I’ll admit it: while I was reading the comments to Davin Heckman’s essay “The Poetics of Family Life,” I found myself sharing some of the chagrin with which commenter Martin regarded the term “playdate.” My anarchical side chafes at the idea that children’s play should be coordinated, calendared, and chauffeured by adults. And I think Martin is right that children do need some space from the (over?) watchful eyes of parents—it is exhausting to be under constant observation and critique. But, sadly, as a playdate-scheduler myself, I fear that playdates are merely a symptom of the larger problem: our over-scheduled, over-technologized society.

In a perfect world, our children would romp out the door after completing their chores and their schoolwork (we homeschool) and knock politely at their best friend’s door, who lived just around the corner in our quiet, speeding-car-free neighborhood, and spend a couple of hours engaged in free creative play, or a massive self-directed building project, or an epic game of Scrabble. How I sometimes wish we lived in that world!

The reality is, it is a fifteen-minute drive to many of my children’s friends’ houses, most of which are not even in the same direction. Our neighborhood is relatively quiet, but not so much that I’m comfortable sending my younger kids out of sight alone. The other children in the neighborhood go to school and have after-school activities, so that much of the time they aren’t available to play. And there are a couple of kids who, after our observation of how they play, my kids aren’t allowed to play with anymore.

Enter the playdate.

In a world where we can’t count on friends stopping by unannounced for coffee or running into acquaintances at our daily trip to the market, and where most of the neighborhood kids are scheduled into scarcity, playdates are one solution, if only a band-aid-sized one, to the epidemic of loneliness which is ravaging families.

The problem, in short, is not the playdate itself; the problem is the society we have created and in which we are raising our children. The community which they crave, and which is best for their development, isn’t floating around their house waiting for them to join it.

For our mostly unscheduled children, a playdate is simply the way Mom makes sure everyone gets out of the house and sees other people once in a while. Counterintuitively, however, a scheduled playdate may actually be a blessing to an overscheduled child as well. So much of the average child’s life is tightly scheduled and planned by adults: after eight hours of school, it’s often on to sports or other activities coordinated and run by adults. Homework, planned by adults and often requiring the attention of a parent, rounds out the evening. If the child were already living a less scheduled life, a playdate might be considered an imposition. As it is, a playdate, unstructured other than in the planning of a time and place, may actually be the closest thing to freedom that some children experience.

While freedom and spontaneity are worthy goods, I’d also like to make an argument for intentionality. A few years out of college, my husband and I asked a wise priest friend of ours (a Dominican who has been assigned in a dozen or so places since he was ordained) how he kept friendships he valued over decades and long distances. His answer could be summed up as “intentionality.” When we care about people, we make an effort to spend time with them. I think this is a valuable lesson for children, and I see it bearing fruit in my older children already. They are willing to make the effort (making phone calls, begging rides) to coordinate “playdates” of their own to see friends they care about. This intentionality in relationships has served my husband and I well in our lives, and I suspect the same will be true for my children.

Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all playdates are good. They can surely be used by adults to curate relationships for reasons besides the good of the children involved. I’m sure there are circles in which the term “playdate” involves elaborate decorations and a mere continuation of adult-planned activities. It is my hope that these are the exception. In my circles, playdate planning usually looks more like a group text to the effect of, “Going to the park tomorrow at 9. Bringing snacks. Anyone want to join?”

While we continue the slow process of convincing like-minded families to buy houses in our neighborhood so that our children’s relationships can be more spontaneous, we are using playdates to bridge the gap. I wouldn’t argue that scheduled, parent-coordinated playtime is the ideal, but there is no doubt that it is better than many of the current alternatives. And I would hesitate to belittle the parents who take the time to plan and facilitate real human interaction for their children. Even a mediocre playdate is preferable to leaving the children at home with their iPads.

