Is It Safe to Have Playdates?

Pandemic playdates are a life-saver, but they also put lives in danger. Here's how to weigh the risks and rewards.

Boredom is good for kids. Being alone with thoughts can actually stimulate creative and independent thinking in an essential way. But socialization is equally, if not more important. Social play is crucial to their development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Playing with other kids helps children develop social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills. In other words, there are two conflicting thoughts at the heart of quarantine: Staying perfectly safe at home means lots of creative alone time. Also, it’s a recipe for anti-social regression — for the kids and parents. So there’s a need to play. But how and when?

There’s no way around playdates being a major health risk to your family and your neighborhood right now — and until the vaccine takes full effect, well into 2021. “As we begin to mingle, there's always a risk of being infected by another family or child,” says Georges Benjamin, a physician and the director of the American Public Health Association. Though not many kids get seriously sick from the disease, it’s still a possibility, and they could pass on the virus to vulnerable members of their community.

Still, your kid’s loneliness isn’t a joke. That’s a lot to consider. Let’s map out the risks.

Using a Risk Assessment Matrix to Make the Playdate Decision

Often used by businesses and other organizations, risk assessment matrices help decision-makers consider the riskiness of a choice at a glance. When reading a matrix, first identify the choices you’re assessing — in this case, playdates with multiple children, one-on-one playdates, or no playdates at all. Then, identify the factors that go into making those choices. The factors we will consider are public health, child development, and child psychology.

A risk matrix compares the severity of the potential consequences of a factor (from 0 to 5, or insignificant to catastrophic) to the likelihood of it happening. By putting those values into a color-coded table, you can get an immediate sense of the riskiness of a choice such as hosting a playdate.

For each choice, the four factors can fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can make the choice without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a factor falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward.

Different choices have different mixes of red, yellow, and green factors. No choice is perfect, but the “total score” for each choice can help you get a sense of the risk associated with it. That score is calculated by multiplying the severity of a factor’s consequences (0 to 5) by the likelihood of those consequences occurring, with Very Unlikely being 1 and Very Likely being 4. The higher the total score, the riskier the choice is.

The Three Factors

If you put the decision to have a playdate on a risk matrix, there are three factors you need to assess.

  • Public health: The risk that the action has on public health.

    • For example, going on many playdates with kids from different families increases the risk that your kid will contract or spread COVID-19.

  • Development: The risk the action has on delaying your child’s education and social/mental development.

    • For example, if your child isn’t in daycare or in-person classes and they’re also not going on playdates, they’re probably missing out on the social play they need to learn crucial life skills.

  • Psychology: The risk the action has on your child’s psychology. 

    • For example, your kid needs a break from you (and vice versa). A playdate in a friend’s backyard could do wonders for stress relief.

The Three Scenarios

No Playdates

Total Score = 12

  • No playdates is best for public and personal health and is probably the best option for households at risk of severe COVID-19.

  • Playdates probably aren’t necessary if your child is going to daycare or in-person school. But social play with other kids is important for child development, and kids can’t get that if they’re in isolation.

One-on-One Playdates

Total Score = 7

  • If you schedule playdates with only one other families’ children (something epidemiologist Logan Spector calls “playdate monogamy”), you limit your child’s potential to contract or spread COVID-19 — so long as your family stays home otherwise.

  • Recurring playdates with one family give your child regular time for social play and the rare chance to just be a kid.

Playdates with Multiple Families

Total Score = 14

  • Having one playdate partner right now is understandable. Trying to raise the most popular kindergartener in your town is not.

  • If your child want to see different friends, build in two weeks of no playdates in the interim so there’s little potential of passing the coronavirus between their pals.

The Bottom Line:

When we map these three scenarios, holding playdates with multiple families has the highest risk score at 14 because of the risk to public health. The next highest score is for going to no playdates at all with a score of 12. This scenario ranked so high because loneliness is so hard on mental health. The lowest score is 7 for one-on-one playdates with a single family’s kids. However, every household is in a unique situation, so the total scores listed above won’t perfectly reflect the risk of each choice for you.

To set up a risk matrix for your own family, think about a potential consequence, for example, being stressed out and lonely for the “psychology” factor. If your child isn’t seeing anyone at school or sports or any other in-person activities, this consequence is probably “Likely” or “Very Likely” to occur and may have a severity of “1” or “2.” Repeat this analysis for each factor and for each scenario.

For public health, it’s important to keep in mind that depending on where you live, your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19 is probably “Very Unlikely” or “Unlikely.” This tool can tell you how likely it is that someone at your playdate will have COVID-19 depending on your county and the playdate size. The more people at your playdate and the more those people socialize the two weeks following it, the larger an outbreak you could cause and the higher your severity score.

Making the Decision

Now that you have a better sense of what the risks are, you can use this decision tree to get a personalized recommendation about whether your family in particular should arrange playdates for your child. Because your family is unique, and you have unique needs. This decision-making tool is here to guide you.

COVID-Proofing Playdates

These are the steps you should take to make your playdate as safe as possible.

  • Ask the other family about their symptoms and potential exposure to COVID-19.

  • Share your own family’s history of symptoms and potential exposure.

  • Host the playdate outside, where COVID-19 transmission is less likely.

  • Before the playdate, sanitize the area the children will be playing in.

  • Plan activities the kids can do while social distancing, such as riding bikes or coloring.

  • Try to keep the children 6 feet apart — but realize that it probably won’t happen.

  • Try to keep the children from sharing toys. If they do, clean them before the kids trade off.

  • Adults should wear masks at all times, and they should try to get kids over age 2 to wear them.

  • After the guests go home, sanitize the play area again.

  • Follow up with the other family if anyone in your household develops COVID-19 symptoms after the playdate.