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Come Over and Play

Play days aren't just for toddlers.

“What can I do for fun?” That’s a regular question I get from my 5-year-old Jordan during the summer months. As parents, we know our kids don’t have to be continually entertained. after all, a little “creative boredom” is good for their imagination. But it can be fun for parents and kids alike to have summer recreation ideas ready and waiting. That’s why I propose the regular weekly play day. What you might have known years ago as the baby/toddler play group has grown up a little.

Family camp at home

Two years ago, our family established a regular play day for our friends and neighbors. Inspired by summer camps of the 1950s — and the infamous Mount Wannahockaloogie from Finding Nemo — we dubbed our play day “ Camp Wannalaffalotta (get it?).”  

It started with an open invitation to practically everyone we knew: Come play at our house every Tuesday morning in July from 9 a.m. to noon. Bring a water bottle with your name on it, a sack lunch, sunscreen, and a lawn chair for Mom or Dad. “Everyone we knew” included about 20 families with 1 to 6 children, from infants to 18. 

I added a disclaimer that we couldn’t promise to be super-entertaining for the teenagers, but we would do our best by the preschool and school-aged set. As it turned out, the older kids who came enjoyed visiting with others their age.

You, too, can create a weekly day of friends and fun. Here are some guidelines:

Pick a regular time each week. Remember that old Batman slogan, “Same BatTime, same BatChannel”? Viewers knew they could count on watching the caped crusader at the same time every week. Make your play day the same time and place each week too, so that parents can spontaneously load up the kids and come play without having to remember what the plan is.

Any family’s schedule will work. Whether you are home with the kids during the day or doing double duty as a working mom, a play date can still fit in your summer plans. We chose Tuesday mornings, but a late afternoon weekday with a picnic supper or even a block of time on the weekend will work just as well. While you can’t accommodate everyone’s schedule, consider the lifestyles of your invitees to pick the best time.

Ask friends to bring their own sunscreen, water bottles, and picnic lunch. An important practical thing to consider, it makes it easier for you as the host and is a great reminder for the other parents that these needs will arise. You might even ask the moms or dads to take turns bringing an adult snack or to contribute to a salad bar. So many times parents are able to get it together for the kids, but not themselves. Food tends to help people relax and enjoy themselves more.

Know that not everyone will come every week. Feel free to invite a huge crowd, because not everyone’s schedule will fit yours every week. We had some families make it a regular part of their week, while others were able to come just once over the summer.

Parents will enjoy the activity as much as the kids. Communicate to the adults that you expect them to join in the fun. While a situation may arise when a parent needs to drop off the kids for a morning, you don’t want this to become everyone’s habit. You’re not a daycare — you’re hosting a get-together for children and parents alike.

Plan an alternate location. We live on a cul-de-sac and have a fairly large yard. So I felt confident that our house could handle the traffic of potentially large groups. But if that isn’t your situation, don’t let it be a stumbling block. Locate your playtime at a local park. Be prepared to cancel on rain days, or notify families that you’ll meet at Chuck E. Cheese or some other kid-friendly restaurant. Inquire at your subdivision’s clubhouse or your church or synagogue. Perhaps you can use those facilities free of charge.

Plan activities in advance. While kids are often pleased just to have free play, it is always helpful to have some planned activities up your sleeve. Ask other parents or teens for help in the planning. Some of our activities included:

• Tie dying. We provided the dye, our friends brought their own T-shirts.
• BYOW (Bring your own wheels). Everyone brought their own bikes, scooter, or roller blades and we tore up the cul-de-sac.
• Water fun. Round up all the wading pools and slip-n-slides. Notify friends to bring swimsuits, towels and sunscreen.
• Hopscotch tournament. Believe it or not, the boys liked this just as much as the girls. We had a hopscotch book that showed all the different courts. Using sidewalk chalk, we marked those around our driveway and sidewalk. We also supplied little wood chips from Papa’s workshop for the markers.

Be ready to include those you don’t know well. Since we opened our invitation to the neighbors, we had the opportunity to make new friends. If you have a ton of kids showing up every week, either at your home or the park, you’re sure to attract attention. What a great way to model friendship to your kids by including those you don’t know well or at all.

Plan for rain. Our first rain day took me by surprise. But a few quick calls secured a truckload of Legos and other indoor activities supplied by friends. Consider an impromptu film festival, especially if you’ve got some snacks lined up.

It is easier than it sounds. While it may sound like a lot of work, it entails only a little pre-planning and fellow parents who are enthusiastic about getting together. I was amazed at how much fun we had. Everyone who came said they enjoyed it. I was so glad we did it. You will be glad, too.        

— Jessica Fisher is a freelance writer and mother of six in southern California. Check  out her mom adventures at lifeasmom.com

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