How to Facilitate a Virtual Play Date

Guest Authored By Leah R, MSW, LCSW

Blue Bird Day and kid tablet
Blue Bird Day and kid tablet

Illinois’ recent shelter in place policy has us all missing our friends and connecting with others. Kids may not be able to play at the park or participate in their normal play dates, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be social while social distancing! Many parents are working from home and found creative ways to use technology to continue to attend meetings, meet with clients, and carry out all our “office” responsibilities at home. Why not incorporate some of these new and creative communication apps with our kids?!

Lets talk about virtual play dates and the benefits of them. One of the most important and helpful things parents can do for their child with Autism is to give them plenty of opportunities to interact socially with others.

Skype, Zoom, and Google Hangout are all great (and free!) options to facilitate play dates for your kids. They’ll enjoy getting to virtually see their friends and the chance to show friends what their homes look like. These video calls can be a great way for your child to build connections with classmates and peers. Try giving a friend a virtual tour of your home, have your son/daughter show their friends their most favorite toy, engage in pretend play, or even take a walk “together” via FaceTime.

A few additional helpful hints:

  1. Choose a familiar peer that is your child’s age or slightly older.
  2. Consider your environment
    1. Be mindful of the room you are in. If you are in your child’s playroom, his friend may be distracted with all the novel toys he sees in the background. It may be helpful to limit the amount of toys or plan a specific activity so the children do not become overwhelmed or have difficulty with play ideas.
  3. Remember to incorporate social skills!
    1. During a designated activity you can prompt your kiddo with conversation starters, reminders to take turns, etc.
  4. Use Visual Schedules
    1. If your child typically works with a visual play schedule, you should use this during the play date.  Your child’s visual schedule is associated with “game time”, following the rules, taking turns, using certain phrases or signs, and many other positive behaviors.  In effect, the schedule is a cue to your child to demonstrate these adaptive play skills.  Using this schedule will help your child generalize these positive behaviors to new situations and new friends.
  5. Different children will need different levels of facilitation during play dates.  This will depend on their ages, levels of functioning, social skills, and language skills.
  6. Video play dates will take some getting use to and may be shorter than traditional play dates. That’s okay! Any socialization during this time is beneficial!

Along with traditional video conferencing platforms there are some kid-specific apps you can download to help facilitate virtual play dates. Caribu, Messenger Kids, Marco Polo, and Netflix Party go beyond Skype and FaceTime calls. Note these apps are geared towards older kids. Below are brief descriptions of each app.

Caribu: This video-calling app is currently free and kids can read books from the 1,000-plus titles together, play games and color during a video call. “Everything we do is about creating more meaningful connections, and that’s what we think is most important right now — keeping families connected in the most engaging way. We’re like Zoom for kids!” says Caribu CEO and Co-Founder Max Tuchman.

Messenger Kids: This app allows kids 6-12 to video chat and message friends and family, with challenges, drawings and filters. Plus, they can use it to collaborate on homework with a study group or talk about group projects.

Marco Polo: Just like the game Marco Polo, with your kids calling out Marco to see who will answer “Polo,” kids can reach out to friends and family with this video chat app easily. It’s nice because you can chat and play live in a group or, if the person you are connecting with isn’t available, the app records the message for them to view later.

Simon Says: This is a fun game to work on imitation, attention and listening skills. Don’t forget, you are out if you do the action of the person who is “it” and they don’t say “Simon Says”

Netflix Party: Great for older kids! They can watch their favorite shows and movies with their friends.