Making Friends

The Evolution of the Play Date

Today, our children interact in highly coordinated, parent-driven play dates that leave no room for testing or improving their executive, planning, or social skills. Here’s how to put play back in the players’ hands.

Toy sharing can cause problems on playdates
Toy sharing can cause problems on playdates

I remember waking up in the summer, looking out the window, and thinking about who I wanted to play with that day. I put on my shoes, walked down the street, and knocked on my friend’s door: “Can Samantha come out to play?” For hours upon hours, we planned what we wanted to do, we created it, we invented it, we went and found other friends to join us. Our play was driven by our imaginations alone. We created the games, we made them happen, and we found more friends to expand their limits.

Today, we have play dates. They’re parent-driven, often structured, and rarely engineered by our children. Over a text or an email, parents coordinate the day and the time. Our children go along for the ride, squeezing in schedule play between their other activities.

Whatever we’ve gained in control and efficiency, our kids have lost in executive function and social skills. No longer do they ask a friend to play, and then plan the time they have together to create an adventure. And way, way too often they end up sitting side by side playing on their iPads and Playstations, or watching tv. Where is the real interaction?

I realize this is the technology age. Our kids relate to one another via XBOX Live – they play with other real people but they are not together, not in the same room. So are they really playing together? No, not really. Facetime and Skype are also great for allowing face-to-face interaction across great distances, but is all this technology stagnating our kids’ social skills?

I say yes, and I suggest the following fixes:

1. Encourage your kids to call their friends, on the phone, and invite them over next Wednesday after school. This is teaching our kids how to say ‘hello’ and greet an adult/parent, then ask for a friend. Even kids raised on texting will need to call someone somewhere. Our children will also need to, at some point, interview for a job, for college admissions, for private school placement, or whatever else. The face-to-face interactions will not die, but our children’s ability to handle them will if we don’t give them the chance to practice.

2. When friends are over, turn off all devices. Encourage them to go outside, ride bikes, play a board game, put together a puzzle, create their own game, etc. Screen time is fun, but it’s not appropriate when you have a real, live human with whom you can interact. When’s the last time your Wii laughed out loud?

3. Encourage negotiation during play dates. If the kids can’t decide what game to play, suggest resolve the dispute themselves by taking turns. They can decide on another game altogether, but they cannot parallel play (unless that’s appropriate for the age). Encourage problem solving, turn taking, and compromising. Get involved and model it for your kids within the moment, but don’t hover. That is some of the best in vivo training you can give your child.

Over time, our children’s play has changed. Use the strategies above to help your child build valuable executive functioning and social skills for the present – and the future.