It has been a while since I was a child, and making friends is no doubt more challenging now that it has ever been. Add on top of that a diagnosis, or a different way of socializing, and making friends can become even more challenging. This can be a terrifying realization for many families, as the happiness of their child is so important, and having friends is a goal many children have.
It is exhausting to find the energy to always plan fun and engaging play dates for children. A healthy social life and play skills are important to a child’s development and overall well-being.
I did in-home therapy when I first started in the field of ABA. I remember my first ABA client – he loved maps, had a great sense of humour, and liked to make funny faces in photos to look at. He had difficulty engaging in interactive play with peers, not getting his way, and initiating conversations. Although he was interested in children his age, he did not know how to navigate the world of play with peers or how to communicate his needs to them.
We set up a play date between him and a classmate, with me as the therapist facilitating some of the play. We practiced building our own robots and commenting, using blocks to build a shared tower, imaginative play, and going to the park.
Meaningful Play Date Tips
Most importantly is to remember that play dates are supposed to be fun! What are the child’s interests, and how can the play date be a safe and fun experience for all?
Identify the current repertoire and skills of the child. How can you best facilitate learning and building on existing skills? Social skills vary by child, and children who need to develop social and play skills may be at a different level than their peers.
There are important play skills children should work towards. These include joint attention, non-verbal communication, turn taking, and collaborative play.
There are different levels of play, including:
|Exploratory/Sensory Motor Play||Using their senses and moving their body|
|Relational||Combining objects in play|
|Functional||Using objects for their intended purpose|
|Symbolic/Pretend Play||Using objects to represent unrelated items in play|
|Socio Dramatic/Role Play||Pretending to be a character or another person|
Parallel play is a large part of the play repertoire for Autistic children.
Independent play is when a child engages in play by themselves, and not in close proximity to others. Interactive play is when a child engages in play with others. Parallel play is the step between independent play and interactive play and is characterized by a child engaging in play independently, but in close proximity to peers.
Play Date Goals.
It is important to identify the short-term and long-term goals of social skills so that learning can progress through gradual steps. Goals may include reaching Step Z of social skills, but the child may need to learn Steps A-Y first.
Who does the child enjoy being around, and who enjoys the company of that child? This does not need to be limited to children in the same class, the same age, or children without a diagnosis. It is important to identify key players, such as siblings, cousins, or older/younger children (with and without a diagnosis).
Some places to find play mates include at school (in the classroom, in after school programs), the park or other local spots (community centre, library), places of worship, special interest groups, as well as online (the gaming community is a great resource!).
Practice, Practice, Practice!
It is important to practice social skills beyond play dates. Read stories, watch shows, act it out, and talk about some things to expect. This can help calm anxieties about the unknown and give the child additional opportunities to use these skills.
Putting it Together.
Where will you host the play date? Crowded, loud, or busy spaces may not be the best environment depending on the child’s level of comfort and needs. This is where it is important to remember the shared interests between the child and play mate – some options include the library, museum (history, art, sport, automotive), zoo, science centre, park, online gaming community, or other, may be a great way to provide an activity to highlight interests and strengths.
Make something! Arts and crafts, building, baking, or sensory exploration are great activities to keep children engaged.
Go somewhere! Visit a park, beach, or other outdoor space. Go see a new site, attraction, or event.
Learn something! Try science experiments at home, go digging in the backyard, or visit an educational centre.
Talk to Others.
It is not necessary, but it may help ease anxieties. Just like we plan and practice with children, help prepare them for the unexpected, and give them tools to use, the same can be done for play partners and their parents. It is not only about informing them about some of the differences and needs, but also highlighting the similarities, interests, and strengths of the child.
Know the Limits.
It is important to know when a shift in mood is possible. Identifying certain triggers can help you plan a play date to reduce or eliminate them, but also knowing when a child’s social battery has run out is vital. Although it can be difficult to predict when the level of enjoyment or tolerance may change, it is important to have a plan in place to end the play date.
When a child engages in a play date and leaves feeling happy, they are more likely to show interest in future play dates.
It will not be perfect all the time. It is no one’s fault.
What worked, and what did not work, are both valuable pieces of information. This will help guide future play dates. Always look to the child to see what they enjoyed, and how you can incorporate more of those elements into future play dates. What did all the children show some interest in? How can you build on that interest together?