How to play online when you can’t be together

Christchurch child development expert and author Dr Tessa Grigg offers her tips for getting the most out of online catchups with little ones when grandparents and grandchildren can’t be together.

There are grandparents all over the world who are not able to physically be in the same room as their grandchildren and Covid-19 and travel restrictions have put a real spotlight on this issue recently. In the past, there were phone calls, and those conversations were better than nothing. Fortunately,  there is now clever technology people can use to engage with their grandchildren, including those under five years old.

The main purpose of connecting with people is for building relationships and creating history. Relationships are built by communicating, showing an interest, and allowing conversations, and time, to wander. After all, history is built through shared experiences. But in these tricky times, we need to be creative with the ways we develop that history. So that the Zoom dinner the family had, the photos that were taken, and the way everyone talked all over each other, becomes part of the family story. But history is more than just shared meals, it’s about doing activities together.

In Sweden(1) research looked at the importance of designing opportunities to ‘wonder’.  Wondering Together, as the project was called, was valued as an effective way to engage with children and allow them to expand their experiences and thoughts. The conversations children have are valued and they have meaning. As adults, we need to help them explore their ideas. Grandparents can take time to do this, and often these conversations happen when a child is engaged in an activity. I have experienced many of these ‘wonderings’ myself while in the sandpit! However, playing with your children in their sandpit, or baking with them is not always possible. We need to find ways to engage them in activities from a distance.

Here are some tips:

  1. Think of activities you can do at your house, and the child can do the same activity at their house. Examples are:
  • Eating morning tea, lunch, or afternoon tea
  • Playing a musical instrument or doing a dance together
  • Playing peek-a-boo with the screen
  • Stacking blocks that are the same (Duplo would work for this)
  • Playing with playdough
  • Building things
  • Whatever interests the child – but work to include some kind of physical action.

2.  Have the child’s parent/caregiver set them up with the appropriate activity items and you have something similar.

3. Also see if the parent can have the grandparent on a reasonably sized screen, computer, or TV.

4. Then all that is left is connecting and playing on screen. Get ideas from the child and go with that and show the child things you have thought of.

Another idea I have seen is a crawling game where the child crawls towards the screen at the same time as the grandparent does the same. Lots of giggling was the result!

Once you get into the swing of this, I’m sure there will be many other activities you’ll be able to create to enjoy shared activities online. Have fun creating ‘history’ with your grandchildren.

Dr Tessa Grigg is a part-time lecturer and teaching assistant at the University of Canterbury. She is also the research and education manager for ToddlerROO, KindyROO and GymbaROO and the co-author of Grandparenting Grandchildren: New knowledge and know-how for grandparenting the under 5s.

  1. Lindahl, I., Interacting with the child in preschool: a crossroad in early childhood education. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 2015. 23(1): p. 55-68.