Play is serious business for toddlers; they're learning to communicate and work together, rather than side by side. These early interactions with peers are the precursor to skill development throughout childhood. Play forges connections between children, teaching them how to share and negotiate, explains pediatrician Regina M. Milteer. While it may be serious business, there's no reason you can't incorporate plenty of fun with exciting and entertaining play date themes.
Greet your kiddo's friends at the door with children's music playing in the background to kick off this play date. Music and movement are the most successful activities to help teach toddlers listening skills, notes Irene Shere, director of the Early Childhood Consultation Center and founder of iBlankie in Silver Spring, Maryland. The only games at this event are musical—from hot potato and the hokey pokey to freeze dance and musical chairs.
When your little playgroup needs to stop and catch its collective breath, keep the theme prominent with a music-themed craft. Have the group decorate construction paper music notes, make coffee can drums or assemble a pair of Shere's "cool shaker music makers" to bring home. These musical instruments are made from paper towel rolls filled with uncooked rice, birdseed or beans, and taped or stapled shut at each end. Make the craft last a little longer by providing glitter, stickers and other decals to adorn the shakers, and then let your group make music with their new instruments.
Complete the day's events with a snack: mini sandwiches cut in music note shapes with cookie cutters.
Host a superhero play date and this time, let the group to get just a little rowdy. Have your guests arrive in costume and start with imaginative play crafts, such as superhero masks and capes. Next, move onto superhero activities that help the kids expend energy. Have the group chase after an imaginary villain through a simple obstacle course or race across the playroom, leaping over cereal box buildings.
While it has become commonplace to try to curb boisterous behavior, your little guy's superfluous energy might not be so bad. It's important to understand "that aggression is a good quality to have, one that when channeled appropriately will forge the leaders of the world," explains Bonnie Harris, parent educator and Director of Connective Parenting in Peterborough, New Hampshire. While you may be using races and obstacle courses now to help your child channel his energy, you're teaching him how to use his energy effectively.
"If parents allow a child's natural energy to play out, and channel it in acceptable directions," Harris adds, "then he will learn that he is acceptable and will have skills to express his aggression appropriately."
Garden or Springtime Theme
Springtime heralds in warm weather and the opportunity to take a play date outdoors, so organize a backyard garden-themed picnic for your group of toddlers. You can section off a small area of garden and have the kids plant flowers to care for throughout the spring and summer, or decorate little flower pots or plastic cups and plant flowers to bring home.
If your kiddos are a crafty bunch, make Shere's blossoming spring trees to take home instead. Made from a tree branch or twig, the tree is stabilized with a ball of modeling clay and decorated with tissue paper flowers. Voilà—beautiful, blossoming trees. When everyone's stomachs are rumbling, spread out a picnic blanket and enjoy lunch and a spring-themed storybook.
If you have an energetic little play group, surprise them with a day of Olympic events in the backyard. Start with a simple craft activity to let each kiddo decorate her very own banner (or miniature flag) and then open the Olympic ceremonies with a parade around the yard. Shere's list of Olympic events for youngsters includes an egg-on-a-spoon race, loudest singer competition, push-car races, balloon badminton and a long-jump contest—with plenty of plush mats or cushions, of course.
When the events are finished, reward each competitor with a handmade medal and an Olympian-worthy snack of fruit circle Olympic rings and star-shaped sandwiches.