Having Fun while Doing Good: Hosting a Playdate with Purpose
There’s an expression my husband and I have used over the years when discussing playdates – subtraction by addition. As soon as one of our three kids was hosting a friend or two in our home after school or on the weekend, they were happy and engaged, playing a game, making slime or – as they have gotten older – just “hanging out”. My oldest child, now 18, was even a bit of a playdate tyrant when she was a toddler. I would arrive at nursery school to collect her, anxiously anticipating hugs and sticky kisses, and before I could ask about the details of her day, she would urgently ask, “Do I have a playdate?” It wasn’t a pleasant scene if I had forgotten to arrange one.
These coordinated social interactions are important for young kids, as their personalities are developing and they embark on a life-long process of learning how to share, resolve conflict and get along with others. I'd also suggest that playdates are a perfect opportunity to incorporate simple acts of kindness and service into a fun, relaxed and routine activity.
As a passionate advocate for family volunteerism and a frequent writer and speaker on the subject, I am constantly challenged by the issue of time. Yes – we can all agree that cultivating empathy, compassion and gratitude in our kids is important and should be prioritized, but how can we find the time to make it happen? Parents are busy working, juggling responsibilities and shuttling kids around to myriad activities. Volunteering seems like just another item to check off on a lengthy and exhausting to-do list. My suggestion is to take a step back and consider the things you are already doing. As Arthur Ashe said – start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. And if you have a young child at home, where you ARE is likely to be in the middle of a playdate.
There are many creative options for parents and caregivers, depending on the age and attention span of children, the season, and the amount of time you want to spend on this endeavor while still giving children free time to play. Using the following tips to incorporate service into playdates and other family routines and planned activities (like birthday parties, milestone celebrations, family vacations and holiday traditions) will create a habit of kindness and allow kids to flex their empathy muscles as they grow.
- Start with a story
- Keep it simple, creative and fun
- Make it meaningful
Start with a story:
If you are hosting a playdate with purpose, it’s important to set a positive tone and engage young children right away. One of the best ways to do this is by reading a picture book together. Books like “Those Shoes” by Marybeth Boelts, “Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch” by Eileen Spinelli and “Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed” by Emily Pearson are some of my favorites, but there are many wonderful books about generosity and making a difference, as well as others that deal with social justice themes (like hunger and poverty) in a gentle way for young kids. There are many resources online that provide topical lists to help you identify stories that will make your efforts more accessible for young children, and spark important conversations and reflection.
- The Doing Good TogetherTM website (www.doinggoodtogether.org) features a “Reading with Empathy” page which offers 18 Big-Hearted Book Lists.
- Read Brightly (www.readbrightly.com) is an online resource featuring book recommendations, reading tips and seasonal inspirations to help parents and educators grow life-long readers
- The Best Children’s Books (www.the-best-childrens-books.org) is a website created by teachers that offers lists of the books by subject.
“Kitchen Table Kindness” Activities:
You don’t need a ton of time or resources to engage kids in fun, creative kindness activities that spread joy and open conversations about issues being faced by people in your community. A stack of construction paper and crayons, a box of brownie mix, some arts and crafts supplies can keep little hands engaged while imparting important lessons about working together to show care, concern and love for others.
- Create cards for hospitalized children, isolated seniors or active duty military
- Bake treats and deliver them to firefighters, EMT workers or police officers in your community
- Create a simple bird feeder for our feathered friends
- Make a no-sew fleece blanket for babies in the NICU
- Braid friendship bracelets for new children in class
- Decorate lunch bags or placemats for a local soup kitchen
Make it Meaningful and Keep it Going
At the end of the playdate, or during a follow-up, plan a neighborhood outing to deliver all of the great things you’ve created. It is very meaningful for children to connect with the people that will receive the donations they’ve made, and to feel the gratitude and satisfaction that come from spreading joy to others. It’s important for adults to do a little research in advance to ensure that any community-based visit – to the local firehouse, police station or senior center - will go smoothly. When the weather cooperates, you can also plan a picnic in the park that begins with a quick clean-up (be sure to bring garbage bags and gloves for everyone), while talking to kids about the fact that it is everyone’s responsibility to help keep our public green spaces clean.
Talking to kids, and providing the space for open-ended questions and reflection, is key. You don’t need to make a big deal out of these many simple acts of kindness. The hope is that by keeping an open mind and heart, being aware of the needs of others, and walking through our days with intention and kindness, we are living our values and modeling this behavior for our kids. Each act of compassion and generosity is like a drop in the bucket of their developing character and someday, when they are grown and making a difference in the world, that bucket will be overflowing with good.
Natalie Silverstein, MPH, is the author of Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back (Gryphon House, April 2019) and the New York Coordinator of Doing Good Together, a national nonprofit with the mission of helping parents raise kids who care and contribute. www.simpleactsguide.com