Your child may display self-confidence at home, but in order to grow socially, children must interact with people outside the home. Overtime children acquire the skills to handle more social stressors, but while they are learning how to communicate, you may feel like having a play date is a draining experience.
We know it’s not ideal to cajole your child to share with his friend every single time or even convince them to stop shouting at their friends when they are excited, but don’t worry mama—it gets better. As you navigate the process, continue to work on their friendship skills, and remember a few of these play date planning tips to help set you and your child up for play date success.
Here are seven steps to plan a successful play date for the kid who struggles socially:
1. Offer a mission
Missions are one or two focused behaviors you and your child have been working on that they will try to demonstrate during the play date. As your child gets ready for their friend to come over, remind them that they have two missions—share their favorite toy and take a deep breath to calm down. Offering tasks allows your little one to focus on the mission, not their comfort level.
2. Seek playmates who are compatible
Pick a playmate whose temperament will allow your child a chance to practice their missions. Compatibility does not necessarily mean putting two like-minded children together. For example, two rambunctious, impulsive children would not make a wise fit for a play date in which your child needs to practice new skills or behaviors.
If your child is in daycare, ask the teacher who your child plays with the most, you can also have play dates with your friends who have children around the same age as yours.
3. Limit the duration of the play date
For a child working on these new and emerging skills, 45 minutes to an hour for a play date can be plenty. Sometimes limiting the duration of the play date is not possible because parents want to drop off and go for a longer duration. If the play date is longer try to have some unstructured time to allow your child to practice their mission and some structured time where you focus on a particular activity together.
4. Pick an environment and activity that fosters positive play
Picking the right location and environment that supports your child’s mission is key to helping them put their best foot forward. To that end, try to host the play date so you can shape the environment and remove toys or activities that have caused problems in the past. In this instance, it’s important to know your child—a crowded bounce park where your child may be overstimulated may not be the best place to play.
5. Consider the time of day
The time of day the play date occurs can be a setup for success—or a deal-breaker. Remember that a play date is an opportunity for your child to practice new social skills that may be hard for them. Most children aren’t at their best when they’re tired or hungry so select a time when your child has the resources to focus on their mission.
6. Adjust your expectations
Change does not occur overnight. If in the past every minute of the play date fell apart and now your child is able to remember his mission for the first half of the play date that is a win. This may mean managing your emotions and allowing your child to celebrate each and every small win.
7. Create a subtle cue
Create a subtle cue or code word to remind your child of his mission if you notice things going off track. It’s critical that this be something only you and your child are aware of—it’s much worse to interrupt or embarrass your child by calling attention to an issue.
For example, you can agree ahead of time that when you bring juice boxes over it’s to remind them of their mission or if you say a phrase like “Would you like popcorn?” it is to help them remember to let their friend choose a game. You can even make things fun and silly by picking a funny code word like “clown.”