Nine Tips to Create a Playgroup

Cartoon of children's playgroup

Being the parent of a special needs child can be isolating.  So many activities are off limits due to accessibility concerns, behavioral problems and communication challenges. It’s hard enough coping with your own loneliness, but knowing your child struggles to make friends is heartbreaking for most parents.  One way to break down barriers and find social opportunities for you and your child is by hosting an inclusive playgroup where children with special needs and typically developing children play together. Children with special needs may benefit from observing typically developing peers, and those without developmental challenges will learn from and come to appreciate their peers with special needs.

We’ve put together some guidelines for making playgroups successful.

1.  Organize playgroups around developmental age

If your child has a disability, she may not be functioning at the same level as typically developing children of her own age. Your child may have more success playing with children who match her developmental, not her chronological age.

2.  Keep it small

Children with special needs can be easily over-stimulated and overwhelmed so it’s wise to limit the number of children in the playgroup to no more than four or five.

3.  Be consistent

Children with special needs often have trouble adapting to change. So keep group norms as consistent as possible. Don’t invite guests without warning your child first, and try keeping the playgroup’s schedule regular. It’s also worthwhile to come up with some ground rules regarding behavior expectations for all group members. Unless rules are clear, conflicts between children and parents can sabotage relationships and the longevity of the group.

4.  Prepare a couple of simple activities

Children with developmental disabilities such as autism may be challenged when it comes to reciprocal, spontaneous and imaginative play. If that’s the case for your child, prepare a few activities that you know your child and the other children in the group are likely to enjoy. Crafts projects play dough, or sing-alongs work well with most children.

5.  Have snacks

Provide healthy but child-friendly snacks. Since some children may have dietary restrictions be sure to discuss options with parents beforehand. Better yet, ask parents to bring their own snacks if they have concerns about what’s being served.

6.  Safety First
Make sure the designated playgroup area is free of breakable objects, sharp edges or uncarpeted surfaces. If children are under 3 years old or have oral sensory processing issues, be careful not to put out toys with small pieces that can be choking hazards. If you have the space, consider creating an indoor gymnasium with soft play products.  Ball pits, soft play blocks, tunnel climbers and patchwork floormats get kids moving, and having fun for hours.

7.  Be patient

If your child’s disability affects his social skills, don’t expect friendships to develop overnight. Focus on making sure that everyone has fun and feels comfortable so that parents and children want to meet again. In time, you may be surprised of the relationships that form.

8.  Keep it short and sweet

A playgroup that lasts more than two hours is flirting with disaster. Regardless of their developmental age, most young children become over-stimulated, tired and irritable after a certain point.

9.  Playgroups in the community

If you aren’t up to creating your own playgroup, don’t give up on the idea. Plenty of community organizations including Lekotek, Where I Can Be Me, and your local YMCA or JCC offer playgroups that are staffed by professionals. Meetups are another great source for connecting with other families with special needs children.


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