Max is 6 1/2 and has had one play date his entire life. It was short and it hasn’t been repeated. Another time we invited the same boy to go to a baseball game with us. Max talked about the directions of where we were were going (the roads, the exits we were taking) the entire ride, which the boy totally tuned out, then ended up wanting to leave the game early, so his friend stayed at the game by himself with my husband. I’m not sure I’d call that a success either. Max struggles with peer social skills.
So when I had the idea to invite some of Max’s soccer team and their families over to our house during the off-season, I was really nervous. Saturday afternoon soccer has become an important part of our lives. It is something that helped all of us, families of children with special needs, feel like we were experiencing the same as our typical peers…Saturday afternoons, cheering our kids on the field. The non-soccer siblings play together, the parents chat and our kids learn basic soccer and teamwork skills. Knowing we were going to miss that during the winter, I suggested to a few families that we have a rotating play group. Each family could take turns hosting and we could meet once a month until soccer starts again in the spring.
This Saturday was our first group. It was at our house. I almost cancelled that morning because I was so worried about how it would go. Would the kids be okay walking up and down the stairs to our basement playroom? Would Ben pitch a fit because all of these strangers were playing with his toys? Would I be able to entertain the adults, plus make sure the kids were safe and happy? I didn’t cancel and I’m so glad for that because it was a really great afternoon. It allowed my husband and I to get to know the other families better and it allowed the kids to interact with each other in a way they are not used to (like I said, our kids aren’t getting invited to many play dates or birthday parties).
There were a few things that I found helpful when hosting a playgroup for children with special needs:
1. Plan an easy activity.
I attended a workshop once about children with Autism and play dates. One of the takeaways was that unlike most children their age, these kids can’t simply “go play.” They just don’t know how. So having an easy activity with clear instructions and guidance can help keep things together. I searched Pinterest for an easy craft and just set it up in one of the rooms. It helped serve as both a nice ice breaker when people first arrived, as well as a quiet, calming activity for when some of the kids, Max included, needed to step away from the chaos.
2. If people ask if they can bring something, say yes.
This group has a lot of food restrictions; some are gluten free, while another has to follow the Ketogenic Diet. By allowing others to bring a snack, it’s guaranteed there will be something there their child can eat.
3. Plan a beginning and an end time, no longer than two hours.
Our group was from 2-4 p.m. which I specified on the invite. It was the perfect amount of time to play and chat, and families were able to enjoy the evening doing whatever they wanted.
Things might get spilled or kids might jump on your couch. As long as everyone is safe, it’s fine. More than one mom said that it was the first time in a long time she had fun at a family event because the environment was so relaxed and she didn’t have to worry about her child causing harm or breaking too strict house rules.
5. Book the next one before the first one ends.
If all goes well, line someone up to host the next month. That way it’s already on the books and won’t fall victim to other plans.
It’s really important to give our kids these experiences. Social skills classes are one thing, but being able to practice those skills in real life situations are another.