It's never too early to arrange play dates. I love them. Play dates are fun for me, my child gains valuable social skills, and spending time with other human beings make those long hours before my husband gets home fly like nothing else. There's only so many conversations I can have with my toddler before I start itching to hear complete sentences. But remember, play dates are more than scheduling a time, date, and a place on your little sweetum's social calendar...there's etiquette, inevitable problems, and all sorts of things to consider.
THINGS TO CONSIDER:
Age: In the beginning, play dates may be more for the society-deprieved young mother than a small baby, but it's never too early to start. Babies are fascinated by other babies. I remember my child progressed through milestones leaps and bounds faster after watching other kids roll, crawl, and walk around him. If your toddler is one of those that prefer playing alone, never fear. They'll still value the time spent in another kid's company. Co-playing will come easier as they get older, usually between ages 3-5.
Gender: Doesn't really matter with young toddlers. If anything, play dates are an excellent opportunity to spend time with a child of the other gender. My two year old son's temperament is super mellow, so he actually plays better with girls than he does with most rough-housing boys. When gender DOES start to matter, your child will let you know.
Frequency: I have a three month old baby as well as a toddler, so once a week is about all I care to pack up the kids for. Other mothers with more mobile kids seem to reach a general consensus that twice a week is a good number for planning social times as well as keeping the general routine of the house in-tact. On the other hand, especially busy mothers are hard-pressed to make a play date work once every couple weeks. The important thing is to cater it to your schedule. Whatever works for you and your family and doesn't stress you out.
Location: Because my toddler is two and a half and prone to meltdowns in confined spaces, location is a big issue for me. My friend and I discovered just last week that the library is NOT a good place to take toddler friends. They just wanted to run around, yell, jump on kiddy-size furniture, and be toddlers in general. Since then, we've stuck to parks, playcenters, and each other's houses. Full-on excursions will have to wait for when the kids are older.
Length: Two hours is about the point of no return for my kiddos. Anything too far beyond that makes for overtired, overstressed, overplayed children that are a BEAST to put down for a nap later on. And I mean that with all the motherly love I've got in me. I've found that play dates work best when we semi-structure out different activities. Play time. Snack. Activity. Play time. Pack up. Leave. Switching up what the kids are doing will help keep them from getting bored and frustrated with each other.
Reciprocate: If one mom hosts a play date at her house, make sure you do the same for her. It's just the right thing to do.
Now, all that said, play dates don't come without problems. One common one is SHARING...(oh the never ending battle) toys, food, mommies, babies, you name it...if a playmate has it, the other kid wants it. Sometimes it helps to narrate the situation. Get your child used to the idea of someone coming over to play by giving him a heads up before Johnny comes over. Once Johnny gets there, physically take and hand the toys between the toddlers (at good transition points) and explain that both of them get to play with it when it's their turn.
Another problem is SHY children. You go through all the trouble of arranging a play date, but your little angel sticks to you like glue. Sigh. Is the play date even worth it? Yes! Keep at it. Ask your mother-friends for help and explain the situation. As much as possible, you want your toddler to practice getting used to other people with the comforting feeling that mommy's close by. Try to be there without getting in the middle of it. Let your child explore their own creativity. The last thing you want to do is avoid play dates altogether. Let's just say...avoiding social time is going to make preschool REALLY shocking for your child.
So, I turn the time over to you ladies. How often do you schedule play dates? What do you usually do (for what ages)? And how do you deal with the problems listed above? My boy is one that's a little shy around other kids...especially if there's A LOT of other kids, like at a play center. Please share your fabulous advice! I appreciate your feedback. Thanks, gals!