Play Date Troubles? 10 Strategies For Success

Did you have scheduled play dates as a kid? I didn’t. And I don’t know anyone who did. When I think about growing up and playing with my friends, there was no such thing as “play dates”.

When I was a kid you might knock on your friend’s door and ask them to play. Or you might talk about it in school and ask your mother if you could go to a friend’s house.

It was very informal and there did not seem to be any pressure to play with your friends. There also wasn’t any pressure on parents to arrange this play time and host play dates.

Then came the scheduled “play date”.

I have heard from many parents that the pressure to arrange multiple play dates for their children each week is enormous. The pressure is from their children and from other parents. Parents also feel pressure to host fun and exciting play dates so all the children leave happy.

Parents of children with special needs also feel this pressure to arrange play dates.

However, the anxiety and stress is much greater for them.

Aside from the anxiety that surrounds the planning of the play date and trying to find appropriate peers, parents of children with special needs report the pain of watching their children during play dates not interact or enjoy themselves.

Many parents of children with special needs find that they are too emotionally involved to facilitate in a beneficial way therefore they avoid play dates all together. Unfortunately this can lead to even more isolation for their child.

It does not have to be this way though.

Here are 10 strategies for successful play dates.

  1. Start off with very short play dates. I would not recommend any longer than 1 hour. 30-45 minutes would be ideal.
  2. Have the play date at your house. Make sure he is ready before sending him to play at other children’s homes.
  3. Get input from your child. Find out who he would want to invite over to play.
  4. Only invite one other child. Three children will not play as well as two children and inevitably one child will be left out. This may or may not bother the child with special needs however it does defeat the purpose of the play date if he is the one left out.
  5. Have repetitive play dates with the same child. Allow the children to develop a relationship with each other.
  6. Keep siblings out of the room.
  7. Talk to your child about sharing before the play date. Prior to the play date allow him to put away any toys he does not want to share.
  8. Don’t worry about “perfect”.
  9. Play dates should be supervised. The age and functioning level of the children should determine the level of supervision. Older children with adequate language skills may only require the occasional adult assistance, while younger children with developmental delays may initially require constant adult facilitation.
  10. Get expert help if needed. Speech language pathologists make an excellent choice for play date facilitation. This is because play date problems typically arise when one or both of the children are lacking appropriate communication skills. A good facilitator can do wonders for taking the pressure off of you and helping your child learn to appropriately navigate social situations.

While you don’t need to over do it with play dates, it’s important that you give your child a chance to play and make friends.

A substantial body of research shows that a child’s ability to socialize and interact with her peers is a major indicator of what her life will be like as an adult. A child who has difficulty making and maintaining friends is at a much greater risk of social and emotional problems when he or she becomes an adult.

So, regardless of what we call it, learning to play with peers is critical. While it may seem easier to avoid play dates all together, they are important to our children’s development and shouldn’t be missed.


Isa Marrs is the Founder and Executive Director of the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program. She is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in pragmatic language (social skills) disorders in children. Read More

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