Image credit: “Playing on the Beach” by Akkeringa via Wikimedia Commons

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Love this. Taking the world as it actually is rather than as it perhaps should be, it is sometimes necessary to schedule time for your children to interact with their friends. Such scheduled playtime is still vastly preferable to some of the things they might otherwise be doing, as you note.

  2. We live in a great neighborhood and love neighborhood friends. But we still do playdates. It is how they see their honorary cousins and real cousins and church friends. It is how my nerdy kid gets to talk to other nerdy kids about nerdy kid things. At this point, we are fighting for in-person, real life relationships when so many kids talk to other kids mainly at school, sports, and through video games. If I’m not letting my 9, 11, and 11 year olds get a phone or rely on virtual relationships, I have to invest in real relationships. Neighborhood friends are great but not necessarily enough.

    • That’s a great point about the phones, Jen. We’re in no hurry to get phones for our kids either, and this one area of not following the culture has had a huge impact on how we go about our lives–our kids aren’t immediately and technologically connected to friends in the way their peers are, and I consistently glad we’ve made that choice. Seeing day after day how much of young people’s time goes towards interactions mediated by screens has helped us remember the importance of helping our kids keep in-person relationships alive.

      And I think you’re right–neighborhood friends alone are usually not enough. Here’s to nerdy kids finding their people!

  3. Wow, Christina. I’m flattered that my mere comment on an article merited mention in your very first paragraph. Sure, playdates are better than nothing. Junk food is better than starving, right?

    I think there are some important aspects that this debate should cover:
    1. Who is making the play date? If it’s the child, that sounds like a reasonable compromise in light of the current trend to overschedule one’s life with “I can’t possibly omit this” activities. If it’s the parent who thinks “it would be cool if my kids like your kids (and really convenient for our own getting together)”, then I’d have to stand by my view that raising children has become a kind of project for the parent, with rather obvious loss of child-centered activity.
    2. Intentionality. I wonder if that Dominican priest was referring to relationships that started with spontaneous or random meetings, perhaps more often than “social introductions”. That’s how I see intentionality as someone living 12 time zones away from most relatives and friends whom I still keep in touch with after 50 years. That strategy doesn’t make as much sense for a young child initiating relationships.
    3. Helicoptering. I agree with your compromise about playdates “unstructured other than in the planning of a time and place”. But you wrote in the essay that you banned some kids from playing with yours, so isn’t that a kind of structure?

    Thanks again for writing. I’m glad to see a discussion here that crosses generations of parenting.

  4. Martin,

    Thank for your thoughtful comments. I’ll try to address each of your points.

    1. I think we can have a both/and here. Some of our kids’ friends they met at activities, other friends’ houses, etc., and the relationship and any playdates for them are certainly about the kids rather than the adults. On the other hand, some of our kids’ best friends the met because we were friends with their parents, and they do get to hang out a little more because our whole family is motivated to make those encounters happen. This doesn’t bother me–in fact I think it’s pretty ideal in that those visits are times we get to be social *as a family* in a way that is not always easy to do when children’s sports and activities, church groups, and many social functions are age-segregated.

    2. I think intentionality certainly includes keeping up with people you have met randomly but with whom want to continue a relationship, but my priest friend was speaking very specifically (because this was my question to him) about people who we had entered into deeper friendships with but whom we no longer lived near. You have experience with this clearly–checking in with these friends and family requires effort and forethought. I have found that it does apply within one’s home community as well, however. Not for initiating new relationships with someone met on the playground, perhaps, but it’s still possible to “drop the ball” and let an established friendship slip away, even though you only live a few miles from each other. This is where I see the intentionality becoming relevant in our children’s lives.

    3. And finally, Yes! I think all parents walk a line between too much and too little control over their children’s lives. I want my kids to have a good deal of self-determination with who they play with and how they play, but there are limits. I try to exercise prudence, and sometimes that means freedom takes a back seat to keeping my kids reasonably safe.

    Thanks again for taking the time to respond, I hope this clarifies things a little!

Comments are closed.