Playdates are ruining all the fun

By Anna North

It’s become a time-honored tradition in certain segments of American society: two families cross-reference their respective calendars to find a spot free of school or soccer or other obligations. On the appointed day, one child travels to the other’s house, typically accompanied by a parent. The children build a Lego village or glue googly eyes on felt or participate in some other ostensibly wholesome activity. Snacks are consumed. The parents, meanwhile, hang out and complain lightly about their children or spouses, stopping periodically to intervene in tantrums or boredom or failures of sharing.

This is — or was — the playdate. Prior to 2020, it had become the primary mode of non-school social life for a lot of American kids, replacing the more unstructured play that many millennials and Gen X-ers remember from their childhoods. As Charis Granger-Mbugua, a Georgia mother of two, put it, “that’s how children play now.”

The pandemic, of course, put a stop to playdates for a lot of families. Granger-Mbugua’s two children, now 7 and almost 5, barely saw anyone outside the family from March 2020 until this spring. “They were super isolated for that entire school year,” Granger-Mbugua said.

With orders to stay at home and nearby parks closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, a lone child attempts to fly a kite in her Arlington, Virginia, backyard in April 2020.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Now that adults and teenagers can be vaccinated, and shots for younger kids are on the horizon, families are starting to have playdates again. “We’re already seeing birthday parties, we’re already seeing weddings and funerals,” Tamara Mose, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and the author of The Playdate: Parents, Children, and the New Expectations of Play, told Vox. As more kids get vaccinated, “people will feel more comfortable, and so the playdates will continue.”

The return of the playdate, though, may not be an unalloyed good. Some fear that parent-organized socializing deprives kids of the chance to explore and build self-sufficiency. “It’s a lost childhood,” Stacey Gill, a mom of two who has written about playdates, told Vox.

The rise of the scheduled, structured “date” for children in the decades preceding the pandemic also increased the burden on parents, especially moms, who were expected to spend their weekends curating social experiences for their kids.

Then there were the social implications. For middle- and upper-middle-class families, playdates could be exclusionary — a way for parents to shore up connections with others they saw as “like them” in terms of class, race, politics, and a host of other factors. “You’re basically selecting the friends of your children based on the networks you’re creating as adults,” Mose said.

Now that children’s play, like so many other sectors of society, has been disrupted by Covid-19, some say there’s a chance to rethink what it should look like. We might not go back to the days when kids “went outside and didn’t come in till the streetlights came on,” as Granger-Mbugua remembers from her childhood. But there’s an opportunity to make play more equitable, less labor-intensive for parents, and maybe even more fun. As Gill put it, “kids need a little more freedom to just be kids.”

The playdate as we know it was invented in the ’90s

The playdate is a fairly new phenomenon. Growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Gill remembers spending Saturday mornings playing in the basement and watching cartoons with her sister. At a certain point, their mom would send them outside to play — and lock the door. If they got together with other kids, it wasn’t anything organized: “You just hung out,” Gill said.

Children play on the shore at New York City’s Jacob A. Riis Park in 1974.
National Archives via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Beginning in the ’90s, however, middle- and upper-middle-class parents, especially in cities, began pulling their kids back from unstructured play in public spaces out of concerns about crime. Highly publicized kidnapping and child murder cases such as that of Polly Klaas in 1993, along with the rise of crime shows like America’s Most Wanted, helped contribute to a climate of fear among more affluent American parents. Over time, more play took place inside families’ homes and other private spaces. “It felt safer for parents to have something that was organized and looked after,” Mose said.

By the 2000s, the word “playdate” — meaning organized play for children, typically directed by parents — was in common parlance. For parents, such a date wasn’t just a time for kids to get together: “It was a presentation of self,” Mose said. “You wanted to present yourself in a particular manner so that parents would know that you were a ‘good parent.’”

That meant providing the right kind of food — “people really snubbed their nose at fast food or junk food,” Mose said. It also meant offering not just supervision but, ideally, a fun yet wholesome activity to keep kids entertained. Far from locking them out to play in the street, Gill joked, “You have to have, like, a craft fair at your house.”

All this was also, of course, a performance of a certain class status. It’s no accident that the concept of playdates started with upper-middle-class families and trickled down to the middle class, remaining less common among working-class people. The requirements of a playdate, from healthy food (ideally organic) to art supplies to a private indoor space big enough for multiple kids, could get expensive quickly.

That performance of affluent, “good” parenting wasn’t for kids — it was for other parents, who often joined their kids on playdates, especially at younger ages. “Kids might be in one room playing together but the parents are socializing in another room,” Mose said.

When planning play for their kids, parents would select people they wanted to get to know better, often because they shared common traits from neighborhoods to values. “People tend to find people like themselves,” Mose said. “That’s who they feel comfortable with.”

That tendency, coupled with the expense of playdates, led to a stratification along race and class lines. While kids organically coming together at a playground might form friendships across such divisions (at least within the limits of America’s segregated neighborhoods), playdate culture instead reinforced socioeconomic rifts as wealthier parents encouraged their kids to socialize within a carefully curated social bubble.

For those able to afford them, though, playdates essentially became a form of networking — the kid-friendly version of having the boss over to dinner. “In an office, you tend to network with certain types of people and exclude other types of people, and it’s a similar type of interaction when we have a playdate,” Mose said. “We tend to create an environment that’s sanitized in order to facilitate certain social networks.”

The creation of such an environment may not have been conscious — few parents would say they set out to segregate their children’s social worlds. But it led to the concentration of a number of advantages — from the small, like organic snacks, to the large, like a group of well-connected and affluent parent-friends — among those who could afford the entry fee to the playdate in-crowd. It may not be the most glaring example, but playdate culture belongs in any conversation about “nice white parents” and privilege-hoarding.

It was also just a huge amount of work for parents. Most of that work fell to moms, who historically have shouldered not just the majority of child care responsibilities but also the mental load of juggling kids’ schedules. The demands of playdates are probably part of the reason that parents today spend significantly more time on child care every week than they did in the 1960s, even though many more moms are also working outside the home.

The demands of kids’ social calendars meant parents could “no longer have a life,” Gill said. “I understand when the kids are young, they need constant attention and supervision. But it just extended indefinitely, to forever.”

Moms and their children meet for a playdate at San Francisco’s Salesforce Park in July 2019.
Josie Norris/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Yet throughout the 2000s and 2010s, parents kept shuttling their kids to playdates. Even if you weren’t consciously trying to “network,” the custom could be hard to break out of. After all, letting children play unsupervised is now deeply stigmatized — and for low-income people and people of color, who already face discrimination as parents in America, it can even lead to arrest. For middle- and upper-middle-class kids, meanwhile, opportunities to just “hang out” have fallen victim to the rise of extracurricular activities like organized sports.

In her neighborhood outside New York City, “there’s a million kids you could play with,” Gill said. “Only now you can’t play with them because they’re all scheduled.”

The pandemic put a stop to playdates — for a while

That is, they were scheduled. Then, in March 2020, millions of Americans began sheltering in place to help limit the spread of Covid-19. “For many people, playdates simply ceased,” Mose said. “We were all afraid of people spreading germs, and as we know, children are very germy.”

Not everyone took Covid-19 protocols seriously, and there has been widespread disagreement over how to weigh the risks of the virus among children, who are less likely than adults to become severely ill. Still, for many American children, the first year or so of the pandemic was a very isolated time. Granger-Mbugua’s son and daughter, for example, didn’t have playdates, and other social outlets like in-person school, church, and storytime at the local library were on hold as well. “We didn’t have a lot of interaction with friends,” Granger-Mbugua said. Her kids “have some family, but that’s about it.”

As the pandemic wore on, however, families started experimenting with socializing again. Some formed “pods” with one or two other families so that kids could play while still limiting exposure. Others allowed their kids to see friends, but only outdoors. “Playdates changed in terms of location,” Mose said.

