“Actually, (playdates) are a wonderful way to teach all children to be comfortable with one another; that interacting with all kinds of people and situations is normal, and you will be helping your child become a more successful adult.” – Marliese Delgado, United Ability
Published: August 31, 2018
By: Sarah Lyons
Playdates are an important part of childhood. They offer time for kids to interact socially without the structure of school or extracurricular activities. They also help kids learn to share, socialize, and play freely while still having support from their parents as needed.
Kids with special needs are no exception, and benefit from playdates as much as their peers. While they may take a little more planning and patience, it is well worth the efforts for everyone involved.
“Playdates are a crucial part of every child’s development, whether special needs or typically developing,” says Brooke Williams, M.S. CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist with Easterseals Birmingham. “Play dates are a great time for children with disabilities to let loose and have fun in a comfortable environment with peers.” Often a child with special needs can learn many skills by simply watching other children model behaviors such as speaking, turn-taking and more, she explains. Playdates can help with that.
Here are some tips for hosting a playdate with kids with disabilities:
Our natural reaction may be to avoid talking about any disabilities a child may have, but it is better to address any questions or concerns beforehand so everyone is more comfortable and knows what to expect.
“Parents should talk about activities their kids can do,” says Marliese Delgado, lead physical therapist with United Ability in Birmingham. “You may have to adapt an activity, or find something that everyone likes to do. Be open about what makes your child comfortable.”
Another great strategy is to plan activities that unite the kids. Kids who struggle with talking to peers or sharing toys may find that a common interest helps them feel more at ease. Find out the interests of the kids you are hosting and offer an activity around one that excites all of those invited. Ideas could include a craft, a game, or visiting somewhere that fosters that interest.
Talk to your child with special needs about the playdate, and it is also a good idea to talk to your typical children openly about differences they may have with their friends. Explain that just because others may seem different or express their joy differently, it doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy playdates or making new friends as well.
“There are books you can read that will help children understand, and PBS has many shows that depict children with special needs that will help alleviate any anxiety,” Delgado adds. “Actually, (playdates) are a wonderful way to teach all children to be comfortable with one another; that interacting with all kinds of people and situations is normal, and you will be helping your child become a more successful adult.”
Prior to the playdate, discuss with the other parents about what would be the best location to have the playdate. For some, their own home is more comfortable and successful. For others, staying at home may encourage the special needs child to say hello, then retreat to their room while company visits. In this case, it may be better to go to a public place that everyone can enjoy, such as a park, museum, or zoo.
“Look at your space and see if it will accommodate a wheelchair, walker, etc. depending on what the children need,” Delgado says. “Do you have steps? Work those things out ahead of time so that all the children can participate.”
On the other hand, parents who have a child prone to running away or hiding may find a public place overwhelming. Discuss your plans with all the parents involved and come up with the best solution for everyone.
Whenever kids are involved, patience is important. Try to understand that kids may have different reactions to situations, things may not go exactly as expected, and that it may take some time for kids with special needs to warm up to the situation.
Some children with special needs may prefer to participate in parallel play. Parallel play is when kids play beside each other, but do not interact with one another. Children who play alone during parallel play still enjoy the time together and are usually interested in what the other children are doing. If things do not go as planned, it is okay to cut the playdate short and try again in the future.
It is most important to note that kids with disabilities or special needs are just like anyone else; they want to interact with friends and be loved and appreciated. When hosting a play date with kids with disabilities, it’s important to greet them and interact with them as you would anyone else you meet.
“Children learn very young about social demands and most children thrive when given praise by others, rather it be a parent, peer, or caregiver,” Williams says. “What we also know is that children are eager to have the same opportunities and rewards that they see their peers receiving. Using peers during a play date is an excellent way to facilitate play/social, learning, language and academic skills.”
Parenting is not easy, and we all struggle with different challenges when it comes to our children. Ask the parent if they need help with anything prior to the playdate. Try to be patient and understanding. The other parent may be overwhelmed or tired. It may have been challenging to get there. All parents have great days where everything goes as planned and tough days where it seems nothing does. Listen and offer a hand when needed and they will most likely offer the same in return.
“Playdates are great times to share experiences,” Delgado says. “Parents can get really lonely because others think their child is so different, but all children have some shared experiences.”
The most important tip for having a playdate with a special needs child is just to have them. It may take a little more planning and patience than the average playdate, but it is so worth it to both the parents and kids involved. Playdates offer a great chance for kids to interact with peers and make friends in a non-stressful way, and they are also a great time for parents to connect and build each other up as well.
Sarah Lyons is a freelance writer. Lori Pruitt, Birmingham Parent associate editor, contributed to this story.
Playdate Activities That Unite
- Build something – Legos, blocks, wooden train sets
- Pick something they are both interested in and go do it
- Arts and crafts
- Outside play
- Quiet stations for the quieter group – set up puzzles, coloring sheets, books or blocks
- Set up a sensory bin
- Pick a neutral location – museum, park or zoo