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play-seriousDo you remember playing with friends when you were a child?  The winter time snow storms where all of the kids on the street were jumping in the highest snow banks. Then afterwards everyone would gather inside for hot chocolate. Conversely, in the summertime there always seemed to be someone around to jump into the sprinkler with or make a fort out of old tree branches.

Most people can recall the constant merriment and laughter associated with childhood. But a struggle occurs when a child can’t play with peers because the anxiety, fear or worry is too big. Playtime then morphs itself from a whimsical activity to a very strategic maneuver where each moment is calculated and adapted depending on the circumstance. Who would have thought that playing was so much work?

Playing is Serious Business!  
Play is not only useful, it is essential.  Children learn so much about themselves, their peers and the world around them through playful activities. Playing builds their imagination and enhances social skills. It helps strengthen their physical and emotional development and it is scientifically proven to be good to our brains.

When our daughter was small, a number of professionals: doctors, therapists/psychologists and occupational therapists, advised me to ensure that she had at least three play dates a week. I thought, “How hard can that be?” It should be a simple task: choose the children in the class that seemed to have an interest in her and bring them over for a few hours. Little did I realize that playing wasn’t always fun and games.

Steps to Ensure Playtime Success
Every play date is not created equal.  Some children go through some awkwardness at a new scenario, however, when you throw anxiety into the mix it becomes a whole other entity. There are certain key elements that ensure a successful time for all.

  • Pick a child that is not a whirlwind, but shares the same energy. Just because another child pays attention to your child doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great fit. Make sure that the energy levels match up. If your child prefers quiet and low-key activities pair him up with a child who isn’t going to be running circles around him. Observation is your greatest tool.
  • Limit initial play dates to no more than 1 ½ hours. We are trying to set our children up for success and having a new child over for only one hour is just the right amount of time to expose your child to a new adventure. It is far more appealing to come out of an interaction with a sense of accomplishment rather than tears. This will also allow you and your child to work through some coping mechanisms, if need be, but in a way that is manageable.
  • Ensure there is an activity to fall back on. Make sure that there is always a little activity you can fall back on in case the play date stalls. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t engage in the first few encounters. Play dates are meant to be a chance to grow and learn and eventually engage.
  • Repeat as often as necessary. This is often the hardest part. We know that playing is so vitally important, especially for children who struggle with social interactions and anxiety. As I mentioned earlier, therapists prescribed at least three play dates a week, where we would mix up the friends in order to expose our daughter to good social play and interactions.  Eventually, with each experience our daughter began the journey to tearing down that wall of anxiety and began to engage and laugh.
  • Safe environment to handle their emotions.  Giving children the opportunity to test the waters in a familiar environment is truly beneficial. Think of play dates and playing much like a ladder where with each encounter you climb higher. Begin play dates one on one in your home, that way you can help your child handle their emotions should they begin to feel overwhelmed or anxious. With the right guidance and support you will quickly become hands off. Gradually move the play dates out of your house and go and visit friends at their house. There is no doubt that for children with severe anxiety this will be a huge transition, but stick with it. Remember, your child has made a tremendous step. Once a comfort level is made then allow for the next transition – staying at a friend’s house without you. It may take some time, but at their own pace they will realize how much fun it is to be an active participant in friendships and in life.

The most important part of play is that your child gain a sense of happiness and contentment. Just remember, it doesn’t happen overnight. For children who are anxious, playing is a bit of work in the beginning. So roll up your sleeves, set some dates and watch as a magical transformation occurs for your child when the next best friend is not the anxiety monster, but the kid from down the street.