1. Planning - Help your child to select someone that he/she can be successful with, e.g if your child is very outgoing and physical perhaps someone a little quieter could be helpful or if your child is quiet and timid an outgoing nurturer who will draw your child into the play activity may be best. Try to avoid (at least until your child has some successful play dates) the out of control child who has difficulty following rules and/or may instigate your child to get into trouble.
2. Identify a goal - You're probably setting up a play date in the hopes that your child will play appropriately with someone of a similar age. With that in mind, make a list of areas for improvement in the realm of social skills (if you have difficulty thinking of specific targets go the Interactive Kids website and look at the part of the application labeled "Social Skills Menu" to get you started). Then choose one or two goals (hopefully with the help of your child if possible) to target and work on until they are mastered. Talk to your child about strategies he/she can use to reach that goal.
3. Preparation - We wouldn't go into a job interview unprepared, so neither should our children. The night before, talk to about who they will be playing with, where they will be getting together, any rules established, and most importantly expectations for them (e.g. sustaining the play activity, saying "hello" to the peer, keeping hands and feet to yourself, or any other targeted skills). Also remind them of the reinforcer they may receive (if appropriate) for practicing the skill(s). Just before the children meet up review the targeted skill and how your child can practice it; keep this to a couple of sentences so as not to overwhelm your child.
4. Meet at a neutral location - This is true particularly for children who may struggle when needing to share their own toys. Also, being at ones own house when a sibling is present can result in the child who came for a play date socializing with the sibling instead. You could consider a park, playground, the zoo, a pool, indoor play place, etc.
5. Have an agenda - Many children do better if there is a specific, structured activity to participate in instead of "free play." Coming up with mutually interesting activities on their own can be a struggle for the children. If an art activity, organized sport, cooking project, etc. is ready for them they may have more opportunities to appropriately interact.
6. Keep play dates short- For those children who are having difficulty playing with others it's best to start with brief encounters to better ensure success. Usually 30-45 minutes would be plenty for the first encounter. With my own children I know that by the time we're getting to 2 hours they are done with most play dates, and they enjoy socializing with others. Let your child have that feeling of wanting to play with the peer again, it will make setting up the next get together so much easier.
7. Debrief- Talk to your child, when they're ready, about their experiences with their friend. Allow them to vent if needed or be excited about how much fun they had (even if your assessment was quite different than theirs). If your child brings up a particularly challenging situation don't jump right to telling him or her what they should do next time. Instead use probing questions to guide the child in the right direction. For example, What were you doing when that happened? What was the other child doing? How did you feel? How do you think (other child) felt? What do you think went well? What could you have done differently? Always try to end the conversation by letting your child know how proud you are of him or her; play dates seem so easy to us, but for some children it would be as difficult as me trying to perform calculus - an insurmountable task!
8. Rewards and reinforcement- Reinforcement is anything that follows a behavior and increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For some children simply saying that you are proud will be enough, but others may need something additional. Whether you choose to give a sticker on a chart, an M&M, new toy, special activity, or other reward just be sure your child is receiving it for engaging in some behavior that you want to see more of (e.g. respecting personal space, using an appropriate tone of vice, sharing, etc.).
9. Try, try again - Even if a play date doesn't occur successfully, believe me I've been through some total disasters, don't stop trying. You may need to re-evaluate the components listed above to determine where the breakdown occurred, but it will be a learning experience for you and your child.
10. Ask for Help - That's why we at Interactive Kids established this blog, not just for me to vent about my own parenting challenges, but to serve as a forum for others to ask questions and share experiences.