Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Importance of Play Dates

Play dates with other children are a key way for any child to improve social skills. Hanging out with adults, spending time with siblings, even structured, professionally led social skills groups are all great activities, but will not give your child the learning experiences that they’ll get from a simple play date at home with another child. All kids need to learn to get along with peers. Kids who are struggling with social skills, such as children with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD, or ADHD), autism, Asperger’s syndrome, or other Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) can struggle especially hard with social issues.

School can be an excellent opportunity for your child to spend time with other children, but your child needs more than just school-time socializing. At school there is only a limited number of other potential friends from which to choose. There may be intense and deeply entrenched cliques and social games, which can be just too tough for less sophisticated socializers to manage. Most of the school day is structured, which leaves little time for open, kid organized play. Finally, the recess and lunchtime activities tend to revolve around sports, especially for boys, so less athletic kids may be left out. All these factors mean that, while school can be a great  chance for socializing, it is not enough.

Brothers and sisters are also a useful chance for socializing, but again, not enough for children struggling with social skills. Family dynamics, birth order and gender roles, and parental influence will all mean that siblings play together in a way that’s different than interactions with other kids. If your child has special needs, the siblings have probably adapted to any unusual behavior, rigidity or stubbornness, or failure to read their social signals. The siblings will probably be both more adaptable and in other ways, less adaptable, than unrelated kids. In summary, siblings will always interact in different ways than unrelated kids.

Structured social skills groups can also be a useful activity where children can learn to make and be friends. Depending on the type of group, there may be an actual chance to play with other kids, or just a discussion about play. (For many reasons, which I’ll discuss in a later post, I find that social skills groups where kids play rather than talk about play are more useful for most kids, especially those on the autistic spectrum.) One real advantage is that the group has been designed so that it should include other kids who are excellent social matches for your child. The problem with social skills groups is cost, frequency, and availability. Even the longest groups tend to continue for only a matter of weeks or months. If kids are a good match, it’s wonderful to let them play with each other frequently and on an ongoing basis.

What about time with adults? Many children on the autistic spectrum, and those with ADHD, relate very well to adults. Adults can appreciate these kids’ more unusual interests, and will often overlook any unusual behaviors. Adults adapt to difficulties in attention, becoming more engaging to capture the attention of an inattentive child or soothe and calm a more hyperactive child. These relationships, whether with parents, other relatives, or adult friends are invaluable to kids who struggle socially, but they do not take the place of peer-aged friendships. Your child still needs to learn to deal with kids the same age, where the relationship is about shared activities and conversations, not catering specifically to your child’s needs.

What can your child learn from play dates with other kids? How to get along, make compromises, find that place where goofy can be fun, but not too odd, pay attention to other kid’s needs and interests, read social signals, have and be a good friend. In short, all the social skills they’re going to need as an adult.

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