Kids love playdates. Some kids will wallpaper their weekends with them. Of course, playdates are great for kids to build social connections and spend time with peers. But how many playdates have you hosted in which the kids turn to you after about 15 screen-free minutes and tell you they’re bored?
It happens. Too often. Even if you are strict on screens in your household, there’s no way to control the rules (or lack of) in your child’s best friend’s household— or their expectations. It's a sad (but true) fact is that many kids have forgotten how to play without screens.
When they’re brimming with screens, playdates can’t help kids polish their social skills. And they certainly can’t help kids reap the rewards of outdoor playtime.
So how can you ensure your kids have playdates with an emphasis on the word "play"?
Easy! Think like a kid. Think back to what you liked to do as a kid. Whether it was reading, playing outside or playing with dolls, one thing it likely was not was whatever your parents wanted you to do. Remember that very few kids will do what you want them to do, especially on a playdate when kids are anxious to show off their independence.
Every child and situation is different. But there are a few strategies you can try to keep screens out of playdates—and get the kids outside.
Kids want their own space
One afternoon, I heard strange but familiar sounds coming from my back window. I looked outside and saw a small group of children running around through their small urban backyard. They didn't have much more space than an extended overgrown city lot. But they were having a blast. Two things struck me. One, I had never seen kids in that backyard or any nearby backyards. Kids in our town go to sports games, classes or the playground. The backyards are neglected. Two, this strange sound for me as an adult was actually an everyday sound from my own childhood. Kids playing outside our window until dinner time. Each afternoon. Every day. Until the street lights came on.
It occurred to me that perhaps the reason these kids were having so much fun is that the small and unattractive space was all theirs. Nobody claimed it for a patio or a garden. Also, it was undiscovered territory for them. It was the raw material to build a secret kid world, apart from the adult world. And when kids experience that rush of freedom from exploring a secret world outside, they will want to feel that again.
Kids want independence
Another way to inspire your kids to be active on a playdate is to offer them something that they can’t get online— independence. And if your kids are a little older, you can leverage the playdate to help build their independence, plus entice them to spend the time outdoors. As long as it’s OK with the friend’s parents (and the children are an acceptable age), let the playmates head outside together to the store or on their own to the park. Make sure your child is confident about directions. You can sketch out a neighborhood map together and set boundaries including green spaces. Of course, the amount of independence you offer will depend on the age of your child and their friend, your neighborhood and your child’s experience acting independently.
If heading out in the neighborhood isn’t an option for you, let them roam a little more freely on your property. In “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv writes, “Expeditions to the mountains or national parks often pale, in a child’s eyes, in comparison with the mysteries of the ravine at the end of the cul de sac.”
Kids want to be messy
Kids don’t get the chance to get messy anymore. Offer messy mud play as an option to your child and their friend. Get permission ahead of time from your child’s friend’s parents and have them come over in old clothes and boots. Then take the kids out to a mud puddle, a ravine in the backyard or make a mud kitchen. Or you can skip the mud and just head out to splash in puddles. Tell the kids they can get as wet and messy as they want. Let them be wild and free (for a change). Naturally, you’ll want to work out clean up with the other parents ahead of time. You certainly don’t want to surprise the parents by returning a mud-covered child at the end of a playdate. Your child might never have another playdate again!
Kids want to be on a mission
There’s a reason why Spy Kids, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and the kid detective movie genre is popular. Kids want to solve mysteries and set forth on missions. Scavengers hunts are one way to do it. What kid doesn’t LOVE a scavenger hunt. Setting your kids off on a scavenger hunt in nature can really make the outdoors come alive for them. Being on the “hunt” for signs of nature will help develop your child’s nature observation skills and deepen their connection to and comfort level with the outdoors. Our guide makes it super easy for you to set one up for the playdate, complete with a printable.
Or have the kids make one up themselves. Ask the kids to choose a theme. Maybe things that are yellow, or all things insects or all things to decorate a fairy house. Kids can really lose track of time when engaged in a scavenger hunt. The activity is self-directed enough to not feel too restrictive.
Geocaching is another excellent mission-oriented outdoor activity. Geocaching is basically a cool treasure hunt using GPS coordinates that tweens/teens can use an iPhone and a geocaching app to participate in. Caches are hidden all over the world by fellow geocachers. Some are easy to find while others may require a long hike. It’s an excellent activity to give older kids a reason to be outdoors and have fun as they search for hidden "caches" in your neighborhood or out on the trails.
Kids want to live their fantasy
You don’t always have to fight their interest in video game characters. Invite the characters to the playdate too— just in a more active form. Suggest to your child and friend that they create their own imaginary world for their fantasy characters. Maybe they would like to create forts, magic wands or other features of fantasy into their play.
Uncovering the magic of the outdoors will lead them to creative activities like building fairy houses or stick forts. Early education expert David Sobel says that children build fairy houses and forts to create private worlds and explore their own senses of self. Just think about how exciting it was to create your own private world outside, away from adults, when you were a child.
Encouraging your kids and their friends to make their playdates screen-free and outdoors is an investment that will keep paying back. Just be careful. Once you become the "superhost" of screen-free outdoor playdates, you might be asked to host more playdates than you hoped for!