Perhaps you grew up in the days before the playdate. As you went out the back door, letting it slam behind you, you shouted over your shoulder, “Mom, I’m going out.” Her “Be back by dinner time” drifted after you. You then found someone on the streets to play with. Or perhaps you went to a neighbor’s house and called in the door to a friend. Then the negotiations began. Did you want to climb trees? Shoot hoops? Create fairy villages in the shade of the bushes? (I seem to remember that my best friend and cross-the-street neighbor and I liked to do the same things but never seemed to want to do the same thing at the same time.)
Or maybe you lived in a more rural area and did actually have to arrange to play at a friend’s. But once you got there, the mom would say, “Take your snack outside and go play,” or would send you down to the rumpus room and pay you no more mind until it was time to go home.
What was the benefit of both these scenes?
Children were left to their own devices to figure out what to do and how to do it. Even best friends had to negotiate and argue and compromise on what to play. Kids made up games, made up rules, made up new rules, fought, disagreed, figured things out, came together again. In other words, kids were not only exercising a great deal of creativity, they were doing a tremendous amount of social-emotional learning. A lot of outdoor play provided the opportunity for creativity and problem solving. We had elaborate wars roaming throughout the neighborhood that required planning and scheming and we spent a lot of time in the creak. We were innovative at business (I remember once trying to sell raw olives as candy). And while we tried to spend as much time in front of the tv as our parents would possibly allow, compared to having a screen glued to the palm of your hand, it just wasn’t that much.
What about the modern playdate?
Well, for one, kids are so busy and so scheduled, it is really hard to coordinate a time when kids are free and parents are free to drive them to a play date. Does your child get even as much as one regular playdate a week outside of school or other scheduled activities? Even when there is a playdate, kids too easily fall into the habit of being on their electronics side by side. When parents are firm about limiting electronics, many kids don’t know what to do with themselves so they get bored and whiney. Many parents then spring in with a project—perhaps baking or a craft or a mini science experiment.
That should be good, right? What’s wrong with a project? Nothing, if the kids come up with it, but as soon as parents get involved, we tend to get directive. Forgive me if this is not you at all, but allow for the possibility that it is you who organizes what needs to be done—what materials are needed, in what order, where it should be done and how. When the children argue who should go first, you introduce a fair method of determining order or make a command decision. What could be wrong with that? Well, it robs children of the opportunity to exercise those all important social emotional skills. Kids need practice advocating for themselves on the one hand and being sensitive to the needs and desires of their playmates on the other. Practice takes time. Naturally, parents have always provided social-emotional training, but traditionally kids had lots of time to practice on their own away from the watchful eye of adults.
Parenting from Fear
The other issue with the modern play date is that expectations of what is okay for kids are not as agreed on. One parent encourages safety, another independence. One parent expects children to be neat and tidy; another one sends your child back to you dirty from head to toe. Fear of not alarming or offending another parent causes you to restrict what children do on playdates for fear of alienating the other parent. Or worse, you say no to even arranging a playdate because it is too much effort to deal with the other parent. Either your own parenting feels restricted or you fear the other parent will allow things that you wouldn’t.
Kids need to play with other kids their own age in open-ended ways. What can we do to give them that?
What are we to do?
The trend for highly supervised playdates grew over a lot of years, and there are some reasons that even if they change back, they won’t ever be quite the same.
One of the reasons the playdate came about was that with more parents in the work force, our schedules are simply packed tighter. We are not home when the neighbor kid comes asking to play, and when we send our child out to play, he finds the streets empty and is bored. Ironically, the place that kids play the most with the least supervision might well be after school childcare. There the adult child ratio is between 1:10 and 1:15 depending on the state and the age of the children. Often these programs are run by young adults who are not caught up in the parents’ constant need to improve and train their children. All these care givers have to do is supervise and make sure no one gets hurt. I have talked to kids who like staying late at child care for exactly that reason—it is the one place where they get extended playtime where they are basically left to their own devises. And as with playing outside in the neighborhood of yesteryear, they have to deal with a random group of kids and find a way to fit in.
Another reason play became increasingly supervised and children’s roaming got leashed in is outlined by Julie Lythcott-Haims in her book How to Raise an Adult. She argues (and I find it so fascinating that one event could have such a large effect) that when "The tragic 1981 abduction and murder of a young child named Adam Walsh became the made-for-television movie Adam [and] was seen by a near record-setting 38 million people,” people became much more aware the potential danger to children and started supervising them more closely.( http://www.businessinsider.com/the-rise-of-the-helicopter-parent-2015-7). Knowing the actual facts about our children’s safety should do a lot to put your mind at ease about your children’s safety: Of the cases of missing children in 2016, here is how they break down:
- 90 percent endangered runaways.
- 6 percent family abductions.
- 1 percent lost, injured or otherwise missing children.
- 1 percent nonfamily abductions.
- 2 percent critically missing young adults, ages 18 to 20.
Look at those numbers. Only 2% are non family abductions or a child getting lost or injured (and keep in mind that these are the statistics for the numbers on the list reported as missing; it doesn’t mean they stay missing). These statistics suggest that it is completely reasonable for you to let your kids play outside—in the front yard, at the park, going to the library or gym by themselves. And those short chunks of time alone are their testing grounds for them to make mistakes and figure things out.
Given that There's Never Been a Safer Time to Be a Kid in America, it is time to Consider Expanding How You Do Playdates.