Keep playdates small. Start by inviting only one or two prospective pals to your house, preferably kids your child already knows. These children should be around your child’s age, “if not a little older,” says Walker. “The older child might initiate a little more.”
Keep playdates short. Between one and two hours is plenty for children this young; you don’t want to overstimulate them.
Plan ahead. Orient the playdate around games and activities your child enjoys and is good at. This will make him more comfortable and keep him feeling good about himself. “Maximize the positive interaction by making sure there are plenty of materials, so children have enough to play with and don’t necessarily have to share right off,” Walker says.
Get involved. Don’t just leave the kids to play by themselves and hope for the best. Your guidance can make children feel more at ease with each other, especially if they’re new friends.
Make yourself available in case they run into conflicts, get distracted and stop playing together, or need a change of activity. Oversee art projects, games of hide-and-seek, or splashing in a wading pool. However, try not to dominate or fill in for your child; the idea is to help break the ice without taking control.
“Mom or Dad can help get things going, then hang back once the kids get into a groove,” Sirl says.
Get a schedule, then get going. To develop familiarity, try to arrange regular playdates with the same kids on a weekly basis. If things are going well, meet in a park or playground or at another child’s house. If the playdates go really well and your child runs off independently to play with the others, try leaving him at someone else’s house without you, first for a short time and then for longer periods.
Be a playdate yourself. Have regular playtimes with your child, just the two of you. This allows you to stimulate interaction while getting to know his playing style.
“You can get a sense of where your child struggles and when it is easy for him,” says Alison Ehara-Brown, a licensed clinical social worker who works with children and families in Berkeley, California. For example, if puzzles and games requiring lots of concentration do little more than frustrate your child, you’ll want to leave them off your list of playdateactivities.
Consider getting a pet. Some young children just aren’t ready to play with peers. If your child clings to you and refuses to leave your side, consider adding a furry friend to the family. Playing with pets requires social interaction but is usually nonthreatening. “This can be a nice way for a child to feel safe and open up his feelings,” Sirl says.
See how others do it. Watching videos or reading books about friends with your child is another low-key way to reinforce the positives of socializing.
Have your own friends over. Since young children pay close attention to what grown-ups do and often imitate their behavior, model for your child by having your friends over, especially in ways that include the younger generation. Have a double playdate with a friend who has children.
Try not to expect too much. By the time your preschooler reaches the age of 3, his interactions with other children will be more involved. But younger preschool-age children play mostly side by side, imitating each other rather than playing together directly.
If your child feels pressure to do more than this, the best intentions can backfire. He is probably already feeling insecure around other kids, and pressure from Mom or Dad can fuel his insecurity. Your child may fear disappointing you, or the issue can become a power struggle.
“Parents should never push very young children to play together; they have to be able to choose some things for themselves,” Walker says. “There’s a fine line there. You don’t want to really push friendship, but you can certainly set the stage for it.”
Get help if you sense a real problem. In most cases, shyness or difficulty making friends in early childhood is normal. But a few red flags could indicate that something else is going on. If at age 3 your child rarely holds eye contact, is unusually withdrawn, doesn’t want to play with other children, or seems terrified of going to preschool or the playground, talk to your child’s doctor.
by Kate Rauch