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Written by:  Kelli L. Robinson
Date: October 1, 2010

Are play dates fun opportunities for kids to form friendships or exhausting experiences for parents? The answer depends on whom you talk to. Play dates are major components of today’s parenting experience that are unique to the kids involved, their level of friendship, and the relationship between the parents.

But the crux of play date success comes down to common sense and etiquette, says Aimee Symington, owner of Successful Kids Inc. and creator of the popular board game, Blunders, which teaches manners and social skills in a fun and playful way. Symington, a Davidson, N.C., resident, has taught child etiquette classes for seven years.

Emphasize good manners

Symington’s philosophy is simple and powerful: Nice manners equal success. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 2 years old or the CEO of a company, treating others with respect will help you be successful throughout life,” says Symington, who stresses that etiquette goes beyond good table manners.

“Greeting people and remembering to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are examples of social skills that successful people possess,” she says. “Kids aren’t born knowing them, so parents need to teach good manners, and play dates aren’t exceptions to the rule.” (See the sidebar below for the top five etiquette rules for young children.)

Eli Johnson, founder of The Refinement Studio in Raleigh, agrees. “Etiquette teaches social awareness, which develops responsibility, organization and efficiency,” Johnson says. The Refinement Studio offers workshops and programs that teach etiquette and social manners to adults and children.

Johnson says good manners come from practice, repetition and positive reinforcement. “Praise goes a long way when teaching new manners, so remember to praise your child when positive behavior is used, especially without your reminder.”

Share your expectations

Parents should remind their child to behave at a friend’s house, but kids don’t always listen, and new environments can lead to misbehavior. Hosting parents can talk to the guest about undesirable behavior and end the play date if the behavior continues.

“Parents should treat visiting children as they would their own, teaching them behavior that’s permitted and expected in their house,” Johnson says. And while it may be uncomfortable doing so, tell a child’s parents about misbehavior.

“Parents want to know if their child misbehaves so they can have teachable moments,” Symington says. “It’s important to deliver such news in a gentle way so the parents don’t feel defensive.”

Play dates are a great way for kids to develop friendships and social skills. Preschool friendships may not last a lifetime, but social skills definitely do. When parents begin to teach social skills at an earlier age, children have more opportunities to learn and master such skills as they grow older.

“Social skills take time to learn,” Johnson says. “They’re manageable by etiquette’s No. 1 rule: Practice, practice, practice.”

Kelli Robinson is the mother of two and a freelance writer from Mooresville, N.C.



Top 5 social skills for ages 2 to 5

Toddler and preschool play dates can be the most trying for hosts and kids alike. Young children are still learning simple social concepts that parents must consistently reiterate and repeat.

The essentials? Say “hello,” “please” and “thank you”; play well with others; and clean up any toys or messes. Below are the most necessary and commonly used skills for young children to learn:

1 Introductions – When arriving for a play date, kids should greet hosting parents with a smile, a “hello” and perhaps a handshake. If your child is shy, Symington suggests baby steps in the greeting process.

“It’s understandable that shy kids may not be comfortable shaking hands with parents, so start with a ‘hello’ and save the handshake for another play date,” she says.

What’s important is to avoid using shyness as an excuse to not engage in social greetings. Johnson reminds parents that exemplifying a desired behavior will help shy children learn what’s expected of them.

“Shy children may not speak to others,” Johnson offers, “but when children continually see parents practicing introductions, it becomes less scary.”

2 Sharing – Ask any preschool teachers or parents of siblings, and they will say that one of the hardest skills kids have to master is sharing. It’s appropriate that guests be allowed to take the lead during the play date. If you’re the hosting parent, encourage your child to let his or her guest choose an activity first, as well as have the first juice box or first cookie.

“Children really do have an innate sense of fairness,” Symington says. “If parents take the time to teach sharing, [children] will learn.”

3 Cleaning up – It’s the least favorite part of the play date but also the most important. If kids are old enough to have play dates, they’re old enough to clean up the toys. Kids are notorious for promising to clean everything up at the end of the day. Don’t believe them! Encourage your child and her guest to clean up one activity before moving on to the next. Conversely, remind your child of the expectation to do the same thing when she is invited to a play date.

4 “Please” and “thank you” – “Please” and “thank you” are two words that change the entire sentiment of a sentence. They show gratitude and understanding.

“Children should always say ‘please’ when asking an adult for something, and should always say ‘thank you’ when their request is granted,” Symington says.

Johnson adds, “Children tend to learn early on that the word ‘please’ opens doors for them. Saying ‘thank you’ is taught alongside ‘please’ because it’s relevant in the same give-and-take action.”

5 Practice – Like any skill, social skills require practice. Provide your child with opportunities to be in settings with other children to build these qualities.


Read Books to Prepare for Play Dates

Children’s books are great resources to help kids learn manners. Read them prior to play dates as a strategy for reinforcing positive behavior. Amanita Thomas of the Raleigh House of Etiquette offers the following recommendations:

365 Manners Kids Should Know: Games, Activities, and Other Fun Ways to Help Children Learn Etiquette, by Sheryl Eberly (Crown Publishing)

Emily Post’s Table Manners for Kids, by Cindy Senning, Peggy Post and Steve Bjorkman (Harper Collins Publishing)

Hands Are Not For Hitting, by Martine Agassi (Free Spirit Publishing Inc.)

How Full Is Your Bucket? For Kids, by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer (Gallup Press)

A Smart Girl’s Guide to Manners, by Nancy Holyoke, Michelle Watkins and Cathi Mingus (American Girl Publishing)

Words Are Not for Hurting, by Elizabeth Verdick (Free Spirit Publishing Inc.)



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