Recently one of my oldest friends, whom I’ve known since kindergarten, got in touch. “We’re coming to town! Can we see you?” I was thrilled – between us we have four boys under five and have wanted to get them together for ages. With our visit being last minute and later in the day than the kids are accustomed to, though, it was mayhem for all of us. Without specific activities set out for them, our little ones bounced off the walls accordingly. My friend and I couldn’t finish a sentence, let alone a conversation. For two families who rely heavily on structure for sanity and functionality, being without a plan took away from the experience. Worth it? Yes! But by the time we were done she and I were exhausted. Here’s our recipe for a play date that keeps kids and moms happy!

In a nutshell, there is a better way. Kids need to know there is a program in place. If you do things in the right order they will be too occupied by what you’ve got them doing to get bored and into trouble. Make a schedule for the play date and plan activities that accommodate their needs.

My suggestion is to start with some kind of exercise. I’m talking about real physical exertion here. The more fun, the better, so if you’re at home, set up a potato sack race or an obstacle course in the yard (no horseshoes, though – you don’t want some poor little person getting winged in the head with one of them). If you’re planning to be out and about there are places popping up everywhere offering both indoor and outdoor “adventure zones” for kids of all ages. If you don’t want to spend money on admission fees, use what you have at home or go to the park. Whether it’s to be a day inside or out, make sure the kids get an opportunity to burn off some steam! They will feel great and it will calm them for the rest of your time together. You should plan to participate in this part of the play date. It’s an opportunity to determine a feeling of safety and set forth ground rules for the remainder of your time together; your young guests should feel comfortable treating you as their go-to grown-up and it’s your responsibility to establish this.

After a workout, everyone will need to rest and refuel. When I host a play date, I always make sure I know if those joining us have any allergies, food aversions or requests. This is not to be confused with being a short order cook – the point here is to make everything easier, not to wait on everyone the whole time. The nice thing about apprising yourself of what people like or dislike is that no one is going to criticize you for ordering takeout or serving store-prepared foods if they know you’ve taken the time to consider them when doing so. Once I have my information, I plan an easy snack or meal and get as much of it done in advance as possible. Fun food for kids is imperative! Involve them in the preparation – make mini pizzas they load themselves or have them spread their own peanut butter and jelly. Put out finely cut fruit or veggies and let them make funny faces on their pancakes or toast. If you want to keep them calm, don’t overdo it with the sugar. Go with bananas rather than chocolate. Make smoothies (you can call them milkshakes!) instead of serving pop. No hard and fast rules, and by all means splurge on burgers and milkshakes from time to time. It’s all about balance.

Now, I am a huge advocate of turning off the damned TV when sitting down to dinner. Playdates can be an exception to this – and no, it doesn’t make you a lousy parent. Getting the kids exercised and fed is hard work and you will need some down time! Turn on Peep and the Big Wide World or put in a Disney movie – something appropriate for all ages present. You can do this during the feeding frenzy, as it may serve to distract them and cut down on the mess, or you can wait until they’re done. Hopefully you’ve remembered to brew the coffee or make yourself a snack too, because now is the time to enjoy the relative lull in activity.

The next important element is to have a few alternatives available for those kids who just can’t sit still. A train set, an accessible book selection, some coloured pencils and paper and a collapsible tunnel would be a great combination of options. The more straightforward the activity, and the less pieces involved, the more it will appeal to kids of different ages. Puzzles, climbing equipment and musical instruments are great things to have around, but as long as there are several opportunities for creative play most children will happily occupy themselves.

Don’t forget the magic! Add some whimsy by having the kids cut and arrange flowers as they set the table, or sprinkle some “fairy dust” (sure, glitter is hard to clean up, but life is short) while they play. You can always turn off the TV and throw on some Raffi instead. Have a dance party. Jump on the bed. Go puddle jumping if it’s rainy; a canoe or trail ride if it’s a beautiful day. These are the moments you will all remember later on.

Finally, the best trick of all: if you can swing it, hire a nanny for the afternoon and let her execute your master plan! If your young guests’ mom is a friend of yours, get out the martini shaker or the chocolate or whatever floats your boat. Then, get the hell out of dodge and take a break! Go put your feet up and have a good conversation. Feed your sanity a little.

Coming soon: further explorations on dealing with other people’s nannies, your obligation to other parents hosting your kids’ play dates, correcting or disciplining other people’s children, and whether you should assume your older child’s sibling is invited to that birthday party!

– Samantha Jeffers Agar loves to get her kids laughing and has even been known to sew the odd potato sack.