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Managing Play-dates For the Sensory Challenged Child

Updated: Feb 14, 2019

For many children, play dates are a skill to be mastered. For children with sensory processing disorders or autism play-dates can be particularly challenging, but a skill well worth investing time, money and creativity to foster.  Here are some tips for setting your child up for successful play-dates:

Start at your house: To minimize sensory demands host the first few play-dates with a child at your house, where your child feels most comfortable and secure. Children who are overly sensitive to touch, sight, sound or movement may become overstimulated and tend to avoid novel environments. The possibility of overwhelming or noxious stimuli may cause a great deal of stress and anxiety.  Children who crave sensation may be distracted by every novel sensory experience available in another child's house. When a child is preoccupied with addressing his/her sensory needs, he/she cannot tap into the social skills necessary for collaborative play. Your house will eliminate the need for your child to attend to environmental novelty.

Less is more:

  • Three is a Crowd: Stick to playing with one other child at a time while developing play date skills. Two or more children can feel like a chaotic experience for a child who with sensory sensitivities or a child who cannot follow the rapid back-and-forth of children's conversation and the nuances of physical play because of language processing or motor planning delays.

  • Time is of the Essence: Keep the play-date to a maximum of an hour and a half to ensure that the play-date ends on a high note. If you wait until the children tire and their behavior deteriorates, your child is less likely to look forward to the next one.


  • Start Small: Meeting another parent and child in neutral territory where the activity is obvious, such as pizza or bowling, allows children to experience togetherness without the pressure to interact

  • Advance Planning:  Advanced planning is essential for a successful play-date. Plan fun, slightly novel activities that will entice both children to play and are well within their skill set. Fun engaging activities take the pressure off your child to entertain his/her play partner, while still fostering interaction.

  • Be prepared to be part of the process: Remember, a play-date is a learned skill, and like all new skills sometimes children will need some assistance, coaching and practice.

  • Establish the Rules: Prepare for the play-date by reviewing and rehearsing the rules of being a good friend—whether you are the host or the guest. Your child will walk into the play-date with more confidence and sense of control knowing the rules and what to expect. If an issue arises during the play-date, all your child will need is a gentle reminder.

  • Hide the Treasures: Put away the toys your child treasures, or anything you are unwilling to clean up. Everything else is fair game. This can be emphasized when reviewing the rules of being a good friend.

  • Designate Areas for Play: Don’t let the children wander and flounder. Designate specific areas that are open for play, and close the ones that are too unstructured to benefit the children. The idea is to structure the play-date to encourage maximal interaction.

Sensory prep right before the play date: Give your child the sensory input that he/she needs before the play-date begins to achieve a regulated state. For calming, provide proprioceptive input and deep pressure. Try giving big bear hugs or wheelbarrow walking. For a child who needs alerting, provide a crunchy snack and do some jumping jacks.

Clean-up is part of the play-date: Transitions are difficult for most children and ending a play-date, especially a successful one, can be challenging. Clean-up is a great structured transition activity and clearly signals the children that the play-date is over.

There is a big return on your investment: Playing together with other children is an important part of social-emotional development. Children with sensory processing disorders and autism often have a hard time interacting with a group of children in a school environment and miss out on opportunities to develop social skills on the playground. On parent structured play-date they have the opportunity to learn to successfully interact with individual children and establish solid relationships, which can pave the way to interact with those same children in school and in the wider community.

Written by Ariela Warburg MS, OTR/L & Dr. Chaye Lamm Warburg, DPS, OTR/L, POTS Director

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