Promoting your child’s social skills through successful play dates


Given the challenges children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) face in navigating the social world, setting up and facilitating play dates from an early age is one of the ways in which you can be instrumental in their growth and development.  In order for a play date to be a successful experience and one that actually promotes your child’s social skills, it must involve structure, adult facilitation, and the interactions in which both children are having fun and engaging in reciprocal exchanges.Here are some key elements for creating a successful play date experience for your child:A successful play date begins with planning

  • Determine which child will be an appropriate match for your child, based on feedback from school staff or personal observations of the children.
  • Prime your child for the play date. Begin talking about it several days in advance and use a calendar to visually represent the date and name of peer coming over.  Use picture of peer if available to prepare your child for play date.
  • Help your child plan the play date by having them generate ideas for activities peer may like. Your child could also be supported to call peer in advance and ask what activities they enjoy.
  • Use a visual system before play date (e.g. lists of activities, pictures of activities) to prepare your child for what they will be doing during the play date.
  • You may want to review or visually represent “dos” and “don’ts” for the children before the play date begins.

Keep it short

  • A short play date that is well planned and structured will be much more effective than a long play date where there down time and an opportunity for the children to move into solitary play or negative interactions.
  • If a short play date makes it more difficult for a parent to bring their child over, offer to pick up both children from the school and have the parent of the peer pick up the child after 30 minutes of the child being at your home.
  • Keeping a play date short will ensure success for both children and makes it more likely that there will be future play dates which could be of gradually longer duration.

Keep it structured

  • Plan structured activities in advance.  Activities that have built in rules (i.e. board games) and with which your child is familiar are a good place to start.  It is also importance to have options of a few different structured activities to allow for children to negotiate and agree upon one that may be of mutual interest to both.
  • Use a timer to provide the children with clear guidelines regarding the end point of games and activities, to prepare them for transitions, and for the conclusion of the play date.
  • Ensure that the activities that will be play during play date are those with which your child is familiar and successful.  These do not necessarily need to be highly preferred activities, as socialization is about engaging in activities that are preferred by others, as well as those that are self-selected.
  • Use games and activities that promote cooperation, such as an arts and craft activity where children must take turns with some of the same materials. The pieces for an activity can also be divided between two children so that each has to ask the other for the desired piece (i.e. when doing a puzzle or building a Lego structure). Remember that cooperation and interaction can be nonverbal as well as verbal.

Plan for downtime

  • Even if there are short gaps in between planned activities, it is helpful to have a plan of how to keep children engaged during this time.  It may be helpful to play a CD of children’s music, have children assist with the cleanup and set up of activities, or have paper and pencil ready for children to play a quick game of tic tac toe while they wait.

Review how it went

  • After the play date is over, review how it went with your child. Ask him or her about the parts of the play date that were successful and parts that could be improved upon.
  • Encourage your child to generate suggestions for how the play date could be different in the future.
  • Have your child rate their subjective feeling of success about the play date and guide them to form a realistic picture that helps develop their self-awareness and feelings of self-efficacy.