Take Back the Play Date!

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I have a pretty fun house when it comes to playing. We have a good amount of toys, the kids are free to reuse things around the house to make new things, I don’t worry much about the clean-up process, and glitter is always welcome here. I’m big on freedom of expression through play and my kids are better for it.

I wouldn't say that we do a ton of play dates, however. The truth is that my kids love to play together, and school eats up a lot of time during the week. While they sometimes ask for their close friends to come by, we don't fill our days with scheduled play dates after school. More often than not, they just want to be together. And that's just fine with me.

We used to do more play dates. When my daughter started kindergarten, it seemed important to work on social relationships outside of school, so we filled a couple of afternoons a week with scheduled play dates. Some of them were fun, but some of them were a bit much. I didn't know, for example, that some parents love to have highly scheduled play dates. Some parents like structured activities with a built-in snack time at just the right moment. This struck me as counterproductive, if I'm being honest.

If the goal is to forge friendships through play, how exactly does it help kids to keep them on a specific play schedule? When do they let their personalities shine?

I once had a mom drop a child off at my house with a bag full of activities. It wasn't so much “Hey, I have this cool stuff hanging around, so I thought I would send it” as it was “Here are some activities for the kids to do while they play.” We didn't do the activities. The kids were too busy playing pretend.

The benefits of free play are numerous. Kids learn to relate to others, work through fears and feelings, connect on a deeper level, develop problem-solving skills, learn, have fun, and cope with the world around them when engaged in free play. Play is the natural state for children. When lost in play, kids can learn about themselves and find their strengths. Why on earth would we want to structure that?

It's time to take back the play date. Kids don't need grownups to tell them how to do their job. Kids need time and freedom to express themselves and get lost in imaginary worlds where they take control. 

{ MORE: Preschool Friend Drama? Here's How to Deal }

The truth is that kids already know how to play, but the rise in structured activities and the need to micromanage childhood has created a shift in how and when kids play. Parents dislike cries of boredom, but when kids lack sufficient downtime, they forget how to get down to the business of play. We can help them remember by slowing down and making time for play.

I might not schedule a lot of play dates for my kids, but I do see the value in them. Kids enjoy downtime with their peers, and playing without restrictions gives them the opportunity to connect and build a close relationship. Just be sure to use those play dates to allow kids to be kids — to let the players call the shots. Otherwise, you won't see the same benefits.

{ MORE: Living in an Era of Disrespect: Are We Raising Our Kids the Right Way? }

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It's time to take back the play date, my fellow parents. Resist their urge to plan the activities. Try not to cringe when the Legos are absolutely everywhere. And for the love of young children everywhere, let there be glitter.

Your children need you to step back and trust them on this one. They know how to play, and they intend to do it their way.

What do you think?

Take Back the Play Date!

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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