I love the word “usurp.” It’s always been one of my favorites. When I took my AP US History exam my junior year in high school, I pledged to use “usurp” in each of my essay responses. And I did! (The following year, I wrote poems to my boyfriend in the free response section of the AP Calculus exam. I did not know how to do any of the problems, but that’s a story for a different time.) I’m also a fan of the adverb “tremendously.” To me, it sounds so powerful. Therefore, I try to save it for special occasions.
On the flip side, I have words of which I am categorically not a fan. The word “utilize” fits here. I feel like it was designed for people who like to sound impressive by saying extra syllables when “use” would work just as well. Another word that makes me cringe? (Let me first say this—I recognize my reaction may not be a popular one on a blog for moms.) I cannot stand the word “playdate.”
Merriam-Webster defines “playdate” (aka “play date” for those who prefer the space) as “a play session for small children as arranged by their parents.” Breaking this definition down into parts, I can point out a couple of problems.
First, the notion of play as being constructed into a “session” annoys me. It’s as if we are setting a timer and telling our children, “Your play will commence now. You will have fun for the one hour that has been allotted for this activity.” Play should not be a “session.” It just should be play! That’s it. A session should be with your therapist—not for a group of preschoolers. The formalizing of something that is so intuitive to children makes me a bit sad.
Second, I struggle with the idea that so much of our kids’ time is scheduled (or “arranged,” according to the definition) by adults. Parents arrange these playdates. Perhaps they select certain games or activities to have on hand so that those gathered for the appointment do not wonder what to do with their peers. They prepare snacks that will meet the approval of kids and discerning moms alike. A quick search of the internet results in finding countless articles dedicated to instructing parents on how to host a wonderful playdate, including etiquette and guest lists and transition suggestions. We are making play way too complicated!
I have written both for Nashville Moms and on my personal blog that children desperately need more time for unstructured play. They need to be sent outside to discover what they can do with sticks and dirt. They need to organize their own games with their own rules and they need to establish their own method of conflict resolution when problems arise. From the moment they can walk (sometimes even earlier), our children are put into activities like dance and soccer and a variety of other enrichment opportunities. These lessons/practices/classes are wonderful in moderation, but they have come to consume far too much of our families’ schedules. And I feel like “playdates” are yet more appointments that moms create for our kids. We have become their social directors. I get a vision of two moms opening their planners and having a conversation that goes something like,
“Mary is free next Thursday from 1:00pm to 3:00pm after her Mothers’ Day Out but before tumbling.”
“Well, Suzie can’t make it that day. How about we pencil in Friday from 9:30am to 11:00am for some play time?”
I cannot imagine my mom ever using the word “playdate” during my 1980s childhood. The notion that she would have been responsible for scheduling playtime for me seems so odd. My siblings and I found our neighbors (or sometimes occupied ourselves solo) and then figured out what to do, starting from the time I was around four years old. I think having that freedom in my play was such an important part of my childhood and an ideal for which I still have such a passion today.
Now, I get that I’m coming from the perspective of a mom whose kids, at twelve and eight years old, are too old for playdates anyway. I clearly remember the importance of getting together with other moms when my kids were little. The truth is that I balked at the term “playdate” even then. That time to sit with adults and have actual (often interrupted) conversation was at least as important as setting the kids loose with their friends. I craved those connections and still do. So, when a “playdate” has the side effect of achieving some mental health benefits for a mom, I back that effort completely.
I also acknowledge that my strong reaction to “playdate” is probably overblown and somewhat ridiculous and likely the result of overthinking an event that can mean a variety of things depending on who is saying it. (Admitting you have a problem is the first step to healing, right?) I am fortunate that since my kids were little, I have lived in places where kids still go outside and find other kids. I have not had to drive either child miles away to connect with another kid with whom to play. My feelings might be different under different circumstances. Or maybe not. I can be pretty stubborn.
The bottom line:
Playing is essential to a child’s development. More specifically, playing without parental guidance or mediation is also critical. I am an advocate for adult-free play, like many of us remember from our own childhoods. So, I cannot help but criticize the term “play date” through that lens. I tell you this — I will not utilize the word. And I am tremendously sure of that.