The word “playdate” might trigger your own worry response when you have a kid with anxiety. Will my kid have a meltdown? Will they get overwhelmed and lock themselves in their room? Will they have a negative experience and refuse to try a playdate again? While playdates don’t come easy to kids with anxiety, it is important to give your child a chance to build healthy social relationships. When implementing playdate ideas, it is important to understand your child’s triggers and don’t force it; instead, use encouragement, listen to your child’s needs and be ready for alternatives if your original plan doesn’t work.
Before jumping into ideas of what to do on a playdate, consider a few tips that might help it go more smoothly. Keep playdates short and have more than one activity planned; that way, if one thing goes awry, you have other options. Offer to host the playdate so your child can be in a comfortable environment; if you do go out, make sure it’s a place your child is familiar with and won’t have loud noises or other things that can overwhelm your child.
Also, start small and have just one friend over. One-on-one playdates encourage the kids to play with each other without the possibility of your kid being ostracized, as might happen in a larger group. Fewer kids also means fewer distractions or probabilities that your kid might become overwhelmed.
1. Sensory Activities
Kids with anxiety tend to be highly sensitive, and planning sensory activities can help them learn more about their senses and even help them calm down. Making your own slime is a super popular and awesome mom trick to have up your sleeve. You can make the goop in advance or have your kid and their playdate help you. Learning4Kids has a recipe for homemade goop that doesn’t use preservatives, and the ingredients can be found in your kitchen – it’s just baking soda, water, and cornstarch!
What your playdates won’t realize is that playing with this dough improves gross and fine motor skills as well as concentration, and it might help your kid with anxiety calm down and enjoy time with their new friend. Consider setting up multiple sensory “stations” with various experiences, such as pebbles or beads your playdates have to dig out of water or sand, or try shape- or color-sorting.
2. Arts & Crafts
If you’re stuck on what to do on a playdate, arts and crafts can be your go-to. Set down a tarp, a long sheet of paper and paint and let your little artists go to town on making a mural. Use fabric paints to decorate t-shirts. If you want to try something more structured, guide your kid and their friend through a specific craft, such as making your own pillowcase or painting a handprint turkey (consider ideas based on holidays or a theme). For more unstructured play, set out coloring books, crayons, paint, construction paper or any variety of supplies and let your kids get creative.
3. Fun in the Kitchen
Your kid’s nerves about the playdate might build up an appetite, so get your child and their playdate in on the food-prep process. Set out a tray of veggies and have the kids make faces on their plates with them. Teach the children how to make cookies and get them in on the measuring, pouring and mixing; remind them how awesome cookies smell when they’re baking.
4. Science Experiments
You do not have to be Einstein to encourage STEM-related activities on playdates. Mix baking soda and vinegar and watch your child’s eyes pop when the mixture erupts in a fizz. Make your own ice cream in plastic bags – no machine needed, just ice and fast hands (in fact, the shaking might help your anxious child get out the nerves). Go back to your art station and have the children determine which paints can be combined to make a new color.
5. Outdoor Adventures
It can be risky taking an anxious child out of a comfortable home environment, but many kids do need physical exercise and what better way than to take them outside? Go to a park or other outdoor spot your child is familiar with. Set up an obstacle course and show your child and their playdate friends how to get to the other end. Play some music and encourage the kids to dance or try a game of Simon Says. Take the kids to a community garden or grab some pots and soil and have them plant flowers or herbs.
6. Indoor Imagination
If it’s your child’s first playdate or you’re still easing them into playing with their peers, hosting the date in your own home is probably the best idea; it’s a safe environment for your child that is familiar. Eliminate distractions by turning off the TV and reminding your child that no screen time is allowed.
Have some indoor playdate ideas ready for your child and her friend to choose from. For example, build forts out of chairs, pillows, and blankets. Set out board games that encourage team play and see if the kids can beat the adults at the game. Turn your living room into a yoga studio and guide the children through a simple practice (this idea is a fun way to try out mindfulness and relaxation with your kid). Set out fabric or even dresses and suits from your own closet and play dress-up.
7. Team Games
Competition can be a scary situation for your child with anxiety, so think of some games that encourage your child and their playdate to be on the same team. That way, your kid has a teammate to build their peer interactions while comforting their anxiety. Put the kids on a team and the adults on another. Have a toy car relay race or word search contest. Hide a variety of items before your playdate arrives and set up a treasure hunt and don’t forget the prize for when your child and their new friend find all the items.
Playdate ideas are infinite, so choose ones you think your kid will enjoy and won’t cause a meltdown. Remind your child that it’s okay if the playdate doesn’t go as planned, and talk with them after it’s over no matter how successful it was. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try again, because practice makes perfect.
Cara Batema is a musician, teacher, and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs, and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science, and health.