Play dates are important to a child's social development. By sharing, negotiation, listening, and basic interaction, play dates are jammed packed with learning opportunities. For you (the parent and/or caregiver), play dates are critical to understanding your child's weaknesses and providing tools to help develop important social skills.
An invitation for a friend to play, allows your child to showcase their "stuff" and build their self esteem in a nurturing, safe environment. Home is where we feel the most comfortable. Additionally, it is a great way to get involved with your child's friends and build your own relationship with them. At 5 years, parents aren't as concerned with the difficulties of tween and teen choices, but wouldn't you rather have your kids under your roof (to see what is going on), than to have them elsewhere (not knowing what he/she is doing)? If you begin at a young age, your child and their friends, will grow up with the desire to "hang out" in your home. A place where you can have an influence and enjoy the energy of such vibrant people.
For an autistic child, play dates are critical to practicing social skills, a common deficit. The term, hidden curriculum is a teaching tool used to describe such practices. It is what will help a child on the spectrum (with autism) understand abstract ideas or words that may have a double meaning. For most of us, we learn by observation and begin to understand what is appropriate versus what is not appropriate behavior. It is not as obvious to an autistic child trying to navigate the difficulty of nonverbal queues, humor, and literal meanings versus sarcasm. This is not to say that a typical child won't get benefit from practicing such skills. Quite the contrary. If you are a play date novice, or have had difficult encounters, these tips will help direct, facilitate, and create a successful play experience:
- Prepare your child: Talking about what to expect can ease the anxiety for your child. (a) Provide concrete words to help them: "when your friend comes over, show him/her the play room or toy area and/or bedroom (if you have toys located there)." Once finished, ask "what do you want to do?" (b) Using some visual or tangible event, let your child understand there is a time limit: (1a)"Suzie will stay until we have to go to school." (1b) "Suzie's mom will pick her up right after lunch". Your child will understand that when you announce that it is time for school or lunch, the play date is almost over. Preparing both children 10 minutes before the play date will come to an end, gives each a chance to transition and accept that the end is near.
- Set rules! This is big because kids will be kids. At the beginning of the play date, clearly state what the rules are. Using a paper and marker to draw (with pictures if your child can't read), jot down your top 4 or 5 rules. This can't be complicated, but is necessary. Post the list on a play room wall or door for the children to see. The list is a great tool for you to use if the children "break" a rule. It provides a tangible area to point to and exclaim, "Rule #3 says that we share. What is the best way to solve this problem?" Always try to get them to realize what the resolution is. Jump in when or if it is clear a resolution is not realized.
- Structure time around clear activities to alleviate anxiety for both children. If your goal is to have a friend over to get things accomplished, you need to re-evaluate that goal. Eventually that may happen, but until both children are comfortable and able to play together in syncopated style, you are necessary to facilitate a successful encounter. Stations work out great. For boys: Lego's, building blocks, gears, puzzles. For girls: cooking, dress up, and dolls seem to be a good start. Can each gender do the same thing? Sure! In experience, a boys interest tends to be with building and a girls(typical children) with imaginative play. Creative stations work for both boys and girls, especially autistic children. Playdoh, drawing, painting, sidewalk chalk etc., can provide parallel play that won't be obvious to the friend that your child enjoys playing on his own. The goal for a child with autism is to engage him/her in an activity with the friend. They don't have to be best buds, just doing the same thing, some of the time.
- Snack time breaks things up a bit. It allows for the children to regroup and possibly get some much needed nutrition. It also is a time-snatcher, which is helpful if you find yourself drowning in the minutes. Try to make it fun by using cookie cutters to make shapes out of bread or Cheerios to top on a bagel with cream cheese. Let the kids experiment and have fun. Make sure you know if your guest has any allergies or special diet instructions.
- Limit the time of the play date. Many parents will drop off their kids for a chunk of time. This is difficult for a family with an autistic child because their child can really only handle short snippets of time. You want the encounter to go well and leave on a happy note. It the play date is too long, many times, the children melt down. It is work for them. Try to direct or discuss the necessity with the friend's parent that the play date can only last 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Sometimes, that may be even too long.
Bonus tip: Instead of a play date at the house, invite the friend to go on an outing (i.e. Bowling, playground, bounce house, lunch). Friends love to go on outings and this kind of play opportunity provides structure and fun all in one. Additionally, you get to decide how long it will last: "We won't be too long. I'll drop John off after we finish."
Note: Transitioning may be a problem. If this is the case, don't give up! Invite the same child over for a few short play dates. Your child will begin to understand the expectation, which will decrease his/her anxiety. With each play date, transition time will be less. As the parent, you will get to know the friend's interests too and can target activities to do for the next time.
Play dates are worth the effort! A couple of good friendships are the building blocks for many life skills.