Q: [School-Aged] My second grader attends school in an inclusive classroom. Several of the kids have challenges and my son would like to invite them for playdates. I think it is great, but how can I pave the way for a successful time? I want to be sensitive, but also don’t want to offend the parents by assuming or asking questions about things to consider. Tips?
A: Inviting classmates of all abilities to play with your child at your home is a wonderful idea! All of the children will benefit from play that will reinforce what they are already learning at school–that each of them is special and unique. When you set up playdates with children with an autism spectrum disorder or other developmental challenges, here are a couple of things to take into consideration.
- Keep initial playdates short. One to two hours is a good target. It can take time for challenged children to build relationships where they can tolerate longer periods of socializing. And not extending a playdate past the point where the children want to be together will make it easier to interest them in future playdates. Whatever the length, playdates can be, for children with special needs, a welcome and needed opportunity for a meaningful social life outside of school.
- Don’t be reluctant to tell the other parents that this is a new undertaking for you. Most parents will be quite open to your questions and will appreciate your invitation. By the time their children reach grade school, parents of children with special needs have quite a bit of experience in fielding questions about their children. They will be able to offer specifics about their child’s social skills, what strategies to use when their child becomes agitated, and what kinds of activities help bring out the child’s best interaction during play.
- Do some in-class homework of your own: Make arrangements with the teacher to serve as a classroom volunteer. You’ll be helping the teacher out, and at the same time you will be able to observe firsthand the friends that your child wants to invite over. By watching how they interact at school, you will get a sense of the tenor of the playdate. How boisterous are the children when at play? Which friends are shy and which friends are outgoing? What types of play interests do they share? How do they respond if another child’s mood shifts?
- Take what you’ve learned from the parents and your own observations, and make a playdate plan. Offer activities that all of them can enjoy together, and have a backup in case they lose interest in what you’ve planned. For example, you might plan a cookie-making party, but have puzzles or coloring books on hand to entertain those who want to take a break. Sometimes children want to play together, and sometimes they may have an equally good time playing quietly by themselves for a while, even during the same playdate.
- Always ensure that adult supervision is provided for the entirety of the playdate. The adult supervisor should be dedicated to the job of keeping an eye on the kids—no multi-tasking or work-related distractions.
- Clear all snacks with the parents, and ask if their child has any food allergies or sensitivities. A child may have a serious reaction if they eat a snack that is unsafe for them. Some parents may prefer to send the child’s snacks themselves.
Wilfredo Alejo, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group in Diamond Bar. St. Jude Heritage Medical Group is part of St. Joseph Health, a 16-hospital health system founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange.