speech therapists

Speech Therapists: Play Dates Are Positive for Your Child’s Social Skills

Play dates are often a welcome respite for many parents, offering an opportunity for the adults to interact as much as the children. What many parents may not realize, though, is that these are golden opportunities to model socialization for your child. Our speech therapists at FOCUS Fort Myers recognize that children learn most from us as role models by watching us, and then practicing it for themselves. For a child who is struggling to socialize, play dates can be so beneficial.

Some of the key skills our speech therapists see children learning during these interactions are:

  • Greetings;
  • Offering ideas/ suggestions;
  • Making decisions;
  • Farewells.

Each of these is an integral part of basic social interaction, and many of us simply take them for granted. But for a child who may be struggling with successful peer interactions, watching you successfully model this behavior in your own social circles is important.

Researchers at The University of Michigan Extension report that young children especially acquire their prosocial behavior through observational learning. That means your kids are watching as you cooperate, share, take turns and demonstrate acts of kindness. That’s true for all kids, but those with special needs may need you to be a bit more deliberate about it.

And trust us: We understand play dates aren’t on the top of the priority list for some families. Work life is hectic. Dinner has to get made. Your finances are pinched (especially after the holidays). Or perhaps you’re just a homebody, and it’s tough to get motivated. Some parents prefer doing most of socializing while their child is under the watchful eye of a babysitter. It’s even tougher when your child has unique challenges that make it difficult for them to “click” with other kids. But as our speech therapists have discovered here in the clinic and also in our own experience, the more opportunity kids have to be around other kids – and to watch your interactions with your own peers – the better they will be for it.

There is much that we model and don’t even realize it. Here are four basic things our Fort Myers speech therapists have identified that you can incorporate into these social interactions that will help your child improve basic social skills.


The first interaction with a friend is modeled when we start with a hello. It’s not just about the words “hello” or “hi.” We can model a smile and a happy disposition.  Hugging when we say hello is also friendly and can be modeled if it is in your comfort zone.  If your child is quiet at this time, depending on their age and exposure to such interactions, it is Ok to initially let them stand and watch without engaging.  If they hide behind you, it is Ok to ignore the behavior at first, but do address it with them later. Tell them in the future that won’t be allowed because it is rude.  When the next time comes, be sure to prepare your child by saying, “When (our friend) gets here, I need you to stand next to me, give them a big smile, and say, “Hello.” Forcing hugs and forcing kids to say hello will only draw more attention to them at a time when they are not yet comfortable.  During the first few modeling episodes, it is Ok to let them just watch and get comfortable with the routine, but standing next to you should be required, rather than behind you.  

The second part of a greeting is to begin an engagement or start a conversation.  As our speech therapists can explain, this begins with either asking a question or bringing up a topic.  For example, if your children are starting preschool or kindergarten soon, it would be good to model something like “We are getting excited to start kindergarten this year.  At which school are you planning to sign (your child) up?”  A conversation starter is a broad topic that can invite back-and-forth discussion or lead to more of conversation, rather than a closed question, such as, “Did you find our house ok?” Common areas of interest should be thought about prior to the meeting so that you know how to start a conversation.  If you are directly teaching your child social skills, brainstorm with them some things to bring up with the friends that will be coming over. Also have them help think of fun things to do with their playmates so that everyone can enjoy playing together. This is especially important for children with no siblings, as they often only have to think about what they do to have fun or occupy their own time. Getting them to plan ahead and think of things other kids would like to do with them would be even more beneficial.

Offering Ideas/Suggestions

The next social skill our speech therapists have found can be underscored in play dates is offering suggestions for ideas of things to do or play.  This is similar to us offering topics to discuss in a conversation if we are just sitting and talking with another adult.  It is good to think of a few things prior to the date.  Offer your child ideas for games or other activities they may want to play with the other child.  Do they have puzzles and toys that could be played easily by themselves, but next to each other? Some examples would be blocks, legos, coloring books, etc. This would be appropriate for younger children because it requires less complex socializing.  Interactive games that require turn-taking and joint decisions are more complex and may need adult assistance.

Meanwhile, while you are conversing with the other adult, show an interest in them to model to our children that they should show interest in what their friend is doing or give a compliment.  For example, saying to the other parent during a play date, “It’s really chilly outside. Is that a new coat that you got? I really like it.”  Or model it directly with the child such as saying to both of the kids, “You guys are making really great towers.” People always enjoy compliments when they are genuine.  Find something nice to say to the other person and the kids to make the experience more enjoyable – and let your child hear it. Try to think about some children that you have been around and take notice that the smiling, pleasant children are typically more friendly and therefore more comfortable in a social situation. Of course, it’s not always going to be happy times during interactions between kids because they are learning how to socialize and communicate with others including their peers. But by modeling this positive behavior, our speech therapists know the children are absorbing it too.

Making Decisions.

