Early Language, Infants, Play, Toddler

Hosting a Language Focused Play Date

As mothers at home with our kids (full time, part time, or “just” on nights and weekends) we crave social interactions with others in similar stages of life. And our kids are (almost) always happier when they are around other children. But hosting a play date can feel overwhelming and bring out all kinds of insecurities (my house isn’t clean/big/nice enough, I don’t have any food, what will we do?, etc. etc.) Well mama- I’m here to tell you we all have messy houses when kids are involved and no one cares about the size of your home. In reality, they’re just grateful you’re offering a space up and they didn’t have to! My play date invitations typically start with a text to the group that goes something like “my house is a mess but if anyone wants to come over for a play date after nap I’ve got coffee/wine”.

When I gave up on needing the perfect space and focused on what I did care about (social interaction, opportunities for communication, and fun) I found that there are only 4 things you need to focus on to provide a language-enriched play date:

Come up with a rough plan

Play dates typically last 1 1/2 to 2 hours. During that time you need to decide do you want to have all structured activities, all unstructured play, or some combination of the two.

Structured Play is when activities or games are parent-led and used to teach a new skill. This may include the parents leading activity, making a craft, or playing a sports game. Structured play is known to increase listening skills, improves gross and fine motor skills, and increases communication.

Unstructured Play (or free play) involves open-ended toys with no learning objective (at least given by the adult). The children lead the way while the parents stand back and observe. Unstructured play increases self-directed executive functioning skills, helps develop creativity and imagination, encourages interactions with other kids, and helps practice decision making.

In language and social skills groups I like to use a combination of both. I often spend the first part of a session in structured play teaching the targeted vocabulary goals (i.e, “stop/go”, different types of transportation, “in/out/under”) and then let the kids play together using toys that encourage the vocabulary we practiced. In life with a toddler, this same principal applies, but I often alternate between the two more frequently….because attention span.

Communicate about snack

Kids eat all the time. There is never a time when snack or a meal is not involved in a play date around here. You have two options- AND BOTH ARE FINE.

Option 1- make the play date BYOS (bring your own snack). This is what we do most often- it’s easy, you don’t have to worry about other children’s possible allergies and likes/dislikes, and you don’t have to worry about having enough for everyone.

Option 2- make one of your structured activities making a snack. It requires parent involvement and the supplies to be ready ahead of time. BUT you can make the snack related to the vocabulary you want to practice and get even more opportunities. A lot of times I’ll make it ahead of time for snack one day with my child and take a picture of the final product (….but pinterest has great pictures too!)

Reduce the Toys

The first thought is often to just throw out all the toys in the living room and let the kids play with EVERYTHING. But in reality, when we provide fewer toys we are encouraging our kids to play together or at least with the same activity next to each other see more about stages of ply with peers here). Having fewer toys also promotes sustained play and attention instead of constantly moving from toy to toy. So pick out a few toys- bonus if you can think of an easy was to use your targeted vocabulary- and throw the rest in another room or closet! It will be less to clean up at the end of the play date too 🙂

Tips on choosing toys for the play date:

  • Choose toys that can be used in several ways (blocks, nesting cups)
  • Include toys that encourage activity
  • Think about your vocabulary focus (GO/Stop- cars, ride on toys, balls, stroller, etc.)
  • Avoid toys that make music/perform (these discourage social interaction with the other children)

Model and meet them at their communication level

You know tour child better than anyone else. Ask yourself these 3 questions about your child’s communication with your target words and you’ll be ready to meet them at their level:

  • Do they understand the word(s)?
  • Have you heard your child say the sounds required?
  • Do they use the words already?

These three things will help you focus on your intentional communication with your child. You simply meet them there. If they don’t follow directions using the word- start there and don’t expect the word to be spoken (but mamma- you model it all day!). If they understand the word and have the sound (or close to it- my daughter says “doe” for “go”) practice having them say it. They may imitate you or you can try using sentence starters (ready, set, ___!). Bombard the word at the one word level and then practice the expectant pause to give them a chance! Finally, if they already know the word and are using it then use that word to build a phrase- “go fast”, “car go”, “want go” or sentence if they’re speaking phrases.

Now what are you waiting for?! Send out that group text and get a play date set up! And remember- if you still don’t want it at your house, playgrounds work too :).


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