I have worked with families who put in hours of hard work with their kids, building their play skills but are left feeling stuck when it comes time to ‘practice’ these skills with their peers. Where to find a suitable playmate? How to set up a playdate and where to have it?
And is the imminent fighting that often goes hand in hand with sharing toys and play space worth the hassle? Sigh… Yes, absolutely. Play with peers offers unique opportunities that play with siblings or Mum and Dad cannot replicate.
Routine play contact with peers in a supportive setting provides opportunities for kids to practice managing unfamiliar scenarios and to find meaning in the friendships they develop.
So who is the most ideal play partner for your child? Do you invite a child of the same developmental level, an older child or one with strong play skills? Well, there is not one prescriptive answer. You know your child best. You may find that your child doesn’t take initiative around others but is quite happy to share play space and most toys. In this situation, a peer who can lead could be a good match. I recommend speaking to your preschool or school teacher about who they think may make a good play mate.
Will a small fenced-in playground be suitable or will you offer your home? Perhaps your child will feel more comfortable surrounded by a familiar routine at home. Or a playground may be ideal for a pair of movement seekers who love climbing.
Let’s talk about this notion of playdate success. A playdate that runs 100% smoothly is as likely as your children requesting a second serving of broccoli. Could happen though! It is important to adjust our expectations. Conflict is often unavoidable and meltdowns are not fun but as long as no one leaves in an ambulance, it doesn’t deem the playdate a disaster.
Oh, and perhaps halfway through playing, your child has had enough or decides to retreat to a safe spot in their house. That’s ok. Play can be hard work! Pat yourself on the back and celebrate any small but valuable time your child spent with another, experiencing and growing. Yes even small gains equal success!
Remember that we all define friendships differently. The qualities we value in our friends may be very different to what our kids see as important and meaningful. The definition of friendship for one child may involve sitting side by side with a peer while for another it may mean sharing knowledge about a topic.
If you decide to host a playdate at home, ask the other parent beforehand about their child’s interests and whether their child has any sensory concerns (e.g. doesn’t like paint or noisy toys). Have some back-up activities in the event that sharing and turn taking issues arise. Set up an area with play dough, paint, bubbles or duplicate toys so materials can be more easily shared.
Most children who enjoy routine and predictability need to feel some control. A play plan is a great tool for children to better prepare themselves for what is coming up. See free PDF at bottom of page. You can draw, write or use real photos on the plan. This is a way to verbally and visually discuss WHO is coming and WHERE play will happen. E.g. “We are going to play in the living room” (perhaps the bedroom with favourite toys is out-of-bounds). You may involve your child in thinking about WHAT he or she wants to play and discuss some of the rules. Game rules and safety rules can be covered. Talk about what food you might serve if you plan to provide a snack.
If your child has a clearer idea about what to expect then he or she can exert less energy trying to control the environment and can focus on building skills and relationships.
Feel free to print out our Play Plan resource below! You are welcome to contact us with any questions.
Ellena, Occupational Therapist and Owner, Kids Develop Store