The Mad Science of Play
About a year ago,it was looking like my friend Lucy’s business might fail. But she worked 80-hour weeks, got some new clients, and turned things around. She also realized that for the past few months nobody had invited her 6‑year-old daughter Emma for a play date.
At Lucy’s urging, Emma asked a girl from her class to come home with her after school. “They wound up at opposite ends of the house,” Lucy told me later. “The other little girl sat upstairs playing a computer game. Emma came and sat in the kitchen with me.” Lucy sighed. “I’m worried Emma doesn’t have any friends.”
“If you were worried that she didn’t recognize the letters of the alphabet, you’d work with her on it,” I said. “You can work with her on this.”
After all, play dates are valuable vehicles for teaching kids sociability. So here’s what you do: Before a play date, talk with your child about the person who is coming over. What does that child like to do? What will make the child feel welcome?
Help plan an activity—baking cookies, doing a craft project—where you can be present and intervene to make it a positive experience. By example, you can teach your child to show interest in what the other child does. “What color frosting are you going to put on the pumpkin cookie? Blue? That’s cool! Blue pumpkins are incredibly rare!”
That’s what I shared with Lucy.
A couple of weeks later I ran into Lucy and asked how Emma was doing.
“Great!” she said. “I called one of the moms and asked her daughter Gracie over to play mad scientist. The girls put on plastic aprons, and I got out all this stuff —peppermint extract, food color, powdered Jello—you name it. I made sure they each used a lot of baking soda. I can’t tell you how exhilarating it was for them to make that kind of mess.
“Then I got a little bottle of vinegar out, and said, ‘This will bring your potion to life!’ Emma and her friend each dumped some in, and the stuff erupted all over the counter. They were both laughing so hard they fell down.”
Lucy smiled. “It was a huge mess, but it was worth it. You know where Emma is right now? At Gracie’s house.”
6 Steps to Helping Your Child Make Friends
(pre‑K through 1st Grade)
- Have a discussion beforehand with your child about what the other child might enjoy doing.
- Structure the playdate around a non-competitive activity where you’ll be present—cooking, arts and crafts, apple picking.
- Teach sociability by example: demonstrate sharing, patience, interest in others.
- If your child and the visiting child are doing well together, fade into the background.
- If you see a problem, talk about it after the other child goes home. Note what went well and what caused conflicts.
- Repeat. All skills, including social skills, grow stronger with practice.