Recipe for the Perfect Play Date

Play dates can be a life-saver, if you know the right ingredients.

I was chatting with some mothers at a school function the other day, and I was surprised to learn they don’t often do play dates. Granted, these were working moms, and despite my writing projects, I still consider myself a ‘stay-at-home-mom’. But I still couldn’t believe they hadn’t dove into this precious resource.

Play dates started early for me. When I was pregnant with my first daughter, now nearly seven, I worried about slowly going nuts during my maternity leave. In order to combat this, I made friends with the other new moms in my lamaze group and quickly started to schedule play dates.

When it comes to play dates, I have spent years perfecting the recipe for success. Do it wrong, and you can end up with a trashed house, screaming kids and a broken friendship. Do it right, and you and your kids will be laughing. Literally.

Ingredient 1—Pick the right kid

I tend to cultivate mom friends wherever I go: parenting groups, the park, my kid’s school, but I have to be selective as to who I allow over for a play date. There are two things that need to be considered when choosing a kid to invite over: how well does this kid play with my kid(s) and how well do I get along with their parents?

I remember once regretting a play date almost as soon as it started because the kid we invited over spent the entire time tattling on my kids. When my kids are playing quietly, I’m the kind of parent who doesn’t want to know what they are doing. Yes, I would prefer they weren’t digging in my garden and eating the dirt, but I’d much prefer the tattling child go out there and join them than give me minute-by-minute updates so I can drink my tea in peace. If I policed my kids every second of every day, I would surely lose my mind; so please little invited guest, go play with them instead of reporting to me.

Not only do you have to consider how the kid plays with your child that they are friends with, but also how they play with your other kids. My oldest has a friend she loves to invite over, but whenever said friend is around, their exclusion of my middle daughter always causes tantrums and meltdowns.

So when I find a kid who comes over and allows me to experience a little peace and quiet, I make sure to make them a VIP (Very Important Play-dater). I recently came across such a scenario when my youngest wanted to have her friend over a few weeks ago. Being my last little at home, she often (rightly so) finds me completely boring. We invited her friend over, and I was able to fold and sort a week’s worth of laundry as they played quietly for hours.

It was a play date miracle.

Ingredient 2—Invite the right parent

There are two types of play dates: those where the parents stay, and those where the parents don’t. While both can be wonderful, they are useful in very different ways. I always try to schedule a play date where the parent leaves on a day when I want to get some work done. I let the kids run around the house or yard and occupy themselves while I get to finish some long overdue tasks without distractions. When it’s a play date where the parent stays, it’s an opportunity to feel like a person again rather than just a ‘mom’ to a small dictator. These types of play dates are a great way to save your sanity, especially in those early parenting days when you feel like your brain is longing for a bit of adult interaction.

So when you are inviting a parent to come for a play date, make sure it’s on a day you will be able to relax and enjoy yourself. Ask yourself: is this person someone that will accept me and my messy house as it is, or will I feel I need to clean for them? Is this someone who I am comfortable enough with to unload my angst and stress without judgement? Is this someone who I want to spend my time with?

Ingredient 3—Time it right

When it comes to play dates, make it convenient for all involved. When planning a parent and tot event, I have always enjoyed a 10 a.m.start time. It’s not too early that I can’t do a 10 minute panic tidy before my guests arrive, and not too late that it impedes nap time.

If it is a drop-and-go play date, we all enjoy it most as an after-school event. I find the time between 4 and 6 to be the ‘witching hour’ for my school-aged kids. They are tired, hungry and looking for entertainment. Add the right friend, and they can be happily playing in the backyard while I prepare supper in peace.

Ingredient 4—Feed them pancakes

If there is one thing I have learned from years of play dating, it’s that pancakes are the perfect play date food. First of all, they are cheap and easy. I wish I could pretend like I make mine from scratch using flax seed flour and almond milk, but frankly I use the box made stuff and I love it. It’s a great cooking activity for all kids who love to help mix. I always start with a mashed banana or two and then often add blueberries (more commonly referred to as chocolate chips).

I always make pancakes because it’s simple to make and a crowd pleaser. By adding a little fruit you can feel like you are serving a healthy (ish) meal.

Ingredient 5—Be the right guest

Are you invited to a play date? The first thing you should do upon receiving your invitation is ask what you can bring. I love it when friends bring coffee (OR WINE!), so I can focus on telling them the latest thing my husband has done to piss me off rather than having to figure out my Keurig. I think a good rule of thumb is whoever hosts doesn’t have to worry about food and drinks except for rare crisis situations (i.e. your friend has been up all night with her toddler and needed to get out of the house).

So there you have it: the perfect play date. The ideal way to save your sanity as a parent and enjoy your time with your kids and their friends. Did I miss anything? What are your favourite play date ingredients?

Melissa Robertson

Melissa Robertson

Melissa Robertson divides her time between writing her for the Parent Life Network and wrangling her three children that have lovingly helped her earn the title 'hot mess mom'.