How to Plan an Inclusive Playdate

Here's how to help friends of children with special needs play together safely.

Friends of children with special needs need to know a few things before they play together. A mom of a daughter with special needs shares five steps toward planning up a successful inclusive playdate.

We knew early on that my older daughter would be visually impaired and I was concerned how this would affect her socially. “I just don’t want anyone to be mean to her, to make her feel less than or alone,” I confided to her vision teacher.

“Kids don’t see differences like adults do,” she assured me. “They just want to play.”

As my daughter got older — and more disabilities emerged — I saw how other kids loved playing with her. Many times, they referred to her as “the baby,” even if they were the same age or younger, because she requires so much care. “Little people don’t see barriers,” says Debra McCarthy, a New Jersey-based speech therapist. “Playing together is very natural for them.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in six American children have one or more developmental disabilities or delays. In the past, kids with special needs were shut away in institutions or kept inside their homes. Today, thanks to inclusion classrooms and adaptive playgrounds, typically developing children are often side by side with children with special needs. So why not have playdates as well?

Here’s a five-step primer on how to plan a successful inclusive playdate.

1. Speak with the child’s parent or caregiver.

All parents touch base to arrange the specifics of a play date. Use this opportunity to get a few more details. Find out what activities the child likes to do and if there are any you should avoid. Noisy environments are not a good choice for a child with sensory issues, for example. And a child nourished by feeding tube might get bored watching yours eat a snack. If the parent seems nervous, invite her along.

2. Choose the venue.

Some kids with physical disabilities use bulky equipment (like walkers and standers) that are not always easy to transport. If this is the case, ask the parent if it is easier to play at her house or at a nearby adaptive playground (click here for a list of inclusive playgrounds in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey).


3. Make sure the location is accessible.

Some disabilities have specific environmental requirements. If the child is visually impaired and the kids will be at your house, for example, clear the floor of any toys your guest may trip on. If the child is in wheelchair, avoid stairs by setting up a play area on the first floor.

4. Make adjustments to the activities as the kids play.

Do the kids want story time? Depending on the child’s disabilities, choose books that feature especially bright illustrations or “touch and feel” pages. If they want to play tag, keep the boundaries small. Want them to help you bake some cookies? Hand-over-hand assistance may be necessary when measuring and mixing ingredients.

5. Relax . . . and let the kids play.

Sure, you should stick close by to make sure everything goes smoothly (as most parents do with any play date), but there’s no need to hover. As my daughter’s vision teacher said, most kids just want to play. These friends will figure out what works for them.

When she isn’t hanging out with her two daughters, New Jersey mom Emily Klein writes about special needs, health and education.

Categories: Play, Special Needs Parenting