Program: Play Dates

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*Recommended post: Teaching children with autism to play

Play skills in general are often taught to clients across the age span (for older individuals, these programs may be called “leisure activities”) as well as functioning abilities. Play skills/Play interaction is an important social skill that shouldn’t be neglected as part of an ABA treatment plan. 
For professionals who typically work in home settings, you can sometimes be at a disadvantage when trying to teach play skills because you see your clients 1:1. Not every client has a sibling you can pull into the session, and sometimes even if they do the sibling isn’t an appropriate peer model. It’s also important to use a variety of peers, as this is a generalization issue. So bringing in the 5 year old sister each week isnt helping your client generalize.

 If my client only ever plays Monopoly with me, or with me and their sister, can I truly say they have mastered the skill of Board Game Play? No, I cannot. I need to observe the client play a variety of board games, across a variety of people.

In situations where socio-emotional skills are lacking and I don’t consistently have peers available to incorporate in therapy, I will often add a Play Date program for my clients.
A Play Date is just bringing together your client with a peer to target specific skills in a structured/intentional manner. How structured will vary depending on the setting and the needs of the client. 

It’s important to consider a few things before introducing Play Dates, and to make sure the learner is truly ready for this skill. Here’s some helpful tips:
  •    Is the learner ready for a Play Date? I see parents do this all the time----the ABA team tells the parents that the learner has social skill deficits, so the parent begins putting together Play Dates on their own. Just putting the client with other kids in a room, is not a Play Date. There should be specific goals, based on the treatment plan, and both the peers and setting need to be appropriate as well. Where will the Play Date be held? If at the client’s home, is the client okay with peers being in their space or touching their belongings? If not, the Play Date likely won’t go well. Does the client exhibit frequent aggression? If so, that may scare a peer off. These things need to be considered before introducing Play Dates.
  • So what exactly is an appropriate peer model? An ideal peer is compliant, they do not themselves have lots of problem behaviors, they are patient, and they are neither bossy or timid. If the client gets upset and has a brief screaming fit, the type of peer you want is one who will happily play alone for a few minutes, not who will demand to go home.
  •   When selecting Play Date goals, I recommend first observing the learner with peers, both in structured and non-structured settings. It can also be very helpful to speak to the parents/caregivers about the social and play issues they regularly see. Just because a learner can play appropriately with peers on a Play Place at Chick-fil-A, that doesn’t mean they can sit down and play a card game with a peer. Or vice versa. If you don’t have any specific goals you are targeting during Play Dates, then how exactly are you tracking progress?
  •    Speaking of progress, someone should be collecting data during Play Dates, and this data needs to be regularly reviewed to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention. This could be done by the ABA therapist, the BCBA, the parent, etc. It just depends on who is facilitating the Play Date. A common mistake I see parents make is to set up a Play Date, the peer(s) arrive, and the kids just go off and play. That doesn’t look very therapeutic to me….if the learner was capable of engaging in appropriate play independently then they wouldn’t need a Play Date program. So unsupervised Play Dates are a no-no. 
  •    The level of adult facilitation will vary depending on the needs of the client. I have participated in Play Dates where I laid out ground rules at the start, and then faded into the background to observe from a distance and prompt if needed. I have also participated in Play Dates where my client needed much more intrusive assistance, I came up with the activities, I transitioned the children as necessary, and sat directly behind my client. It just depends on your client’s ability to play appropriately (with both objects and people).

Appropriate play skills include much more than just being able to share a toy, or to stay in the same room as the peer(s). Other skills I often target during Play Dates include:

-          Keeping your hands to yourself (not excessively touching, rubbing, or leaning on the peer), Greetings (both initiating and responding),  Asking spontaneous questions, Responding to spontaneous questions, Maintaining a conversation (includes staying on topic), Imitating the peer (following the peer’s lead), Displaying appropriate social manners (if peer is upset or crying, asking “whats wrong?”), Demonstrating assertiveness (speaking up if peer is being rude or mean), Resolving conflict or Problem solving with peers

Lastly, I often have the benefit of being able to combine clients (or to “borrow” siblings of clients) to use as peers during Play Dates. Many of the parents I serve don’t have this luxury, and it can be pretty difficult to locate kids that can be regularly incorporated into Play Dates, especially if the client is a teen or adult.

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