You worked diligently planning for today’s play date: a book to get things started, a seasonal craft to tie in education, and a creative snack to conclude the day. Last you checked, breaking up a scuffle and mopping juice box puddles off the floor weren’t on the list. So what went wrong?
Planning a play date can be overwhelming at times. We want things to go as planned and, above all, we want our child to make friends. Building friendships involves an array of skills, including initiating interactions, taking turns, being flexible, asking questions, and negotiating. For children with language difficulties, these skills can often be challenging. So how can we help them succeed?
Strategies to help your child navigate peer interactions during a play date:
- Talk to your child ahead of time about their upcoming play date. Discuss who is coming over and what is going to happen. Include concepts such as taking turns, sharing, or being a good friend. If possible, show your child a picture of their peer as you discuss.
- Make a visual schedule of activities. If your child has difficulty with transitions or changes in routine, make a visual schedule at the beginning of the play date. You might draw pictures on a piece of paper (e.g. #1 game, #2 play legos, #3 snack), or tape activity pictures on a board. Incorporate group members in the planning process. Agreeing on activities is a great opportunity to work on negotiating and compromising.
- Don’t be afraid of conflict. Instead of jumping in quickly to prevent disasters, take a step back and allow your child to problem solve on his/her own. Children learn through trial and error, so we can’t be too afraid of the “error” part. If a situation begins to escalate, then step in and offer guidance to help peers solve the problem together. Avoid fixing the problem yourself.
- Narrate breakdowns using simple language. Using simple language will enable your child to better interpret and navigate social interactions. For example: “Uh oh, look at your friend’s face- he looks mad. I think he feels mad when you take his toy.”
- Describe what others’ facial expressions mean. Explain why peers might be feeling happy or sad. For example: “Your friend looks sad. I think he feels sad when you don’t share your truck.”
- Model specific phrases or ideas to better handle tough situations. For children with language difficulties, it may be easier to abandon activities or even use physical aggression during conflict. Modeling constructive solutions will provide your child with more successful means to work through obstacles. For example: “It looks like you want a turn. You can tell your friend that you would like a turn. You can ask, ‘Can I have a turn, please?’”
- Use positive verbal praise to comment on what is going well. Positive verbal praise is one of the most effective ways to increase good behaviors. For example: “Wow! That was so friendly when you let your friend go first. It’s so fun to play with you when you let other people go first.”
- Help your child repair communication breakdowns. For example: “Uh oh, I don’t think your friend heard what you said. You can say it again!”
- Follow your child’s lead. Parent involvement is a wonderful thing. However, over-involvement can potentially diminish many natural benefits of play, such as problem-solving, group skills, and creativity.
Practical activities for your child’s next play date:
- Play a turn-taking game. Turn-taking games are a great way to begin a play date. Children can practice social skills within a structured context, before moving on to more challenging or unstructured play activities.
- Make a “Friend Book”. Encourage each child to share three things about themselves (e.g. favorite color, number of siblings), and write it on a page. Glue a digital picture of each child on their page. Afterwards, photocopy the book so every child has a copy to keep. This activity encourages learning about others and finding commonalities.
- Have a group sharing time. Have each child bring a special item to share with others. It might be a favorite toy, a ticket stub from a weekend outing, or a picture from a fun day. This activity encourages listening, sharing, and conversing about different topics. Children with language impairments often have more difficulty discussing events that are not in the here and now. Talking about concrete items is a great way to help children build conversation skills in a less demanding context.
- Get moving. Choose active games to get peers engaged in gross-motor play. Incorporating movement into a play date provides children with opportunities to increase sensory awareness. Fun gross motor activities might include animal races (e.g. bear crawl, crab walk, bunny hop), going on a scavenger hunt, or building and completing an obstacle course.
- Build something together. Have peers work together to create something with building materials such as Legos, blocks or Play-Doh. These activities will promote creativity and collaboration as children share ideas and work together.
- Make believe. Have pretend play activities available to encourage imagination and cooperation. You might include dress-up clothes, musical instruments, or pretend picnic food.
- Have a snack together. Snack time is a great way to open or close a play date. You can even have peers work together to make their own fun snack (e.g. “ants on a log” or “gummy worm dirt cup”). While eating, use the opportunity to talk about the day. What did we play today? What was our favorite game? What are we going to play next time?