Ideally, play dates should be a regular part of your child’s life, casually held at home on a frequent basis. But, for kids who struggle with social skills, like those with ADHD or an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), play dates can be more about struggle than fun. Still, play dates are so valuable, it’s worth some effort by parents to make sure your kids have great ones. One way to do this is to shake things up a bit, move your child’s play dates from your house to someplace new.
One key trait of kids who struggle socially is that they may be highly attached to routine. And home may be the very symbol for that routine. Bring another child into your child’s home, and you’ve opened the door for all sorts of issues, things like being territorial, not wanting to share, going to hide, or watch TV, or follow some other type of typical routine. Suddenly, it’s not just a play date, it’s a power struggle.
So, where can they go to play? Here’s where you have to consider your child’s individual temperament and sensory issues. Most kids will adapt their mood in different environments. Think specifically about what kind of stimulation your child will be getting in different places. How does your child deal with sounds, lights, textures? If your child is very sensitive, test out any new setting alone before adding the additional pressures of another child.
If kids can take the stimulation, I think a park or playground is ideal. It’s nobody’s territory and the setting is easy to supervise. If you’re lucky enough to have access, a beach or pool lends itself well to casual play opportunities. Also try out snow, sand, woods, water, or fallen leaves and see if that’s a soothing yet energizing setting for play. Nature and the outdoors can be so important for kids that it’s worth some effort to really try out different outdoor settings until you find something that fits.
If your child is one who seems to come unglued without a ceiling overhead, you may have to concede to hold play dates indoors for a while. Indoor play areas can be a little trickier to find, as well as more expensive, but you don’t need anyplace fancy or elaborate. Think again about sensory issues and pick a place that feels sheltered and not too stimulating. There are lots of small, lesser known museums, little traveled malls, libraries, bookstores, or pet stores that may allow your child to interact with a friend in a simple, casual way.
As your child gets used to playing with others,you can experiment with trying out each other homes. Having a parent for each child can make the stress more manageable. Above all, keep trying. Play dates are important and every little success makes the next play date easier.
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.