Socialising-lite is the new time-effective way for busy people to fit in friends – it’s no wonder, then, modern mums are embracing it when it comes to playdates, too
A few weeks ago, a mother from my daughter’s nursery invited us round for a playdate. I was apprehensive – my experience of them so far hasn’t been terrific. I seem to spend my time breaking up fights and often end up cooking lunch for two fractious toddlers. But I know the importance of helping Kitty, who is two and a half, develop her social skills, so I accepted the invitation. ‘Could you be here at 3pm?’ said Rosie’s mother. ‘And I really find that, at the moment, Rosie can’t deal with playdates for more than about an hour.’
Welcome to flashdating – the answer to playdating woes for the under-fours, and all part of a growing trend for short, sweet play sessions that keep everyone happy. Because, rather than feeling mildly offended at the idea of being told when I should leave, I was relieved. I’ve often felt that ‘how long to stay’ pressure when we’ve been invited over to a new friend’s house but, this way, it had been totally eliminated. We arrived to find Rosie’s mother had set out some paper and crayons, Play-Doh and a huge box full of building blocks. Jolly nursery tunes played in the background and, halfway through, both girls sat at a little table and had a snack of crackers, grapes and water. The hour flew by. It was going so well that I was worried that it would be impossible to get Kitty to leave. But Rosie’s mum gently encouraged her out of the door by giving her a sheet of stickers to play with on the way home. Boom!
Welcome to flashdating – the answer to playdating woes for the under-fours, and all part of a growing trend for short, sweet play sessions that keep everyone happy.
We know we need to socialise our toddlers, but there’s no denying it can be hard work sometimes. They can be curious, unreasonable and downright diva-ish. Yep, until around the age of three, children believe that they are the centre of the universe (string it out as long as you can, I say). But, of course, it’s accepted that you stay with your under-four at a playdate, so it can take a huge chunk out of your day. In fact, 87% of mums say playdates take over their life. And, if it doesn’t go as planned, it can seem like more stress than it’s worth.
However, when they go well, they benefit everyone – your tot has vital social time with other kids, and you get to use your precious hours wisely. With increasing demands on our lives, modern mums are used to getting the most out of everything we do – whether that’s at work, at home or in our social life.
And being more efficient with playdates means we can possibly even carve some time in the day for ourselves, as well as our kids.
iT CAN WORK FOR EVERYONE
But, while flashdating is partly about saving your sanity, helping your child get the very best out of her playtime is important, too. ‘I’ve always felt I should do more playdates with my son,’ says Anthea, from London, who’s mum to Alec, three. ‘He’s an only child and I’d like him to have more interaction with other kids. But they’ve never gone very well – he’s either pushed around or won’t share his toys – and I’ve sort of given up. Playing in short bursts, then moving on works for us.’
It can be a win/win. Because, while a longer session can be easy and fun if your kids can cope (and you get to relax with a cup of tea), some children are happier when playing for short periods of time – as long as you’re doing something that will suit their evolving personality. ‘Social activities for mothers and toddlers are important for general emotional wellbeing,’ says clinical psychologist Dr Anna Symonds. ‘But you have to be realistic about what your child is like. If they can only cope for an hour, do that. If they’re very bad at sharing toys, have a date in the park. You also have to be honest with the other mum when it comes to time and say something like, “My child isn’t great at playing for more than 45 minutes – is that OK for you?’”
While flashdating is partly about saving your sanity, helping your child get the very best out of her playtime is important, too
Of course, it’s normal for little ones to be reluctant to share, so don’t stress out when your child simply won’t part with his favourite fire truck – just do some date damage limitation beforehand where you can. ‘Kids all have a problem with it at some point, so don’t lose heart if it seems like your child is being unreasonable,’ says Anna. ‘It’s necessary for toddlers to learn social skills, but it’s also a good idea to put all favourite toys out of sight if they’re not keen to let anyone play with them right now. Otherwise, you’re asking for trouble.’ Also, pick neutral activities and make sure there’s enough things like crayons and paper to go round.
KEEP IT FOCUSED
Hannah, mum to three boys under seven, is a flashdate devotee. ‘In the early days, when I was getting used to the scene,
I wouldn’t say anything if people stayed for hours at our house. But now, unless I know the mum and kids well, I keep them to an hour, usually by casually saying in advance that we’ve got to be somewhere. If things are going great, you can extend the time. But, initially, it’s good to wrap it up while it’s all still going well and no one is crying (yet).’
If you are going to limit your time, you can’t always sit back with a muffin and leave the kids to it. We’re not saying you need to be a helicopter parent here, but flashdating usually requires a degree of planning when it comes to play.
‘For the under-fours, keeping things moving is key,’ says Amanda Froelich, who runs Amanda’s Action Club, which organises parties and classes for toddlers upwards. ‘This age group needs guidance, so lay out some toys for them to play with in advance. You can also lead the fun with music and dancing or other activities. Try hide-and-seek, running games or sensory things, like simple cooking or biscuit decorating.’
ENJOY YOUR TIME
Finally, it’s also perfectly OK to be choosy about who you have for a playdate – and this applies to the other mother as much as the child. Even if you are not going to be spending hours on end with your guest, it’s important that everyone feels happy and relaxed.
Rebecca, from London, who’s mum to Oscar, two, does just this. ‘My son is very shy,’ she says. ‘There are only one or two other mums and kids who we know well – and who I really like – that we have playdates with. I try not to worry about it. I’ve tried meeting up with new people, but I see how hard it is for my son and it feels like it’s doing more harm than good. I’m sure we’ll both make more friends soon.’
The one thing you can’t always expect from a flashdate is lots of chatting for you, unless you develop the art of speed-gossip
While your children are young, the one thing you can’t always expect from a flashdate is lots of chatting for you, unless you develop the art of speed-gossip – talking in double time to get in the end of your sentence just before your little one’s cup of juice tips over. ‘Until they’re three and a half or over, your kids need you at all times, especially if they’re in a strange place,’ says Anna. ‘If you accept that the playdate is for your child, and that your conversation is going to be a bit broken up, it’ll be easier to relax when you are being constantly interrupted.’ OK, it’s not ideal when you need to hear the latest nursery-run gossip, but there’s always the pub when bedtime’s done…