Technology has made it simpler than ever to stay connected to faraway family and friends. Whether it’s chatting with grandma in Ohio or checking in with the kids while you’re traveling, using apps like FaceTime and Google Hangouts is a breeze for long-distance banter. That is, if you can keep your kids engaged on the other end—it’s the one time you actually want your tykes glued to the screen.
When culture and trends researcher Alison Hillhouse would FaceTime with her toddler son Charlie’s grandparents, he would get antsy and lose interest. That is until his “Gigi” started making things super kid-focused and fun. Sometimes she’d take on-screen Charlie for a visit to “Toy Town” in her basement or create a live puppet show—Gigi had tapped into her grandson’s natural curiosity and helped spark new interests that kept him engaged.
This interaction is what inspired Alison to write “Virtual Grandma,” a quick and informative book packed with 20 ideas for helping your toddler child video chat with friends and family. Here are five of her quick tips for making the experience more fun and less “Charlie talk to Gigi… come back here, stop making faces, can you tell Gigi what you had for breakfast…Charlie…I guess he doesn’t want to talk…” pandemonium.
THE RIGHT TIME TO FACETIME
Figure out the best time of day to help your child chat with a friend or relative and then plan the video call around that. Is your child happiest in the morning or afternoon? Is he most likely to sit still right after waking up? Does she get fidgety if she’s due for a snack? Find the best time and stay in that zone. It’ll make the experience more pleasant for you, your kid, and the person on the other end of the screen.
OBJECTS IN MOTION
Alison highly recommends suggesting that the grandparent, aunt, uncle, friend, or whomever is chatting with your child get moving. Like actually move around. The movement will help keep your little one’s attention and provide so many opportunities for doing fun things around the house, like looking at pictures, finding fun objects to tell stories about, playing I Spy, or taking a tour of familiar rooms like the garage or guest room (where your son or daughter likely stays during visits). It’s so much more captivating for your child than simply sitting and talking aimlessly. So ask your chat buddy to pick up that smartphone or tablet and walk around while they narrate.
Children love music, so why not incorporate that interest through singing or playing songs? Alison recommends tapping into familiar rhymes like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Little Bunny Foo Foo.” Bonus: these songs involve fun hand gestures that babies can start practicing and later master as toddlers. If grandpa’s a master on the guitar or Aunt Jane can tickle those piano keys, all the better. But it doesn’t even matter if they’re a virtuoso or not. Kids will love hearing a familiar tune, especially coming from a loved one.
Mealtime can be a great way to initiate chatting with family or friends because your tiny audience of one is safely strapped into a highchair and ready to engage. Alison’s son often tries to “feed” his Gigi through the screen when they play “fruit basket.” And they both enjoy eating and chatting about the same fruits at the same time, whether it’s a favorite like bananas or something new like kiwis.
As your little one grows take special note of her interests and passions. Then integrate those into chat activities with friends and family, Alison says. If your son is obsessed with books, ask your international friend to read a foreign language picture book as a virtual story time. If your daughter digs trucks, have a relative play with toy tractors on screen and narrate what they’re doing. Your baby can be entertained by grandma shaping Play-Doh, or your tot may love to cook a simple meal together if Cousin Chris gives directions and encouragement over FaceTime. Then you can do the activities together again when you’re in person and really rally those budding passions—for both the activity and the person they get to share them with.