Outdating disposable diapers, pacifiers and all of the oh-so-trendy baby gear we all thought we couldn’t live without, play dates have been a part of childhood since ….well, a long time. They are good old-fashioned fun for little babies, preschoolers and now thanks to the evolved parent can also be fun for the whole family.
But is that it?
We all know exposing children to their peers through play dates is a great way for them to learn social skills, get exercise and give Mom and Dad a break (unless you are hosting, that is). But what I have found since my daughter started elementary school is that play date’s offer a deeper look into a friend or potential friend not found during school hours.
During a recent parent-teacher conference, my daughter’s teacher reminded me to encourage play dates. I told this to my daughter and she promptly went home, opened up the school directory and made a list of the play dates she wanted me to set up. Basically, she wrote down her entire class list with phone numbers.
Great, I thought, another excuse to clean the house. But what I discovered was that, after these play dates, my daughter had an entirely new view of these friends. And when we did play dates with entire families (such as the one we went to on New Year’s Eve), my kids saw a sort of “behind the scenes” look at their friends and their family structure.
So what is it exactly that my kids now understand since these play dates?
First, they learned about acceptance. My daughter recently asked me why a friend of hers only ate the food of her parents' country. Even her lunch bag was filled with foods my daughter didn’t recognize. I gave her an answer, but it wasn’t until after a play date with said friend that she really understood. She told me that her parents wanted to teach their children about the country they were from and the foods they ate were a part of that heritage. My daughter started asking about our family background, our food traditions and heritage. That “a-ha” moment alone was worth a play date!
Another great play date moment came when we went to a family play date late last summer. Both of my kids got a great lesson in compassion. A friend had us all over and the kids were having a blast in the bouncy they rented. Needless to say, it got a bit chaotic in there and my daughter got pushed around a bit. She was OK -- no tears were shed -- but her friend was concerned. Both sets of parents noticed that he was physically trying to protect her from getting bumped into by others. It was incredibly sweet. When my son noticed what he was doing he tried to help too but his little 3-year-old body was no match for the bigger kids. On the way home I brought it up with my daughter. She realized what her friend was doing (and little brother was trying to do) at the time, but it wasn’t until I pointed it out specifically that she took a moment to think about it. She declared at that moment that he was her best friend and also thanked her brother for trying to help. It took an already strong friendship to another level.
Looking back now, I think what my daughter’s teacher was trying to tell me was that, while having play dates with old friends is great, having play dates with new friends and even those we aren’t 100 percent sure will be our friends can be even more rewarding. In those play dates are valuable learning experiences. In those play dates are understanding of why people act and react the way they do. I challenged my daughter to consider a play date with someone she wanted to get to know better and maybe someone who isn’t like her at all. I told her sometimes the best friends are the ones who aren’t exactly like you but can teach you about who they are. I think she liked that idea.
It’s my hope that after every new play date my kids are better able to accept that friend for who they are and that after every old play date they are better able to appreciate the friend they already have.
So, the next time you are setting up a lay date, look up someone new for your child to get to know, appreciate and understand. Who knows, you might be setting up a lifelong friend.