Now, as American society inches toward reopening, playdates are fraught terrain for a lot of parents. It’s not just the risk of Covid-19, it’s also the etiquette — do kids wear masks in the house? Do adults? What about snack time? What if your approach to Covid-19 safety doesn’t align with that of your hosts (or guests)? Arguments among adults over Covid-19 protocols — and the politicization of those protocols — have caused a lot of anxiety among kids, Eugene Beresin, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Vox. “It’s put a great deal of tension into certain situations.”

Tension or not, playdates are returning. “I think most people have already gone back” at least in some capacity, Mose said. And vaccines for children aged 5-11, which could arrive as soon as November, are likely to accelerate the process. “There will be a lot more freedom once everybody’s vaccinated,” Mose said. “Or a sense of freedom, anyway.”

The time may be ripe to rethink play

Many parents are looking forward to that day with bated breath. But rather than going back to playdates-as-usual, this time, when many families are rebuilding their social lives from scratch, could be an opportunity to reimagine what play should look like.

Part of that is rethinking who’s in charge of a child’s social life. “I think if we allowed it to be somewhat children-led, we would see a difference in how children play together,” Mose said. Adults may gravitate to people they perceive as being like them, but “children don’t have that lens yet when they’re little,” she explained. “They truly just want to play with whoever is nice to them.”

Giving kids more of a say in who they play with can make playdates less exclusionary, and open up the social world of the whole family to new people and experiences. “Our kids naturally have a diversity about them that they’re interested in exploring in terms of their outlook on social life,” Mose said.

Letting kids choose what they do at a playdate, within reason, is also important, Beresin said. Rather than setting up a craft fair in the living room, parents can let kids pick out their activities and work out any disagreements about what to play on their own (again, within reason). Offering choices helps kids feel empowered and like they have control over the situation, Beresin said.

Two children wearing masks play on a tree in Central Park as New York City moved into Phase 3 of reopening following imposed coronavirus restrictions in July 2020.
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

After all, kids’ play is “a very, very important part of development,” Beresin said. “Play is the way they work out their anxieties, it’s the way they work out their conflicts, it’s the way they share with each other, it’s the way they learn how to be respectful of other kids.” Learning to be independent and make your own choices is part of that process, too.

It’s hard to imagine a return to the world that Gill or Granger-Mbugua remember from their childhoods, when kids ran around with little interference from adults. But even before the pandemic, some efforts were afoot to give kids a bit more autonomy in their play. “Adventure playgrounds,” for example, which deemphasize traditional play structures in favor of more interactive (and chaotic) elements like old electronic equipment and hammers, have spread across Europe and popped up in the US. One such playground on New York’s Governors Island explicitly bans parents.

The Free-Range Kids movement, meanwhile, advocates for more independence for children, including unsupervised play. Started in 2008 by a mom who was criticized for letting her 9-year-old take the subway alone, the movement has helped inspire laws in Utah and elsewhere that protect parents from prosecution if they let kids play or walk home by themselves.

Individual parents are also finding less regimented ways to help their kids socialize. “There’s a lot of anxiety that I feel around structured, organized play,” Granger-Mbugua said. “I really prefer more organic play in spaces where children are naturally together,” whether that’s a church function or a birthday party with extended family.

As pandemic restrictions lift, “I would like my children to get to know the people in the neighborhood, I would like to get them to know the people in their classes that they feel most comfortable with and pursue friendships and relationships that way,” Granger-Mbugua said. “I want my children to seek out friendships that feel good to them, and let me know, and then I will do my part to support that.”

Such a kid-centric approach may find adherents at a time when a lot of the strictures of pre-pandemic society, from wardrobes to office jobs, are being questioned. And for anyone wanting to reevaluate their own kids’ social lives in our new reality, Gill, for her part, advocates a back-to-basics approach: “Let them be. Let them figure it out. Let them use their brains.”

In other words: “Just let them play.”