktail parties for 40, Thanksgiving dinners for 20, book club meetings for 15, and a bridal shower for 30. My summer is one long barbecue and my holidays are one long open house. But the thought of a preschool playdate strikes fear in my heart – and maybe yours too.

But don’t despair. You’re more prepared than you think.

The rules for a great preschool playdate are the same as those for a grown-up get-together – they just need a little tweaking.

An orderly and inviting house, plentiful refreshments, and a few thoughtful icebreakers are all that you’ll need to be the most popular hostess among the under-six set, says my friend Andrea. And when it comes to entertaining a couple of exuberant little girls, she takes the cake.

“You need a little structure, a little playtime with whatever toys are in the area, then a little healthy snack,” says Andrea, making it all sound so easy. “Then we sing the clean-up song and everyone cleans up!”

Children and tchotchkes – a bad combination

Be sure to childproof your house… yes, again. Take a look at it with fresh eyes. You may have done an exceptional job child-proofing your home for your child, but you’ve also been home-proofing your child. In other words, your children probably know not to: touch your Precious Moments figurines; play in the dog’s water bowl; build an ash castle in the fireplace, or go treasure hunting in the kitty litter. But this may be news to someone else’s child. Move your valuables and breakables, stow away anything inherently unsafe (or germy) and park your car in front of the compost heap.

Break out the glue sticks and break the ice

Children who are just getting acquainted may need a little help in getting their playdate off the ground.

For starters, says Kathy Hall, mental health consultant for thread Alaska in Anchorage, make sure your child’s guest has a chance to feel comfortable with you and your home. “It’s great for kids to start interacting with adults other than their parents, grandparents or caregivers,” she says. Take the opportunity to introduce yourself. Make sure that you explain any important house rules and point out important things about the home like the location of the bathroom or rooms that are off limits.

A few simple, well-planned projects can help break the ice and put children at ease. Consider approaching holidays for a few ideas. Decorate Easter eggs or make simple Christmas ornaments or Valentine’s Day cards. Decorate pre-baked cookies with icing and sprinkles. Even a fresh box of crayons and a few new coloring books might help younger children to chat and get comfortable with each other.

And remember, advises Ashley Barrera, a childcare provider at Puffin Heights Montessori School, “just because they’re not playing with each other doesn’t mean they’re not having fun with each other.” For toddlers, she says, parallel play is completely appropriate and very enjoyable.

Keep your cool and keep your distance

A playdate is work for your child as much as it is play, says Barrera. “They’re learning to read social cues, they’re developing problem-solving skills.” You can’t teach a child how to live without conflict, she says, but you can teach them the “socially appropriate way to handle it.”

Says Hall, “We often tell our children to use their words, but we have to help them find those words.” She considers playdates to be an excellent opportunity for children to learn to say, “I don’t like that – I don’t like what you’re doing.” If you do have to step in, she says, be sure to put the attention on the child whose feelings were hurt, and not on the child who is acting badly.

Make it a sprint – not a marathon

Keep the day short and sweet. For younger children, an arts and crafts project, a snack and an hour of play adds up to the perfect amount of time for a playdate. When your children become better friends, those guidelines will relax naturally. Says Andrea, you don’t want to include too much or be too controlling. “Some parents panic and say, ‘we have to have a musical component, a physical component, an analytical component.’” Sometimes, she says, you have to let kids be kids.

And while preparation will give you the confidence to make that first call to your preschooler’s best friend, you need to know when to be spontaneous. If a cloudy day turns sunny? “Set them loose in the backyard,” says Andrea, “with some Tupperware, a hose, and a pile of dirt.” And now I know why my daughter loves the playdates at her house.

Cherish the fact that you can help your children forge these friendships. Pretty soon, the only thing they will want from you when their friends are over? Your absence.