Ideas for supporting children on video calls

The six year old got into bed with me. It’s not uncommon for Ophelia to do that but all three kids take turns doing it even more these days. They need more reassurance and connection under lockdown. They usually aren’t saying it, even if I can work out that that’s what’s going on. But that morning, she was.

“I miss playing with my friends in person. I hate coronavirus!” she cried. I’d just told her eight year old sister that I’d arranged another video call with her friends and dear Ophelia felt sad that we just didn’t seem able to make that contact with her friends happen.

We’ve been working hard on it ever since, have developed some activities that seem to work well and I’m relieved to say that she’s had quite a few brilliantly connecting video calls with her friends since. She’d much rather see them in person, of course, but she recognises that this is what’s needed for now.

Putting together these ideas has been helpful for my eight year old too, even though she doesn’t need as much input from me. We’ve even made some virtual playdates work for three-year-old Delilah who’s not to be left out.

I know a lot of parents are struggling to support their kids on video calls at the moment – the technology is distracting, you can’t play the same way and it feels like yet another thing. So the kids and I sat down last week and made a lot of notes about what’s been working for us.

These may not work for your family. I’m definitely not saying that they will. But they may spark some ideas of what could work for you. If you have any tips or thoughts, please pop them in the comments. You may well help someone else reading this.

Talk with your kids about what’s going on
I think this has to be the starting point. If they’ve had a call that didn’t go so well, what did they find hard about it? Is there anything that could be done differently? Do they have ideas of what they’d like to do? Maybe they’d rather not do video calls at all. Virtual communication isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s not even for all adults!

That said, you’re probably operating with a more realistic idea of how long we’re going to be in lockdown than they are and chances are they love someone who could benefit from some connecting. So while I don’t think you should force the issue, I do think some gentle talking things through and active listening might be appropriate. Try to see things from their perspective and give them lots of room to express what they’re feeling, if they want to.

It’s probably important to be aware that your child might not want to talk about it. I have one who drinks in conversations like this and easily fires off a million ideas when suggested she think of some. Another processes things on her own and will always default to “I don’t know”. As long as she isn’t pressured, she’ll often feel safe enough to return to things we’ve discussed at a totally random time once she’s mulled it over.

Some of the activities below came from things we’ve done in the past with grandparents and other family overseas. Most have come from the children. Talking with some of you online, lots of children are getting highly innovative in their video calls. I say brainstorm with them because they are endlessly creative but might need to build the confidence to tap into that. Listening, really listening, without judgement either way, can help.

Some light planning
We’ve found it helps for us to have a bit of a plan so we know what to expect from a social interaction online, especially for the younger ones. I realise this isn’t so for everyone. Some friends have needed to take it as it comes and make contact when able. We’ve rolled with it and it’s been OK for us but it does take more energy.

Generally, we’ve found it helps to book in advance and pencil it in so the kids can get ready beforehand. The thing about video calls is that you don’t tend to get to warm into it as much as you do with real life interactions. I imagine that’s why a lot of adults find it tiring too.

To take the pressure off worrying about all the what if’s we’ve made a little list of ideas of things they can do if they get a bit stuck. For Ophelia and Delilah this has been so important. They feel more confident going in because they’ve had a say in it, even if they end up not needing the list and I feel less anxious about having to think up something on the spot if they need a bit of help from me. For Ophelia, she’s often ended up going off list and finding new ideas of things to do with her friends.

For older kids (and adults!) it can be helpful to have a few things up your sleeve if you don’t know the person you’re speaking with very well or don’t want to keep covering the same ground again and again.

You might need to be involved (if they want you to be)
This is going to be dead obvious to some people reading this but, especially if your child isn’t used to talking online, is more about physical play than chatting or is a bit younger, they might need you to help facilitate, at least at first. I made mistakes with this in the first couple of calls Ophelia had with friends because she talks to my mother every week.

I’ve since found that it helps if I’m there until everything’s running smoothly and that I’m on hand in case they get stuck for ideas. There’s often a point at which she wants me to go so I check with her now and then. For Delilah, I’m obviously there throughout and find it often works well for me to take an even more active role by reading to her and her friends, singing action songs and leading games.

Minimise distractions
This is such a big challenge with communicating over technology. I say this as someone who has spent almost nine years working hard at engaging babies and children with people who love them across a screen. Everything becomes a distraction.

If children are likely to move a phone around a lot or fight over who gets to hold it (been there!), using a computer might be a better option. It’s less distracting for the other person too! It can also help to remove the image the child sees of themselves if the platform they’re using allows it. That said, with some help, they may well adjust to it with time. Then they can have fun with filters, depending on platform.

Think about siblings
Siblings can present a significant distraction. They certainly do in this house. And the reason for reaching out to friends is sometimes because a child needs a break from siblings. The only one in our house who doesn’t mind her sisters video bombing is Delilah.

