Playdate Tips for Kids with Special Needs – Part 1


Playdates benefit ALL children for practicing critical social skills on which future relationships will be built. The benefits of playdates include increasing confidence; improving social decision making; and practicing skills in an adult-supervised yet natural setting. Playing together allows kids to be a part of the action BUT many kids prefer to play in a parallel way. This means playing something in the same area with other children but not directly interacting. We need to understand that every child plays in a different way and that’s ok. But what about kids who want to learn HOW to play differently?

Play typically develops in a natural progression from individual play to interactive/social reciprocal play. Many parents set up playdates to encourage the building of critical skills and friendships. The most important lesson learned from playing with a variety of children is that EVERY child is different and special! Throughout life, we meet and interact with people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, and learning from each other can truly enhance our life. Did you know that many kids we work with prefer to line toys up or to sort them by size, shape, or color? We can use this cool skill in everyday life. For example, sorting and pairing socks and matching pot lids with their same-size bottoms will help with chores! I’m sure we could all learn something cool from watching any child play in his/her own way.


Here are some ‘Out of the Pocket’ tips for building social skills.
1) Practice playing.  me Practicing play can be a fun way to connect with your child. Look at how he/she is playing and join in! You might find a new idea. Some kids want to play with others but need a little help to learn how to take turns, have a conversation, and interpreting nonverbal gestures. Practicing and explaining this to your child may help him to feel more comfortable. Together, discuss strategies that can be used to help facilitate play. What is a facial expression?  Make different faces and ask your child to guess your emotion. Use a mirror and make fun faces together. This is a skill that helps to build interoceptive awareness too. (Read more about interoception here.)

 2) How do I find children with common interests?   Teachers are amazingly insightful and may provide wonderful help to identify the children who tend to play together and enjoy similar interests. Volunteer in your child’s classroom to see who your child is interested in playing with. Additionally, birthday parties are great opportunities to observe those children who may be a good match for a playdate. Clubs and activities allow children with similar interests to enjoy each other’s company. My son showed an early interest in chess. I often arrived early to pick him up from the chess club and to determine who showed interest in my son. The same is true for Lego clubs, music classes, art, or sports.
3) Remember that parents of children with special needs are used to answering questions about their children and are often quite comfortable discussing ways to help create successful social interactions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. My son has a feeding tube. His friends often ask others about it but didn’t want to upset him. Many kids enjoy talking about something (like a feeding tube or medical device) because that’s a part of themselves.

Our exclusive friend sort activity will help kids to understand what a friend would do and things a friend would NOT do. Some of the sorting tasks include hitting/keeping hands to self,  sharing, and taking turns.

4) Shared interests can make a playdate successful.  Identify what the children have in common. Build activities upon mutual interests. So, set up Legos and build Angry Birds or Minecraft structures. If the children like the same movie, set up puzzles, art, baking, or sensory play based on the movie. Consider meeting at a location such as a park or a museum. Siblings should not be a part of the playdate to allow for targeted friendship building between the two participants.  
5) Make a plan and then review it with both children who are participating.   At the beginning explain what the playdate will look like:  First, we will work on a puzzle, and then a snack, etc…. Many children benefit from a visual schedule and like to know exactly what is coming up next. I do too! It decreases anxiety when we know what’s coming up. The COVID pandemic taught us that we all experience increased stress when things are unexpected. ALL of us enjoy predictability and feel more confident with a specific plan in place. However, be flexible if any difficulties or disagreements arise. Check out our earlier post with a free download – 5 ways to tell if it’s sensory OR behavior.
What tips would you add? I LOVE hearing from you so please comment.

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