Ah, the magical yet illusive pandemic play dates. It serves many purposes: proof that other people still exist in the world, practice taking turns in conversation, time to laugh and play with someone the same age, and a reminder not to pick your nose in public. And that’s just for me!

Among all the other worries swirling in our minds, we’ve spent the last eight months concerned about our kids’ social development. How will they learn to deal with their peers? How will they feel being away from us when this is all over? How will they turn out if they are only mirroring our own weirdness?

For those of us who have kept our kids home or have kids younger than school age, the issue looms larger each day as the pandemic drags on and we cope with just how long this situation could last.

In the Before Times, I would have had my preschooler in Mothers’ Day Out, gone to play groups with him and my toddler, arranged get-togethers with friends, and gone on outings to indoor play spaces, museums, and the Target toy aisle. We have friends we trust, but it’s been hard to arrange play dates, balancing risk level, timing around visits with family, and you know, just being despondent and overwhelmed with life in a pandemic. Between March and October, we had four play dates, each ending with a meltdown when we had to leave our friends (and their toys) with no plans to see them again soon.

When a friend suggested a scheduled “quarantine” (staying home and distanced as much as possible, and disclosing any risks taken to make sure everyone was comfortable) and then loading up on play dates for a week, I was excited to see all the benefits for my kids. Interaction with peers, conflict resolution practice, change of scenery, and more. But I didn’t realize how much I would get from it.

I was excited to see other grown-up humans, but I didn’t think it would be much of a break since I’d still be in charge of my monsters. After so much time mostly alone with my kids, I was thinking of the tantrums and big feelings I was going to have to deal with and the half-finished conversations I’d left at other play dates. I was thinking of the stress of packing what we need, getting out the door when we’re out of practice, and convincing kids they’d have fun at a fun thing. But that week helped me remember all the reasons we schedule play dates to begin with.

My time parenting my kids alongside other moms is better than any parenting book I’ve read (or, you know, started to read and then gotten interrupted). I see how other households handle sharing, how moms talk to their kids when they’re having a hard time, how much space they give them to explore. I hear what phrases get the most play in their families when the preschoolers repeat obviously well-worn mantras like “Thanks for being flexible.” I get new ideas for snacks and lunches (and bonus: My kids try new things because they see their friends eating them!).

Seeing how other kids act when they don’t get their way or are having a bad day or are just sick of their younger sibling gives me a new perspective on my own kids’ behavior. It’s normal, age-appropriate and a way to deal with a hard, strange time. And having a bit of a change helps me go home afterward with a refreshed attitude to deal with my own hard, strange time.

Play dates are reassurance and inspiration and a welcome break all in one. They’re commiseration and motivation and seeing your kids through someone else’s eyes. If you have the option, float the idea of loading up on play dates with a friend or two. It’s worth the failed attempts. It’s worth being extra careful for the quarantine period. It’s even worth relearning how to not pick your nose in public.

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Bethany Farnsworth is a human jungle gym, napkin, and personal shopper to her kids Peter, 3, and Lydia, 1. She met her husband at Baylor and moved from Waco to Houston to Dallas before finally settling in Austin in October 2019. She loves podcasts, iced coffee, uninterrupted bathroom time, traveling, coming home after traveling, and spending too much time planning activities that hold her kids' attention for 30 seconds. On a good weekend, you'll find her and her crew on a hiking trail or at a brewery -- you'll recognize them by the table full of toys and snacks. Read more at bethanyfarnsworth.com or @bethanyfarns on Instagram.

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