Gone for now are the gatherings at the playground and in each other’s home. No more school for big kids or preschool for the littles. In their place are online classrooms and virtual playdates. And both of those have a learning curve.
In our household of three kids, we have done Facetime, Zoom conversations, and even a virtual party with friends online. Some interactions have gone swimmingly and others could have been better with some preparation.
So how can your child get the most out of their virtual time with other kids? I’ve found that a bit of planning will go a long way.
• Audience:: Plan virtual playdates with just one friend at a time. Online interactions are different and preschoolers especially will have a hard time keeping up with more than one buddy.
• Preparation:: Like a regular playdate, you’ll need to lay out expectations including challenges that could arise. Maybe you won’t be able to hear well, or the video might freeze, or there could be distractions like siblings in the room. Explaining what could happen ahead of time can minimize frustrations when things don’t go as planned.
• Ice Breaker:: Prepare a “Show and Tell” as an easy ice breaker activity to help kids warm up. After not seeing each other for a while, young kids can suddenly feel reserved. Without some guidance and context, they may have a hard time having a meaningful exchange.
Ask the other family to join you in gathering a few things for the children to show each other. Let the kids take turns holding up and talking about their choices. This could be a stuffed animal, a favorite toy, or a book they recently read. It could also be something they aren’t typically able to show their friends like their bedroom, something in the backyard, or even a pet!
• Activity:: After the kids have said their greetings and showed each other their items, have them play a game of Scavenger Hunt. One child at a time calls out a color and both children go find something in that color to show each other. You can plan on several rounds of this game. Another idea is to have each child take turns calling out types of toys, like “show me a vehicle”, “show me a stuffed animal”, “show me a game”, “show me pretend food”, “show me a doll”, etc.
• Ending the Call:: Young kids have a shorter attention span. After about 15-20 minutes, they’ll probably be ready to say goodbye. If you’ve kept to a plan of ice breakers and activities, the end of the activities will provide a natural way to end the call.
GRADE SCHOOL KIDS
• Audience:: Although older kids will have an easier time conversing with more than one person at a time, it is still easier for friend groups to keep their video conversations or virtual playdates between just a few kids. Facetime will allow for multiple callers to be on at once, enlarging the tile of the person speaking so everyone can keep up. Even so, keeping it small is still a good idea to allow for easier conversation.
If the calls are kept between two or three kids, you won’t need anything too organized. Older kids can socialize online with their friends better than younger kids can. With shared experiences and interests to discuss, they’re often fine without adult guidance. However, if for some reason kids are socializing online with some new friends, the preschool ice breaker and activities could still come in handy.
• Preparation:: Same as with younger kids, set expectations for your older kids about the challenges of using video chat. Remind them that it won’t be perfect and taking turns to talk will be even more important.
• Ice Breaker:: While big kids probably don’t need ice breakers, you might want to give your more reserved child a few ideas of what they can talk about. Since no one has been anywhere interesting lately, remind them of some new things they may have done: playing a new game, cooking, watching a new show or movie, seeing interesting sidewalk art, or learning a new skill. My ten year old mowed the lawn for the first time and that was newsworthy.
• Activity:: Large group conversations probably work best when one person is in charge of the meeting. Calls where there is no obvious host can devolve into chaos or boredom.
My friend planned and hosted a Zoom party with about ten eight-year old girls last week. She sent out an invitation and asked each guest to be prepared with pen and paper when they tuned in. The girls were also to come dressed as a superhero of her own creation, complete with name and persona. Then during the party each child had the chance to introduce their new superhero selves. Afterwards they enjoyed a quick dance break. For the game portion, each girl had a turn to think of a Disney hero and answer questions from the others who attempted to guess the selected hero. Everyone wrote their guess on their paper and held it up for all to see. The girls had a blast and though it was online, it felt like a real event.
• Ending the Call:: Older kids probably don’t need help here. However, if you have a chatty child like I do, you may need to give them a five-minute warning, just like during a real playdate. I don’t mind my daughter being on as long as she wants, but if I start to get the feeling she’s overstayed her welcome – I’ll step in.
Virtual playdates and parties can never take the place of live interactions, but it is better than nothing. As the weeks at home continue with seemingly no end in sight, it will be important to help our children continue to connect with the people who make up their world, even if that world has shrunk for the time being.