This blog post was originally published on the Peer Projects Therapy website. You can read the original here.
We know that for many children, connecting with peers in a positive, sustained way, and developing true friendships can be hard! This is why we are constantly thinking about how to help kids do this. We recently had a team discussion on this topic, pulling together some of our main philosophies. We mindfully bring these ideas to each session and to our daily lives as a whole. We realized that this list, or “cheat sheet” of our guiding principles, might be valuable to parents and caregivers as you create opportunities for your child to have peer interactions and playdates. We are happy to share our top five tips here!
Consistency. We are true believers in the power of relationships. We feel that when kids, who have the potential to develop a friendship, see each other on a regular basis, it will help that relationship strengthen and grow. Consistency over time allows plenty of space for bumps and conflicts to be tolerated, and ultimately worked out. If kids have a disagreement one week, it is okay because we know we will have the opportunity to help them reflect and repair their misunderstanding the next week.
In addition, as we form more memories together over time, we are increasing the likelihood that our positive memories together will far outweigh the negative ones. We hear often of kids having a bad experience with peers, which leads to the formation of negative memories. This then gets in the way of developing friendships. In natural environments, it can be challenging for kids to independently go back and make a repair with friend, and then move on together from a place of mutual understanding. In contrast, when we have a plan in place for children to see each other on a consistent basis, no matter what, we are supporting their ability to come back and repair in the near future. We are also helping them to appreciate that all relationships have their ups and downs, but friends can handle it. We are actively developing resilience.
Tip for home: Think about a regular time in the week, or every other week, where your child could be with the same friend, or potential friend, and set this time aside in your schedule. The next tip will hopefully help this feel more manageable in your undoubtedly busy lives!
Keep it short. We are also firm believers in “less is more.” Playdates don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be for that matter!) marathons. One hour is plenty for many of our kids. Short is a good thing for many reasons. Importantly, your child will likely stay at his or her best as the demands of peer interaction are kept at a level that supports success. Peer interactions are hard! They place many demands on kids across areas of attention, flexibility, emotional regulation, expressive and receptive language, motor planning, sensory processing, and reading of nonverbal communication, to name a few. This is a lot! We don’t want to overtax our kids or have things go on so long that we end in a meltdown. As you keep it short, you are increasing the likelihood that the playdate will end on a positive note. This will help both children walk away with positive memories of their shared experience. This is what we want, because positive memories help kids (and parents!) want to come back for more.
Tip for home: When getting started, we recommend a short playdate (e.g., one hour), every week or every two weeks, over a set period (e.g., 3-6 months). Remember: quality and consistency are more important than length of time. We hope that once you feel comfortable keeping it short, it will be easier to fit that playdate into your weekly family schedule.
Use Authentic Activities. Everyday activities provide a great backdrop for peer interactions. Let the kids help you bake a treat, make a fruit salad, or put together a simple snack. Walk, bike, or scooter to the park or even just around the block together. If you feel crafty, create a photo collage or sponge paint together. If you are feeling handy, get a screwdriver and invite the kids to help you change the batteries on toys or remote controls that need them. Appreciate nature together by watering flowers and plants inside or outside. These are all activities that can be done in collaboration, as you guide the children to share roles. For example, in making a cup of hot chocolate, one child could be the scooper, and the other might be the stirrer. Or, in watering plants, the children can pass the watering can back and forth from plant to plant.
Keep it simple and slow down so that both children can enjoy the process, and walk away with memories of feeling competent. Although it may be hard for kids to engage in more reciprocal play when the context is too open, we have found that kids are usually motivated to join and work together within an everyday activity, where they are creating or doing something that is meaningful and has a natural end result. As you engage the kids in these types of activities, you can then guide them to interact in a reciprocal manner more easily.
Tip for home: The next time you are about to do something around the house, pause to consider if it might provide a meaningful and interesting backdrop for peer interaction, and if so, save it for the playdate!
Be Open. This means, be open to the many ways “togetherness” might look between your child and their friend. Some kids are not ready for sustained reciprocal play. Keep in mind that the simple act of being together, on a consistent basis, no matter what that looks like, is important. Even though we may think the two children are not playing, the fact that they have spent time together will likely lead to the formation of positive memories that help develop friendship. They may remember that they “went to the beach with their friend” or “walked to the playground together.” We do not have to be the ones to define what the relationship or friendship between two children will look like. It is empowering and positive to let them discover this on their own. Fade back to observe who these two children are together, and allow their own story to unfold over time. For kids who are less verbal, measures of progress or evidence of a growing relationship might be increased visual referencing towards each other (demonstrating increased “social curiosity”), or even closer and closer proximity to each other over time. With these types of learners, we celebrate the small but important moments where they may be on a swing together or we catch them laughing together.
Tip for home: Sit back and observe. Try to notice the small moments of connection, or the quiet but important moments that indicate a relationship is forming! A shared smile. A shared laugh. Physical closeness. It is all good! Our openness in the moment will also support our kids to be who they are.
Reflect on Memories and Make Future Plans. Be sure to share memories playdate to playdate, so that the kids come to create their own shared story over time. Often our kids have the tendency to remember the bad parts, but with your guidance and sharing of memories with them, you can help them remember the funny moments or the parts of their time together that they both enjoyed. You can also reflect upon important moments such as recovering from an upset, flexibility in action, and reconnecting after a disagreement. These moments strengthen relationships over time so we want to make sure the kids remember them! In addition, you can make future plans. Do the two children have an idea of what they might like to do together next time? Help them think ahead about their next playdate so that they can look forward to it! It’s okay if you arrive on that day and the kids decide together they want to do something different. The important piece is to get them in the habit of thinking about their relationship in the future.
Tip for home: Use declarative language to reflect on small but important moments and memories with your child. Kids may not always remember the moments that we think are noteworthy. Be sure to share memories after the fact or at the next playdate. Make simple, future plans together so that the kids look forward to seeing each other again.
We hope these five tips give you a few ideas to get started on creating fulfilling and meaningful playdates for your child. As always, feel free to reach out to us with any questions or thoughts!
Linda Murphy has been a speech language pathologist since 1999. She is also a Certified Early Intervention Specialist and an RDI® Program Certified Consultant – in fact, she is one of the few people in Massachusetts certified to offer the RDI® program. She graduated from Boston College in 1993 with a degree in Mathematics. After spending two years working with adults with autism, she decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Emerson College. Since then, Linda has provided services to children ranging from toddlers to young adults in a range of educational and other settings, including schools, daycares, homes, summer camps, playgrounds, her office and university clinics. She enjoys working collaboratively with families and other members of a child’s team. She has a private practice in Beverly, Massachusetts. For more information, visit her at www.peer-projects.com or read more of her articles at www.examiner.com/x-39111-Boston-Autism-Parenting-Examiner.