The keys to a (successful!) play-date…

Any parent who has tackled a holiday or after-school play-date for their child will know just how tiring and challenging play-dates can be! Play-dates bring multiple emotions, ideas, and opinions into the play, which can lead to conflict between strong personalities, cause our sensitive child to retreat, or send our ‘busy’ kids into their most ‘busy’ state!

Despite these challenges, play-dates are known to be a highly valuable opportunity for social skills development (Greenspan & Wieder, Engaging Autism, p.187), and, with a few helpful tips in place, can become successful and rewarding experiences for us and our children.


The First step – initiating the play-date.

Consider who would make the best play-date partner for your child. You may find your child has connected well with a particular peer at school, kinder, or other activity, who your child might like more time to play with. Or, you may find that you have connected well with a particular parent from school, kinder or other activity, with whom you feel most comfortable initiating the idea of a play-date.

Try asking the child’s parent face to face how they would feel about arranging a play-date some time. Exchange numbers so you can arrange the play-date when you have your calendars in front of you. Or, try sending a note in your child’s school bag for them to pass onto the other child. The note might say something like, “We’d like to have Johnny over for a play-date! How would Tuesday afternoon work for you?”, and be sure to include your contact details.

Nine out of ten times, other parents will also see the value of a play-date for their child, and will jump at the invitation!


The Second step – setting up for the play-date.

As you already know, children can be unpredictable! – It is impossible to entirely predict how an interaction between two kiddos might go. However, there are some things we can do in our play-date environment to set up for success*.

  1. Keep the play-dates short to start with – aim for 45-60mins.
  2. Host the play-dates at your place – at least initially. This can help your child feel most confident and comfortable as they learn about play-dates.
  3. Consider your child’s interests – can they be turned into a shared activity? Or not? Your child’s interest in building or construction may be more helpful in achieving shared play than their favourite computer game, for example.
  4. Consider the peer’s interests – ask the child’s parents what these are; can the child’s interests be incorporated into shared play somehow?
  5. Avoid or modify the use of electronic toys or activities – electronic or screen-based activities (e.g. TV, iPad, computer games, noise making toys) can be too overloading or consuming from a sensory perspective, and may ‘derail’ engagement and shared play, particularly for young children. For older children (mid-primary school and older), interactive software that involves movement (e.g. PlayStation Eye Toy, Dance Mat, Wii Sports) is much more conducive to shared play than sit-down screen activities.
  6. Use simple, sensory-motor games to foster shared enjoyment – games or activities that get their bodies moving in purposeful ways. If indoors, use cushions and blankets to build a lounge room cubby house; make a pillow or soft toy ‘road’ to travel along between rooms; build a block ‘city’; or try a treasure hunt (see for some pointers!). If outdoors, blow giant bubbles; play trampoline games (see for some great ideas); play simple ball games like catch or Tunnel Ball; make chalk art on the pavement; play hopscotch; or try an outdoor obstacle course (see for inspiration!).
  7. Pack away most of the small toys as well as ‘special’ toys that your child may not want to share – this helps keep the environment less visually-distracting, and reduces the likelihood of fights.
  8. Keep up regular play-dates with the same peer over a period of time if possible. This allows the children to develop shared history, which can foster confidence and play-date success.
  9. Make friends with other parents who have a positive, accepting attitude to kids with developmental differences,and who share your values. Discuss with the parents your need to facilitate the play in order for your child to play successfully, and discuss with the parents whether you need them to be present at the play-date, too.
  10. Develop relationships between your families – suggest outings together, to the zoo, beach, aquarium, swimming pool, or nearby park or playground, or go on a train/bus/bike ride together.

In the meantime, you can continue to build your child’s play-date skills with the help of your Occupational Therapist, Speech Therapist or Psychologist, or by involving your child in a social skills group program.

*Tips edited/modified from Kathy Walmsley, OT, Sensory Connections


Alyssa Mann

Speech Pathologist

Sensational Kids