At age 4, Jessica Dodge’s son had very few little buddies.
“COVID was isolating for Baker,” Dodge says. “He didn’t have many chances to make many new friends.” He’s not alone. Lots of kids lost social skills practice during the pandemic.
Then one day, while visiting Woodland Park, Dodge’s heart soared as she watched her son walk up to another child and ask, simply, “Will you be my friend today so we can play?”
Seeing the two kids hit it off, Dodge asked the parent of the other child for their contact information and followed through by inviting them to a second playdate.
It’s not complicated
“With the pandemic, he just hadn’t gotten to practice in a social setting,” Dodge explains.
“Something about that exchange made me realize as adults we complicate things too much. So I decided to make a conscious effort to help Baker build his community. We are putting some real intention around it.”
What does that intention look like? It’s as simple as Baker’s question on the playground.
“We’re taking that same energy and we’re modeling it by reaching out to other parents by text and asking ‘Will you play with us today?’” says Dodge. “It’s just as easy as that.”
It’s about him
Dodge says she and Baker’s other parent are specific in their goal. It isn’t about expanding their own parent network, or the whole family’s, but specifically about growing Baker’s friend circle.
“When my daughter was little, we had the PEPS group and friends with children of a similar age but it wasn’t specifically about finding peers for her, it was really about building our own community,” says Dodge. “This is different. It’s all about him.”
The friendship project rules
Rule one: Baker’s parents, who live in different homes, first agreed that if one couldn’t take him to a playdate or social event, the other would step in if at all possible.
Rule two: Next, they agreed to use texting as their central way of communicating with other parents and each other about potential playdates. When sending a playdate text, they include the other parents to all in the loop.
Rule three: They strive to make “new friend” playdates simple. “It’s much easier to say yes when it’s something like meeting up right at the school bell or grabbing just 30 minutes to play at a neighborhood park.”
Once a friendship has blossomed, complex playdates may come into the picture. “But for actually making friends” says Dodge, “removing the pressure and question of whose house to go to and the need for a grand plan in our already overscheduled lives has worked best.”
What they did
With those agreements in place, Baker’s parents encouraged him to practice his friendship skills by approaching kids he was interested in playing with, just as he had at Woodland Park. From there, they step in to:
- approach the child’s parent about a potential follow-up playdate
- collect parent contact information
- make it a priority to follow through with a group text and invitation
Second playdates are always at a public place, a park, or another kid-friendly space. If it goes well, the next step might be an in-home playtime.
Playdates don’t have to be complicated, Dodge stresses: “We have discovered the no-fail, 30-minute, all-ages hangout: ice cream and a walk!”
Meeting the goal
The results of the Baker friend-making action plan speak for themselves. At age 6, he now has a growing core of friends and hangs out with them outside of school two or three times a week. His friendship confidence has grown and his anxiety has decreased.
“He feels a sense of belonging and like he has more buddies,” Dodge says.
Dodge stresses that she does not dictate which kids Baker approaches to offer a hand of friendship.
The widest circle
“I used to want there to be a good connection between the parents and myself, too,” Dodge says. “But now I really just try to let that part go and focus on allowing Baker to build bonds with whomever HE wants to. There is a real benefit in just letting the child choose whom they want to play with and being totally open to any family.”
They make it a point to go to parks outside their neighborhood.
“I think people can be a little snobby or standoffish. But real communities are diverse,” Dodge says. “Real community is not just ‘We’re hanging only with the kids in our class, or only with the kids in our grade, or only with the kids who live in the neighborhood.’ It’s important for us to reach out to anybody and everybody our child feels inspired to connect with. That diversity is important.”