Is It Safe to Have Play Dates Now?

With schools closed and extracurricular activities canceled for months because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-2019) pandemic, most children have not seen their friends or peers in person for what may feel like eternity for them. And for children, time spent with peers is a vital part of growing up and an essential part of their social and emotional development. So as states begin to reopen, parents may wonder if it is OK to allow play dates.

While it’s understandable that children—and parents—want to see friends and loved ones, it still can be risky.  There is still a pandemic —we don’t have a vaccine or an effective treatment—and the risk of contracting the virus remains very real.

So what do you do to keep everyone safe if you want to plan a play date for your child?

The experts say:

Play dates are possible, but they’re going to look and feel different than in the past.

“Keep play dates outdoors, and as long as it’s relatively mild exercise, kids can and should wear masks,” says UNC Health pediatrician Elizabeth Blyth, MD.

Outdoor activities are preferable to indoor ones because fresh air dilutes the virus. Masks also help prevent the spread of the virus.

“I know it’s not necessarily intuitive, but if you get a mask that is comfortable for your child and teach them how to wear it properly, I feel that it is a learned behavior that the majority of children can be taught to do,” Dr. Blyth says. “Even with young kids, you can mention germs, and make sure your child is reducing their exposure to other people’s germs.”

Factors to consider:

–  Can the play date take place outdoors? Find a space for the children to play outside, and

make sure they can stay 6 to 10 feet apart, which is your safest bet to reduce the risk of virus transmission. If the weather won’t cooperate and it’s too hot to play outside or raining, consider a virtual play date.

“Kids have gotten more comfortable through some of their schoolwork interacting on the computer and using video features,” says Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention. “There are even games and crafts they can do with their friends virtually, so they are socially connected but physically apart.”

–  Are you confident that everyone has been following the “rules”? If you’re planning to have your child spend time with another child, both households need to have practiced strict physical distancing for at least two weeks before the play date. And anyone the children will be around during the play date should wear masks.

“Talk with the other families to make sure they’re being safe,” Dr. Blyth says.

– Is anyone in your household or in the friend’s home at high risk for coronavirus complications? This group includes people older than 65 and anyone with a serious underlying medical condition, such as diabetes or heart disease. Play dates are higher risk if there are household members who have high-risk medical conditions.

How to stay safe:

Keep the play date short, and set a timer so the children know when the play date is over. “Have a reasonable time period that both families agree to, such as 30 minutes or an hour. And everybody knows that when the time is up, you go back home,” Dr. Blyth says.

If your child does not want to wear a mask and cannot stay at least 6 to 10 feet apart the entire play date, consider a virtual play date instead.

“I consider play dates a ‘less safe’ activity because generally children are not as good about social distancing and avoiding touching their face and washing hands,” says Robert Hutchins, MD, MPH, UNC Health internal medicine physician. But “if the kids you are setting up the play dates for have been isolated at home for three months without doing anything, it’s safer than those who have been out and about.”

For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.