Do Kids Actually Need Playdates? Here’s What Psychologists Say About Social Interaction for Kids

When my oldest daughter was in preschool, I beat myself up for not putting more social energy into weekly playdates planned by more extroverted parents. My daughter sees these kids every day at school, I thought. Why would they need extra time to play?

The truth is that I feel awkward at playdates. I worry about everything from my inability to make small talk to how well my children are behaving. All that anxiety sucks the fun off the playground, and I leave feeling totally embarrassed and drained.

I started using any excuse to pass on an invitation: one of us has the sniffles, we have another obligation later that day, I need to catch up on the laundry, my tire pressure is low. But then I started to wonder if I was doing my daughter a disservice. Were playdates vital to her development?

The simple answer? Play is absolutely vital. Playdates… not necessarily.

“Playdates are not absolutely necessary if a child is getting daily exposure to children in preschool, school, and park playgrounds,” says Emily W. King, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Raleigh, North Carolina who specializes in working with children of all ages. Kids may also get good doses of play time with peers in organized activities, community events, and free play with siblings, cousins, and neighborhood children. “In other words, what is necessary is regular social exposure to same-age peers, so they can work on play skills at a similar social developmental level.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), playing with kids their own age — or adults! — helps children learn social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills. Children with social skills, the 2018 AAP report says, are better able to “listen to directions, pay attention, solve disputes with words, and focus on tasks without constant supervision.”

But this doesn’t have to happen right away. When kids are really little, just who are those playdates for, anyway? “While I do think it’s important for motor and social development for babies to spend time with other babies, playdates during the infancy stage is really for the moms and dads,” Dr. King says.

Since becoming a parent is such a monumental change in our lives, being around other people in the same state of transition can relieve the inevitable self-doubt and fear. Baby meet-ups are primarily for grown-ups to connect and learn from one another, King says. But if those interactions cause me more anxiety than it saves, my time would be better served finding other ways to ease the shift in identity that comes with motherhood.

As little ones get older, though, they need that same kind of connection with kids their own age, going through the same confusing and exciting stages of development. “Toddlers and preschoolers need as much social exposure as they can get,” Dr. King says. Pediatricians recommend parents encouraging 1- to 3-year-olds to interact with peers, and parents should schedule social activities for children ages 3 to 6. “Both children and parents benefit from socialization at this point,” Dr. King adds. “However, preschoolers who are in preschool full time can likely get enough exposure to other kids at school.” So it’s not the worst thing if I avoid them.

The author’s daughter during some unstructured playground time.

Still, I get it, my mild discomfort in social situations is hardly justification for denying the kids these opportunities to develop useful skills, learn how to be human, and, oh yeah, have fun. But it’s not an uncommon debate among adults. “I avoided playdates with new people because I didn’t want to have to go along,” says Alexandra B., a mom in California. “I always felt bad, however, because I thought I was depriving my girls of a chance to find new friends. I can handle schoolyard chatting, but talking with people I don’t know — for two hours straight — is intense and stressful. When my kids finally got to the age where they could just go and I didn’t have to tag along, it was so much easier.”

In some cases, it may be the child who is not so eager for a playdate, and that’s ok, too. “There is really no reason, or benefit, to push your child to participate in a playdate,” Dr. King says. “If your child is introverted or prefers time alone after a busy school day, they are likely accessing this quiet time for a reason … to recover.”

When they get to the age where they’re likely to benefit from playing with other kids, there are ways to expose kids to socially nourishing interactions without inciting your own anxiety meltdown. Rather than go to a playground, where you’ll be forced to converse with the other parent the whole time, Dr. King suggests activities that are more structured, like an event at a children’s museum or a round of bowling. “Whenever there’s a plan to follow, parents can focus on more doing and less on keeping up adult conversation,” she says.

I like to tell myself that everyone thinks they are the most awkward person in the room.

That’s exactly what I experienced at my daughter’s recent birthday party. An extroverted party organizer got all the kids and parents involved so that we were focused on fun tasks rather than long pauses between forced small talk.

Since then, I’ve made a personal commitment to both say “yes” to more invitations, and to be gentler with myself when I feel overwhelmed socially. I cope with social overload by giving myself some quiet time when it’s over, and I also like to tell myself that everyone thinks they are the most awkward person in the room. My husband and I have even made a game out of it: after a social event, we report back to each other with “the goofiest thing I did or said today.” Isn’t having fun the whole point?

Footnote for parents of my kids’ friends: Please still invite us to do things. And please continue to overlook how awkward I am.