Play Dates as a Stepping Stone

My wife and I used to hate play dates. In fact, we used to ridicule them and the parents who scheduled them. Then, a year and a half ago, Marco’s preschool teacher, P. J. Lentz at Periwinkle School in Palo Alto, CA, strongly advised my wife and me to schedule play dates for him.

You see, Marco (6-1/2 now) had problems relating socially to other kids. He was the awkward kid on the playground, watching most of the time from the side, trying to join the others occasionally, and usually failing. Sometimes, he would hit another kid in his attempt to join his classmates, and they would turn against him even more. He was digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself.

So, faced with a conflict between our desperation to help Marco’s social skills and our principled stance against play dates, we chose. Our principles lost.

As it turns out, P. J. was right. Dead-on. We arranged lots of planned, one-on-one play sessions. Thanks to our amazing yard (see this and this and this), we were almost always able to persuade the other kids’ parents to send their children over to our house for the play date, so we could monitor and guide Marco. Play date after play date, he got better. Slowly, he learned how to be friends with other kids.

These one-on-one experiences started to spill over to his interactions on the playground with all his classmates. After suffering through countless lonely playground sessions, Marco has begun to become part of the group of kids who play together. His self-confidence in social situations is far higher. He looks forward to school much more.

So now, we’re phasing out play dates for Marco.

What? They’ve made a huge difference in his social development, not to mention the quality of his life. Why would we take them away?

No, we don’t hate play dates, just as parents of kids diagnosed with ADHD don’t hate Ritalin. Very simply, we view play dates as a means to an end, and not the end itself. Play dates have helped Marco develop to the point where he can begin to plan, organize, and manage peer social relationships on his own.

So, is he good at all that stuff now? No, he’s still not as skilled in peer social relations as others his age. However, he’s getting better. A lot better.

Most of the time, he plays quite well. He has genuine friends. He takes the initiative to ask kids over to our house a few days a week. These days, when kids come over, they and Marco decide what to do, and they wander where they wish, with limits Marco understands, with no adult hovering over them.

He still has problems occasionally. Once in a while, he fights with friends, even to the point of shoving or hitting, and usually, he’s over 50% to blame. He still feels awkward occasionally, watching but not participating, while other kids have fun.

So, we still try to help him, but the nature of our intervention is quite a step back from planning and managing play dates. Every day, at the dinner table and before bed, we talk about his play and other social interactions that day. Rather than planning his interactions and managing them tightly, we let him tell us what he wants to tell us, and then we offer him lots of ideas on how to improve.

In short, we’re working hard to make Marco competent and confident at social interactions. We’ve made a lot of progress, and organizing and managing play dates for him was the first important step forward. He’s largely graduated from play dates. They got him much closer to where we want him to be. Now, he doesn’t need them. We’re grateful.

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