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PARENTING : The Sandbox Social Set : Arranging play dates for playmates requires careful planning and assurance on the part of parents. Experts say the visits are beneficial.

August 26, 1994|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Janet McGuigan of West Hills vividly remembers the first time she arranged a play date for her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Becky, at another child's home.

"I was only gone for an hour or less, and I hurried back envisioning all kinds of things," McGuigan said. "Of course, everything was just fine. But it takes time. You and your child have to ease into it."

It may sound simple to set up a youngster's early social engagements, but the process is fraught with anxiety for many parents. Taking a child to play at a friend's home not only involves questions of safety and trust, it's also a stage of the separation process.

But experts say that once children are ready for it, the experience can be very beneficial. "There is something unique to one-on-one play time where friendship can really take place," said Dr. Charles Weinstein, a child psychologist who has offices in Burbank and Encino. "Having free play in the home, whether it's in the child's room, the living room or wherever, that's a whole different kind of process" than in a school or day-care setting.

Most experts agree that there is no need for play dates until children are at least 2. After that, such personal contacts can help in the development of communication and socialization.

"Play dates teach about sharing and can also help with verbal skills," said Dr. Marsha Gerro, a Burbank pediatrician. "Sometimes, it's easier to potty train or give up the bottle because they see other kids who are past those stages."

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How can parents tell when the time is right for their child to be left at another person's home to play? And how do they choose the right playmates for play dates?

Weinstein suggests that since children mature at varying rates there is no set timetable for initiating them into social life. If a tot is especially verbal, he says, and can report on a social experience after the fact, he or she is probably ready for the independence of a play date. If not, parents might want to come along on several occasions until the child feels comfortable enough to stay without them.

For parents of preschool- and elementary-age children, identifying suitable playmates can be as simple as noticing whom they play with at school. Grown-ups can also ask children whom they like, and talk to teachers and other parents to gauge compatibility between youngsters. Little Johnny's mother might have a terrific personality, for example, but her son might be overly aggressive for another child's taste.

As an additional source of contacts, parents of younger children can develop a play-date pool by becoming involved in a Mommy and Me class, Gymboree or other types of groups. Prenatal education classes also offer soon-to-be parents an opportunity to get to know prospective families.

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Laurel Murray of Valley Village, for example, met a group of women in a prenatal exercise class at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank four years ago. The women and their babies got together four months after their deliveries and have been meeting twice a month ever since. The group calls itself Moms Inc.

Murray said a group-play situation offers parents the opportunity to informally screen prospective play dates for their children. "It can ease anxiety that you might have because you're around these children--and their parents--for a while before you make the commitment to a play date," she said.

In her view, screening parents--and indeed the household a child will be entering--is part of the whole play-date process. Can these people be relied on? Who else might be around while youngsters play? Could teen-agers or a baby-sitter potentially be left in charge?

"Parents today need to be real assertive and find those things out," Weinstein said.

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That advice may be particularly helpful to parents who work outside the home and don't have the luxury of staying to observe their child's first few social outings.

For this same group of parents, a related worry concerns not being close by should problems arise during the play date. For them, Weinstein said, it's important to have a talk with their baby-sitter to develop a working definition of what feels safe.

If a sitter is uncomfortable with a situation, he added, she "should have instructions that it's OK to say no or to depart."

Stay-at-home parents, on the other hand, might find the prospect of a baby-sitter bringing another person's child to their home unappealing.

In that case, it might help to schedule play dates with parents who have similar child-care arrangements. Or wait until the visiting child is old enough to be dropped off without a baby-sitter.

In the end, experts say, children are the best barometer for measuring the success of play dates. If they come home happy and enjoy sharing the experience they had, things are probably going fine.

"It sounds simple, but you just really need to listen to your children," Weinstein said. "The bottom line is, did the kids have fun? If they did, you'll know you're on the right track."

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