Successful Play Dates

Excerpts taken from Be Your Child’s Play Coach
Chapter 11, “TalkAbility” by Fern Sussman

Before you invite another child over to play, help your child feel comfortable around other children by taking him to places where you’re bound to run into them.  Visit playgrounds, parks, petting zoos and even toy stores or family restaurants.  When you meet other children in places like these give your child a model of how to be friendly by smiling and greeting some children every now and then.

Once you decide to have more formal play dates, you’ll need to take a more active role.  Think of yourself as a coach, helping when the “players” need you to keep the play going and standing on the sidelines when all is going well between the children.  There are three parts to being your child’s play coach:

  • Set up the play
  • Step out and stand by (while the children play together)
  • Step in (when the children need your help)

Planning is everything.  When arranging a play date, there are several things you can do ahead of time to help the play date be more successful.

Find a friend for your child
In looking for the right friend, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do the children like one another?
  • Do the children have similar interests?
  • Will the other child ask your child to join him/her in play?

Pick a place and a time
To make sure that your child is relaxed, invite another child to your home.  If the first play dates are at your house, you can control the environment.  That means you can put away a lot of toys so there aren’t too many distractions.  You can also limit most of the play to one room, making it easier for the children to be close together.  Once the children are comfortable playing with one another, move the play date to the other child’s home.  Your child needs to get used to playing at his friend’s house too.

Try to have some idea ahead of time how long the children should play together.  Keep in mind that longer playtime isn’t necessarily better playtime.  It’s best to end the play date when your child and his friend are still having fun.  Early play dates should usually be between one and two hours long.  So discuss the drop-off and pick-up times with the parents of your child’s friend before they arrive at your house.

Create teamwork
The best activities for getting children to play and talk together are the ones that require teamwork, where each child has something specific to do in order to reach an end goal.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Making a snack such as a sandwich, pudding, cupcakes, juice or chocolate milk
  • Baking cookies or a cake
  • Building a fort or tower with blocks or pillows
  • Acting out a situation with pretend-play toys

How you present a teamwork activity to your child and his playmate will affect how much they’ll play with and talk to one another.  You basically have three approaches to choose from.  Your choice will depend on the level of social play skills your child has.


Setting up an activity this was gets children who play alone used to playing beside other children and using the same toys.  So put out the toys, such as blocks or puzzle pieces, and let the children do whatever they want with them.

This approach can benefit even more sociable children.  There’s no pressure to play a specific way, and therefore each child can use his own imagination.


When children are told exactly what to do, they will often stay until they get the job done, so this approach is a good one if your child needs to work on playing longer with another child.  Ask the children to make something, such as a tower or a puzzle, and show them what it should look like.  Then tell or show them exactly how to make it.  (You could give them a step-by-step guide with pictures.)  Keep in mind that while the children concentrate on completing an activity, there won’t be much talking between them.  That can come later.


Knowing what to do but not how to do it gets children talking to one another.  So ask the children to make something and show them what it looks like, but don’t tell them how to do it.  When you present toys this way, your child and his friend will probably team up to figure out how to make something together.  Without specific information from you, they might figure out who should do what and work out a plan together (such as “You put all the blue ones on and I’ll do all the red”).

Adapted from Chapter 11 of TalkAbility™ – People Skills for Verbal Children on the Autism Spectrum: A Guide for Parents (Sussman, 2006) with permission from The Hanen Centre.TalkAbility™, a Hanen Centre Publication, provides parents and professionals with practical strategies to help verbal children on the autism spectrum develop improved conversational skills and learn how to play with other children and make friends. For more information on TalkAbility and other Hanen resources, please visit

Reprinted from the ACCESS Integration Winter 2008 Newsletter.