If one needs space and can handle the call on her own, I plan an activity in advance for the others at the same time. Planning needs to involve them and must be something sufficiently exciting like baking or a really cool science experiment.

If I need to be involved in the call, the others are set up with a video game or a TV show because connecting with friends is serious business. If it’s a younger one on the call, I might ask older ones to do something that they’re able and happy doing on their own.

And there are some times where it works best if siblings are involved so we talk about this too and think about it there are any games that everyone will be happy playing together. Basically, it can take some flexibility.

Give the situation lots of grace
If all of this sounds exhausting, that’s because it can be. And that’s why I think you need to extend grace in abundance to everyone. Even organising a call for your child requires energy from you. I find this in day to day life as a home educator. Every time I ask someone about meeting up, there’s a part of me that expects them to say “no”. It takes a lot to send that text. Now in lockdown, I’m finding that things that are normally tiring are even more so.

To counter that, I’m trying not to organise too many calls in a day. If I’m involved in the call, I tend to schedule it before sticking a film on for the kids so I can rest or at least get on with something on my own afterwards. Everyone’s different so I imagine other personality types might have more social bandwidth to play with. The point is, be gentle with yourself.

You may also need to offer yourself and your child some radical acceptance if things dont go the way you planned or if it’s an all-out flop. Virtual playdates require new skills that neither of you should really have to acquire in the normal course of things. New things take practice and anxiety can often intensify perfectionism. It’s OK if it doesn’t work the first time. That doesn’t mean it won’t get better. You may need to collaborate with your child and with your child’s friend’s support person to try something else.

Maybe the way they play looks nothing like you think it should. Maybe you’d like them to chat and that’s not their bag. That can be hard to deal with too but if they’re happy, you may need to trust them to take from the interaction what they’re able to right now.

And if they don’t want to do video calls at all after having talked about it, you may have to trust that you’ll find another way through this time together. They might want to make their friends cards and post them or send a text full of emojis from your phone. Or they might just want to write or draw all the things they’re looking forward to doing with the people they love when the restrictions are eventually lifted.

Or perhaps what they really need in this time of upheaval is to deeply connect with you. This might mean trusting that you are enough right now, even if you don’t feel it.
Activities to try

Simple games: “Find something the colour” – Each player chooses a colour and everyone needs to run and find something that colour to show their friends. This was introduced to us by our church youth worker and I’ve been surprised that all the kids love it. Simon says also works well for the younger ones. Charades are great for any age. Think animals, household objects, you name it. Apparently, mouth reading is a good one but I’ve seen mixed results on this, to be honest. That said, I wasn’t the one playing so who am I to judge?

Art: Draw each other. Much hilarity on this one and it has the added bonus of not requiring conversation, though it can ease artists into chatting. Facepainting yourself is another option that allows kids to be together without the pressure to talk while likely prompting lots of laughter. You could also just draw or make something alongside each other and show each other the results. Bonus points for attempting something funny. Ophelia and her friend decided to take turns drawing and guess what the other person was drawing. It looked impossibly random to me but they loved it.

Play across the screen: Probably one for later in the call when things are established but if each child has a favourite toy (eg figurines) they can experiment with playing across the screen. Hide and seek can also work, especially if a younger sibling is about to do the hiding. For littlest chatters, a parent can move the camera, asking the other child where to look.

Kitchen disco: Set the program you’re using to share your computer’s music and away you go. You can even take requests, throw in fancy dress themes or take turns showing off moves.

Make music together: Get together for a sing along to film soundtracks or gather musicians to jam. You can share the lyrics if preferred, though they might rather look at each other. Talitha wants to get a few of her orchestra pals together for a play. Action songs are fun for littler ones.

Storytelling games: Anything which allows kids to tell a story together can be a goer here. Friends taught the kids a game called “Fortunately Unfortunately” while camping last year and they’ve been obsessed with it ever since. It’s that classic continue from where the other person left off except you have to say something “unfortunate” if they said something “fortunate”. Works better with older ones, I think as younger ones just keep undoing what the person before said but it can work for them too if you’re around to help guide a bit.

Follow the same instructions: Think crafternoon or bakealong or even a Lego challenge. Make sure everyone has the info and materials they need and depending on the age of the child they can talk each other through the process or you can offer help as needed.

Books: Children who are into picture books might enjoy being read to together by one of the adults present. This has worked particularly well for Delilah and her friends. Older children might be interested in chatting about what they’ve read recently or maybe even attempting a virtual book club. We haven’t tried this yet but Talitha loves the idea so we’ll explore.

Quizzes: We have now done so many pub style quizzes and the kids aren’t at all over them yet. This is a great one to do with adult relatives as it’s genuinely engaging for all but older kids can handle them on their own too. They might also enjoy researching and putting together the questions.

I’m sure you’ve come up with things we haven’t so please share some more ideas below!

PS: With any platform your child is using, consider internet safety, especially if you’re leaving them to chat on their own.

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