If only I could count the number of times a parent has shared, “We don’t get calls for play dates.” Each time, the sentiment saddens me and, at the same time, creates hope. When the call does come, jubilation is quickly followed by anxiety. What will they do? Should they play video games? How long? Where?
As a therapist who encourages her clients to “hang out” as much as possible, I have had the joy of leading play dates at some of my clients’ homes with middle schoolers. I have failed miserably – imagine six middle schoolers arguing over what to do – and have succeeded by the skin of my teeth – who would have thought Twister would be such a savior? Regardless of the outcome, I listen to them as they talk about the experience later. It becomes a shared memory, a moment of pride, something to do again.
From my own trial-and-error file, I provide these considerations:
· Consider the size of your play date. Initially, I would encourage a dyad, especially given the number of common interests, attention span, and activity level. I would also advise you to be wary of odd numbers of participants in a play date; three children easily pair off, leaving one child alone.
· Prepare a schedule. I create “whole-group” and “small-group” activity times. In a smaller situation, this could translate to “us” and “me” activity times. I devise “me” time as something that maintains proximity and conversation between the two children but allows for a short break. Building with Legos™ and drawing are possibilities.
· Select activities that do not push the children to utilize skills they do not posses. Take into account frustration tolerance, attention span, pragmatic skills, etc.
· Be ready to coach but not to hover. Your presence might be needed to help get the ball rolling, to transition between activities, and even to help put out fires.
· Allow no cameo appearances from family members or other children. The point is not for your child to feel ostracized or ineffective. Your younger sibling or neighbor can have a play date without your help.
· Think carefully about the length of your play date. Your goal is for a successful interaction, not to fill up a certain amount of time. Given that, if fatigue arises and dispositions change, do not hesitate to end the play date early.
I’ve learned that if the kids leave smiling – even if I or you leave with a headache – the playdate has been successful. I leave you with a client’s review of a recent outing: “By my estimation this went well. Things got a little hyped at the end, but otherwise, it was great.”