Kids, just like adults, will not always agree to either doing the same thing or talking about the same topic.  So take notice when the conversation is lacking and the other person is losing interest and bring up a different topic in which they may be interested. Keep the conversation moving.  Make sure you are adding to the conversation with your ideas, opinions and/or experiences so that the other person doesn’t have to do all the talking either.  A good conversation includes back-and-forth discussion with both people asking and answering and sharing information. You know that as you become engaged in multiple conversations with another person, you learn whether you have enough similar interests for a friendship to blossom.

Children’s social relationships evolve in the same way. They need at least a few interactions – playing different things in a variety of environments – to really get to know each other and determine if a friendship is worth pursuing. That said, children often have a hard time making decisions together. This is when you will see what type of personalities evolve, whether they will be a leader, a comedian, a follower, or an organizer, etc. Our speech therapists recommend, for example, that if your child likes to be the leader, you suggest activities that come naturally, but in which they will have to learn to follow the lead of others at times so that they don’t become bossy and struggle socially because of it. You want to challenge them. Giving children rules helps them learn social skills.  For instance, tell your child that she can offer the first playtime suggestion, and if the kids end up playing that game, the next time she has to agree to play what someone else offers – even if it isn’t necessarily her favorite.  If two children are playing together that both like to be leaders and make the suggestions, your child may have to be taught to play what someone else suggests first and have fun. Through teaching this turn-taking strategy it will later grow to the more complex social skill of bargaining. That social bargaining could involve engaging the friend by saying, “Ok we can play this first, if we can play ____ next?” This is a basic form of negotiation – and as our speech therapists know, a great skill to have in life!                                             


The final simple social skill modeled by adults during play date social interactions is the “goodbye.”  We either know when the social engagement will end because it was discussed prior or we have read social cues to determine when it needs to end. If the play date is at your house, don’t be scared to let the person know in advance if you have to stick to a time commitment.  You can do this when you invite the person over by saying, “Would you and your daughter like to come over for a play date? Does 2 p.m. work for you? If so that will give us a few hours to hang out before I have to go the store at 4 p.m. in time to get dinner done.” If you are at another person’s house, then be sure to ask them their plans for later to determine if you will need to leave at a certain time.  If no time is established, then look at the social situation to determine when to leave.  If the kids have just started a game, maybe say to them, “After this game is done, we will need to get home.”  Or if the kids are starting to argue or get bored, it is a sign it is time to say goodbye soon.  If dinner or lunch was not discussed prior, then assume you should be getting back to your house to have dinner with your own family, instead of sticking around and intruding on someone else’s mealtime.  Younger children need to stick to their basic routine and eating schedule or they will get grumpy – and this will inevitably impact the success of their social skills. Speech therapists recognize it is much more difficult for children to engage with others in socially appropriate manners when they are hungry or tired.  Also keep in mind that a child who is still tackling social skills needs shorter interactions more often, rather than longer social interactions on rare occasions. Keep play dates to 1-2 hours for kids ages preschool through kindergarten.  Add a half hour after each year in school as an appropriate time to host or engage in a play date. Keep in mind too: children are generally able to socialize with closer friends and family longer than with less familiar people.

When your leave time is approaching, offer a heads-up to your child.  Discussing the farewell portion with younger children before the play date is also a good idea. Explain to them, “When mom or dad says it is time to leave, we are going to say ‘Ok.’ If we cry or get upset, our friends won’t want us to come over and play again. Babies cry and get upset when it’s time to leave, but kids that go on play dates, smile and say Ok when it is time to go. So when we say goodbye we offer a polite farewell by saying something like, ‘Thanks so much for having us (coming) over!’ and, ‘I had so much fun talking with you /playing on your trampoline/ etc.’  and then we say something like, ‘We should get together again soon!’” Tell them that, “If it wasn’t a fun day and you don’t want to hang out again, just stick with the thank you and say goodbye, take care, enjoy the rest of your day, etc.” It would not be appropriate to make any other comments other than good bye at the time of the departure. 

Making a future date should not occur at the time when you are physically saying goodbye.  If it occurs earlier in the date, it’s Ok, but not as you are physically walking out the door.  This is because it will offer an opportunity at a later date to model to your child to either invite a friend to do something or accept an invitation to do something.  It also allows the child to learn just the skill of saying goodbye rather than overloading them with a far more complex social skill of planning a future play date.     

Our speech therapists recognize that social skills are rarely taught directly to children. Instead, they are modeled between adults over many interactions in the presence of our kids.  When children do not develop social skills through this natural occurrence, we can try to be more direct by planning play dates for this purpose and drawing attention to the skills mentioned.  If this is not effective or your child still seems to have difficulties, bring it up with your pediatrician to see if a counselor or a Fort Myers speech therapist at FOCUS may be able to help.

FOCUS offers pediatric speech therapy in Fort Myers and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.

Additional Resources:

Monkey see, monkey do: Model behavior in early childhood, March 30, 2017, By Kylie Rymanowicz, Michigan State University Extension

More Blog Entries:

Speech Therapists Use Social Stories to Spur Language Development, Dec. 1, 2017, FOCUS Fort Myers Speech Therapists’ Blog

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