The organized “play date” has replaced the neighborhood kids gathering informally after school hours or on the weekends. Today’s reality finds busy, working parents organizing playgroups and inviting like-minded parents to meet up in play spaces so kids have a chance to do what most of us grew up doing so naturally - playing with our peers!
A child’s primary occupation is playing, but when children have difficulty playing with others, an occupational therapist can help your child develop these skills through play based activities - from sensory processing responses, to language-based peer interactions, emotional and sensory self-regulation, and all of the motor skills in between!
Semi-structured playdates can support all of these skills when your differently-wired child is not necessarily developing them on his/her own. For some sensory kids, however, it’s overwhelming just approaching a playdate experience, with unpredictable peers, in a multi-sensory playspace. For parents of these sensory kids, it can be anxiety-producing trying to organize a successful experience for your child and his/her peer.
Here are our Top 10 Sensory-informed Tips for Playdate Success:
Prepare your child for what to expect - creating a social story that outlines the ‘who, what, when, and how’ of the day’s events will support your child’s feelings of security.
Define an expectation of time - You’ll want to be realistic based on your child’s age and skills. Don’t be afraid to set aside only 15-20 minutes - your child will feel successful and so will the other parent/child! You can always work towards longer play dates when your child shows he is ready for more activity. Some children may benefit from a visual timer if they have not learned about time concepts.
Start small - children with sensory processing difficulties are often overwhelmed by factors outside of their control, and kids are by nature unpredictable! By limiting the size of your play group to just one or two familiar peers, your child may be more successful in responding to his friend.
Choose a play space that is engaging, but not overtly overstimulating - trampoline parks and indoor amusement spaces can be awesome, but the level of sensory stimulation may cause your child to have more difficulty engaging with another friend.
If you’re more comfortable hosting the playdate in your home, consider structuring a simple activity that has a beginning/end or final product. Simple cooking activities, games, or basic craft projects can promote language, turn-taking, and peer interactions while providing your sensory child some predictability within familiar routines. While the ultimate goal of a playdate is free-play, some children need the structure and support of a defined activity to develop pre-requisite play skills.
Bring familiar, preferred objects that your child is successful at playing with, but not likely to get stuck on. Kids are more likely to build social skills on motor skills that they already have - the first time you introduce a scooter isn’t also the time you expect your child to hold a conversation with a friend while riding! Bring an activity that your child feels competent with so there is a sense of familiarity. Just be careful not to choose such a highly-preferred object that it will cause an issue with sharing!
Pack a transition object or highly preferred toy for the end of the playgroup - leaving something fun is never easy! This is when your ‘bag of tricks’ for preferred toys, fidgets, or sensory tools may be helpful in easing this transition. You may want to even consider adding the mention of this object into your child’s social story so they understand the association between the toy and the end of the playdate.
Hungry kids are cranky kids! If your child is a picky eater or has food sensitivities, be sure to pack snacks that will appeal to him. Pack enough for the friend and encourage sharing - snack time is a great opportunity to work on social skills! Consider your child’s sensory needs and how you can pack chewy, crunchy textures to help provide calming proprioceptive input as he eats.
Dress for success - tight-fitting clothes that offer compression or deep pressure input will help your child with self-regulation. If your play space is a no-shoes zone, be sure to pack socks or slippers that your sensory child will tolerate. This way, you reduce the impact of tactilely-sensitive bare feet on scratchy carpets or rough tile floors.
Just as you prepare for other community outings, changes in routine, or potentially-troublesome events, proactively engage your child in sensory diet activities that have a calming, re-organizing effect on him. In the event that your child does get overstimulated at a playdate, the sensory tools that you pack in your portable sensory tool box should be familiar, predictable, and calming.
Play dates are a fabulous opportunity for kids to explore new sensory experiences, respond to peers, and develop critical social skills. Be sure to take a sensory-informed look at how you identify your child’s play spaces and set up for playdate success.
Alescia Ford-Lanza MS OTR/L, ATP is an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Practitioner with 15 years of pediatric experience. She specializes in educationally-relevant interventions with a focus on sensory integration and assistive technology supports to learning. Alescia founded Adapt & Learn on the mission that children of all abilities can play, learn, adapt, and develop with the right therapeutic and educational supports. Alescia strives to help children along this continuum by fostering a love of learning.