If your child has a developmental or intellectual disability, you have likely observed them struggling with social interactions and play with peers from time to time. Children with Autism have particular difficulty with social skills, as do some children with ADHD or a sensory processing disorder.
Even your typically developing child can demonstrate behaviors that make play with peers a challenge at times. Whether it’s a communication or language delay, sensory processing deficit, motor challenge or difficult behavior, your child may be struggling with building and maintaining friendships.
With careful planning and support in key areas, however, your child can experience success developing play skills and meaningful relationships with others; and more importantly, have fun!
Is your child ready for a play date?
- Most children are eager to be around and play with others. While it’s not essential that your child be skilled in everything social, it helps if they are at least interested in and motivated to play with peers.
- It also helps if your child has some basic play skills for playing with toys and/or games. Skills that are of interest to their peers further promote interactions.
- Finally, if your child is having some success playing with adults, they are more likely to carryover this success in their play with peers. Some key basic skills to focus on include turn taking, sharing, allowing a play partner to change the play activity and transitioning between tasks.
Choosing a playmate
- The age of your child’s playmate can be key. If your child’s skills are quite delayed, a younger child may be a better match. If your child has some difficult behaviors, a slightly older child might be best as they can often be more flexible, patient and put strategies to use that can facilitate success for your child during play.
- In general, your child will likely have more success if their playmate is interested in some of the same things.
- Compatibility with the parents of your child’s peers can be important in many ways. Adults who have an understanding and appreciation for children’s differences and who can interpret your child’s difficulties with flexibility and compassion only furthers your child’s chances for social and play success. These parents can also become a great support system for you as well as great friends.
Setting up the environment for success
- If your child is new to play dates, keep the environment familiar, such as your house or familiar playground. Once they are having some social and play success, branch out to friends’ houses or community settings such as a less familiar playground, pool or museum.
- Keep the play environment neat and organized. This will help your child stay better regulated, less distractible and minimize their tendency to flit from one thing to another without purpose.
- Plan your play activities ahead of time and have everything you need well organized and easy to get to. Again, let your child’s interests be your guide, but be careful not to be too rigid in choosing the same things all the time.
- Helping your child know when things begin and end can keep them on task, help them with transitions and minimize behaviors. A visual schedule of your planned activities and visual timer can be very useful in this regard.
- Preparing a social story about play dates and reading it to your child in the week leading up to the event will help prepare them in advance.
- Know your child’s sensory preferences and challenges and take them into account when choosing activities and the environment your child will play in. If your child is under-responsive, you may want to set up the environment and choose activities that offer more sensory input, such as movement. If your child tends to be over-responsive, minimize the distractions in the play area, keep the room neat and organized, and choose activities that don’t overly challenge their sensory sensitivities. Do keep in mind, though, that your child may be more likely to step outside their sensory comfort zone when they have a great peer model doing the same.
- Keep the play date short. Play dates that go longer than an hour, particularly when your child is developing new social and play skills, may be too much for your child. Ending a play date before your child is tired and overwhelmed will promote a feeling of confidence and success. You can always play longer at the next visit!
Be ready to step in if needed
- Your child may need some coaching on when to wait, when to share or how to let someone else change the plan.
- Your child’s playmate may need some coaching on how to encourage your child to stay engaged or how to ignore or manage certain behaviors.
- While stepping in is important, letting your child and his/her playmate work things out when they can is important, too. It is not necessary to correct every mistake or referee every disagreement. Step in when you need to and praise them when you don’t!
At Pediatric Therapies, we are committed not only to helping your child realize his/her extraordinary possibilities, but also to focusing on the needs of your family. If you would like to know more about how we can help your child, give us a call today!