Playdates and children with disabilities

It is important for children to socialise with their peers outside of school. EMMA MCKINNEY provides parents with some tips on navigating playdates with their children with disabilities 

Playdates are a regular childhood activity. Socialising with other children outside of school is very important. Children learn important social skills such as taking turns, following instructions from others, sharing, negotiating and, most important, having fun. Often children with disabilities are aware of their siblings or friends having playdates while they don’t.

Parents should encourage their children to invite friends over for playdates and spend time with their friends away from home. Sometimes children are physically tired after attending school or have to attend therapy in the afternoons. You might consider having playdates over weekends or during holidays, or having shorter playdates.

At times, children may be nervous about being in a new and unfamiliar environment, or not having their parents around. You might want to prepare your child by counting the sleeps before the playdate; speaking about what they might do when they are there, and answering any of their questions (for example, how to keep hydrated; toilet routines; how to deal with bathroom accidents).

It often helps to come up with some ‘playdate back-up plans.’ Here children and their parents can brainstorm any worries they may have and come up with some options and solutions. For example, pack an extra set of clothes in a plastic packet in their bag in case of an accident.

Parents may be anxious about leaving their child with a disability alone for a playdate. Children are often very perceptive and will sense when you are worried.

To reduce your anxiety, you might want to consider some of the following:

  • If you don’t know the family, give them a call and share that this will be your child’s first playdate.
  • Consider having a playdate in a local park where you can be with your child and get to know their friend and family.
  • If having a playdate at their friend’s home, ask if it would be alright to come with and stay with your child. Offer to bring some biscuits or a snack to share.
  • Alternatively, ask if you can stay to make sure your child is settled.
  • Raise any concerns that you might have: unfenced swimming pools, slippery surfaces, steps, allergies, food challenges.
  • If your child requires any special accommodations such as toileting, peg feeding, help getting up and down steps, have an honest conversion, share what you do at home and what you would like them to do.

Remember that if your child’s first playdate doesn’t work out as well as you had hoped, keep persevering. The long-term social benefits and skills your child will learn are so important in developing healthy and independent children.


Dr Emma McKinney is a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape. She is also the owner of Disability Included, a company specialising in disability research, children, and employment of adults with disabilities. email: emma@disabilityincluded.co.za