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Forging Special Friendships: How to Plan an 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 remember confiding in her vision teacher when she was still an infant, “I just don’t want anyone to be mean to her, to make her feel less than or alone.” “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 young children 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. Kids are quite literal, though, and so they were gentle when they held her hand and laughed along with her while they sang her favorite songs.

Debra McCarthy, a speech therapist in an inclusive toddler class, explains, “Little people don’t see barriers. Playing together is very natural for them.”

In past generations, children with special needs were shut away in institutions or kept inside their homes. Today, these kids are much more visible. Adaptive playgrounds with modifications like wheelchair accessible ramps, swings with a safety harness and back support, and activity areas for children who are visually or hearing impaired are springing up around the country and inclusion programs are integrated into many schools. Typically-developing children and children with special needs are often side-by-side. So why not have playdates as well?

Planning a playdate with a child who has special needs may seem overwhelming, but a few simple adaptations are often all that’s needed to create a safe and fun experience.

Here’s a quick primer on how to set up a  successful playdate with a child who has special needs:

Speak with their parent or caregiver. All parents touch base with each other to arrange the specifics of a playdate, like where to meet and at what time. Use this opportunity to get a few more details. Find out what activities the child likes to do and if there are any specific activities to avoid. A child with certain sensory issues, for example, may become distressed in a noisy environment. And a child nourished by a feeding tube might get bored watching your child eat a snack. If you get the sense that the parent or caregiver is nervous about the playdate, invite them along.

Choose the venue. Some children with physical disabilities use equipment (like walkers and standers) to be more independent. They are bulky, though, and not always easy to transport. If this is the case for your child’s friend, ask their parent if it is easier to set up the playdate at their house. If you live by an adaptive playground, that could also be a great place for the kids to meet.

Make sure the location (wherever it is) is accessible. Some disabilities have specific requirements of their environment, but most are easy enough to overcome. If the child is visually impaired and the kids will be at your house, pick up any toys from the floor that the child may trip on. If the child is in a wheelchair, set up an area for the kids to play on the first floor of the house to avoid stairs.

Make adjustments to the activities as the kids play. Do the kids want storytime? Depending on the child’s disabilities, you may want to choose books with especially bright colors or that have ‘touch and feel’ pages. If the kids want to play ‘tag’ outside, you may choose to make the play area smaller if the child has physical challenges. Want to bake some cookies? Hand-over-hand assistance may be necessary when measuring ingredients and adding them to the bowl.

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

Emily is a mother of two young daughters. When she is not hanging out with her girls, she spends her time writing about them. Emily writes about issues related to special needs, health and education.

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