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