Children who can comfortably and easily visit or host a playmate, attend to their playmate at least sometimes, cooperate to select activities, and maintain play enjoyably for an hour or so – generally do. Children who can’t yet do this independently – at more or less the same level as their same-aged peers – need some kind of support.
Feel free to adapt these suggestions to scale up where your child needs more support, or scale down where they need less. Wherever you start, the goal is to quickly fade into the background of your child’s playdates as soon as they get the hang of it.
Tip: You may find yourself having to work harder at setting up playdates for a child with social challenges than others seem to need to. It can be disheartening! Your wishes and hopes are understandable and OK, but it may help to remember that your mission is a little different. You are looking for play practice partners for your child, not angling to set them up with a new best friend. Keep expectations reasonably low and make it easy on the other parent to say yes.
After you’ve scheduled the playdate, start thinking about how to prepare your child. It would be ideal to give your child a few days in advance to think about how they will have fun with this friend. Having a photo of the other child to paste on a calendar may help your child to prepare.
Find out how much your child knows about the child he or she will be playing with. You may not have much information to work with. For children with social challenges, even knowing the name of the other child can be a good start! Children who are socially challenged often focus far less on details about other people than on their own focused interests, like dinosaurs, transportation or numbers, for example. Consequently, they tend to recall less information about others than most kids, who can rattle off the interests, pet peeves and even topics of recent conversations with many of their peers.
If your child can think of one or two details about the friend’s preferences — “David likes drawing” or “Sienna likes her cats a lot” — or a common interest, then you already have a foundation to build on. If not, see about using the time until the playdate takes place to coach your child to find out one or two things about the other child. Start with the wondering aloud: “I wonder if Jamie likes building with Legos too …”
If your child attends school with the child they will be having a playdate with, encourage your child to try to “think with his eyes” to figure out what the other child likes to do. At recess, your child can take a look at what their prospective playmate likes to do: Play games, build things, swing, play chase, jump rope, read, do art projects, pretend? Explicitly teaching your child to observe other children and notice their preferences will provide a foundation for future interaction with others. Sometimes teachers can be wonderful sources of information about potential playmates and their interests.
You can use this information – even if it is only what I call a “nugget” of information about the other child’s preferences – to help your child understand that on playdates, we do activities that both children enjoy, or we take turns doing something our guest enjoys first, then something we enjoy. You can use this “nugget” when you make the playdate plan.
If your child can’t yet notice, remember and report back to you on the other child’s interests, that’s OK. You can always talk to the child’s parents or teachers, but resist the temptation to use this as a shortcut. Your child may need support and encouragement over a long period of time to learn the process of learning about other kids’ likes and dislikes. This will set them up for more successful, enjoyable social interactions in the future, not just on this playdate. But that’s a long-term project.
In the short term … a visual playdate plan helps to provide needed structure for the first few playdates. For some children the idea of a playdate can provoke a lot of excitement, coupled with a heavy dose of anxiety. Having a concrete plan helps to overcome some of that fear. Younger children may benefit from having the plan divided into three columns: Beginning, Middle, and End.
Tip: For my playdate plans, I sometimes use sticky notes because they can be rearranged to accommodate the children’s changing preferences for order of play. Of course, if they seem to be agreeably changing activities together, there’s no need to step in with the sticky notes.
In advance of the playdate, ask your child what they think they might like to do with their playmate. It may help to make play ideas more concrete if you walk around your child’s room and other potential play areas. If your child has difficulty coming up with ideas, you can point at various play areas or toys and see if something makes them light up.
Then narrow the play ideas down to three or four favorites, writing each one on a sticky note. Do this using a marker with your child’s favorite color, if he or she has one, and draw little pictures of each activity if you possibly can. When it comes to negotiating which play ideas to do next, it will make it easier if both kids can see drawings instead of having to translate the words into the play ideas. If your child isn’t reading yet, you can just stick with the drawings and the first letter of the word: B for book.
Put the sticky notes on the back of a fairly big book, like a picture book, or on a clipboard. Then ask your child to help you try to guess what the other child might like to do. You can review your list, or help your child think of something based on what he or she might have learned about the other child’s likes and dislikes.
Tip: Taking what you know about a person and using that information to make a “smart guess” about them is called social inferencing. This process of filling in the blanks about other people is something many of us do intuitively all the time. People with social challenges may find it helpful to learn how to go beyond what we concretely, factually know about other people in order to make accurate predictions about what others will respond positively or negatively to.
If the playmate likes building, then show your child that Legos, Kapla blocks, wooden blocks, and even Hotwheels car tracks, for example, might be a good suggestion. If the playmate likes art, consider pulling out an easel if you have one and getting the supplies together for painting or drawing, or get a table cleared off for working with clay if the children might like that.
Tip: Thinking about categories this way is a foundational abstract thinking skill that has wide-ranging academic as well as social benefits. Let’s say that your child learns to guess that a friend who is really into animals might like to visit a zoo together, get your help to look at some funny animal-oriented videos like Dramatic Chipmunk on YouTube, play with your family’s dog in the backyard for a while, or draw pictures of animals together. If your child could eventually learn to generate several related ideas under the umbrella of one coherent topic like this, then they may be well on their way to being able to make mostly on-topic remarks in a conversation, even learning to follow and stay with the twists and turns of a group conversation’s many topic shifts.
If you’re fortunate enough to have solid “nugget” of information about the playmate’s interests, follow through on that and find a ways to accommodate that interest during the playdate. Having the supplies ready for a favored activity or two will keep you from scrambling around to pull something from the garage and something else from the attic while the kids are losing interest.
When the other child arrives for the playdate, explain that you and your child had some ideas about what to do, and show them the sticky notes. Say that you made a guess that they might like to do the activity on “their” sticky note, but they can let you know. You can include a few blank sticky notes and show them that you will use their favorite color to write down what they want to do. Then take them on a tour of your house (and your stuff), and make a list with them of what they would like to do.
They may want to jump into playing, but if you can, see about getting them to help you figure out what they want to do first, next, and then after that. Engage them by showing them that you are writing down their favorite ideas on their sticky notes. Most kids appreciate having their ideas taken this seriously by an adult, so feel free to make a little bit of a show of this.
Place your child’s three or four play ideas on one side of the book or clipboard, and place the other child’s ideas on the other side. Pull off the ones that are the same, and stick them together, pointing out that these are the same great idea! Ask which one they would like to do first, and be firm about having your child defer on this first round to the guest, being clear that the next choice will be theirs. Have the kids help you put a few activities in order. If you have a long list of activities, it is best to stress at the beginning that there might not be time for all of the activities, but you can save the notes for the next playdate.
Tip: A good “back pocket plan” like making cookies or taking to dog out for a walk with you can save the day when things go off the rails. Have something ready to go so you’re not hunting for materials while things are breaking down in the next room!
It’s best to keep playdates short and sweet when your child is learning so much socially, and working so hard. You will be working hard too. So be sure to set up transportation in a way that allows for a definite, predictable end to the playdate. If you can help your child end it on a good note, it’s more likely the playmate will be receptive to another playdate, so let your child know what’s coming up after the playdate, and make sure it’s not a chore. Be sure to take photos of the happiest points during the playdate and share them with the other child’s family, and later, with your child.