Play Dates: Ways to Target Language & Social Skills

Summer’s over and the kids are back to school! Some of your children may be starting a new daycare or they may have had their first day of pre-school. Others may be starting a new grade or a new school altogether. Whatever the situation, we as speech therapists always recommend setting up play dates for your children. We know that it is time-consuming and takes a lot of effort to schedule. However, it not only allows them to create and strengthen friendships, but also helps them gain crucial language and social skills that can best be learned in a natural environment such as a play date.

Here are five language and social skills to foster in your children on play dates:

Initiating Conversation and Taking Turns

A big part of our everyday life is having a conversation with friends, co-workers, families, and anyone we come across. Play dates help set the foundation of basic conversational skills. Being able to begin a conversation requires using environmental and context clues.  Right now it’s fall and school has just begun, so when your child’s friend arrives have her greet her friend and initiate a basic conversation such as “How was your summer?”, “Do you like your new teacher?”, “What do you want to play?”, etc.  If you find your child is reserved or shy, it may be helpful to practice beforehand.

Another important skill is not only to start a conversation, but also to maintain a conversation and know when to pass the floor onto your communication partner. This is something you can practice with your child any time of day – before bedtime, in the car, during bath time, mealtime, etc.

Appropriate Play

You may target this by setting up a semi-structured activity in the playroom such as a train set or dollhouse. If you find that the children are having difficulty sharing and taking turns model “my turn” and “your turn”. If you are playing a more structured activity such as Candy Land, it is important to help them know the rules of the game, understand that you cannot always win a game, etc. Social stories may be helpful in this instance.

Engage in Pretend Play

Depending on how old your child is, play dates would be an amazing opportunity for make-believe play. Have puppets, dress-up clothing, pretend items such as a toolbox, medical kit, etc. out to promote his creativity. You may even want to initiate by putting on a costume/mask and pretending to be a queen or monster! A child’s imagination leads to increased language development.

Awareness of Nonverbal Language

We not only communicate via verbal messages, but also via body language and facial expressions. This of course is related to taking other people’s feelings into consideration and figuring out what someone else is thinking. If you notice that your child’s friend is visibly upset, you can suggest to your child to ask, “What’s wrong?” Or if you notice that your child’s friend is sitting in the corner with his back to everyone and his arms crossed, you can encourage your child to ask “Is everything okay? Should we play something else?”

More than 55% of communication is nonverbal, and learning how to “read” your peers’ facial expressions and body language can lead to improved social skills, not to mention healthy friendships. And let’s not forget about eye contact. Some of our kids have trouble looking at their peers when asking or answering questions, but without eye contact, our friends may think we’re not listening or what they have to say is not important.


Encourage children to sequence events during a play date (e.g., First, Next, Then, Last).  For example, if you made English muffin pizzas, ask the children if they remember what ingredients they used and what steps they took to make the yummy snack! Or at the end you can ask the children what they did or what their favorite part of the play date was.  If they went to a movie, have them tell you the main events.

You may provide verbal prompting when necessary. Your kids will take their new-found sequencing skills and begin to ask each other, “What did you do today?” Creating a visual schedule of your child’s daily activities, or even asking your child’s teacher for a list of the day’s school activities can help you promote questions related to sequencing, such as “What did you eat for lunch?”, “What book did you listen to during circle time?”, etc.

Try using your smartphone to take photos of the day’s activities during a play date. You can then ask your child, “What did you do today?” while giving him visual cues from your phone. You’ll be amazed to hear your kids list off their activities during a play date, as well as ask questions because they now know how to sequence!!

So the next time your child goes on a play date, think about the five techniques: Initiating Conversation and Taking Turns, Appropriate Play, Engage in Pretend Play, Awareness of Nonverbal Language, and Sequencing. You can also practice these techniques if there are siblings in the home, not to mention, mom and dad can definitely work on activities to strengthen these areas of social language prior to a play date! Happy school days, and here’s to many future play dates 😉

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Written By: Gift of Gab Resources
Debbie Shiwbalak, M.A., CCC-SLP [email protected]
Alpin Rezvani, M.A., CCC-SLP [email protected]


Debbie Shiwbalak, M.A., CCC-SLP, has a Baccalaureate of Arts in Speech Pathology and is a graduate of Long Island University-CW Post Campus, where she received a Master of Arts in Speech Pathology in 2001. She holds a Certificate of Clinical Competence (CCC) from the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) and is licensed by the state of New York to practice speech-language pathology. Debbie has 13 years experience as a speech pathologist in the New York City area.

Alpin Rezvani, M.A., CCC-SLP, graduated from New York University with a Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology.  She holds a Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech, Language, and Hearing Association (ASHA) and has New York licensure in Speech-Language Pathology.  She has 7 years of experience as a speech pathologist in the New York City area and was an adjunct instructor at New York University.  She co-authored two chapters of “Cutting Edge Therapies for Autism”.

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