I don’t think the developers at Zoom (or Skype or Microsoft Teams) ever predicted that their teleconferencing and video chat software would become a platform for parent-toddler classes and online preschool!
Then during coronavirus, all the parents who used to try to minimize screen time for their young children found they needed to utilize it as their child’s primary way to connect to people outside their household. Even as we move out of the peak of the pandemic, it’s likely that online classes and conversations will continue to be a part of young children’s lives moving forward. (For example, Outschool offers thousands of online classes for children age 3 and up – here’s a review of Outschool.)
How do we make the experience as rich and as developmentally appropriate as we can?
These tips can be helpful whether you’re a parent planning a call between your child and their grandparent, or you’re a preschool teacher planning a class for 20 kids.
Before the Call
Choose a good time of day when the child is relaxed and attentive.
It doesn’t have to be a long call and a big deal – it’s fine to do short calls. A few minutes here and there is great for some kids. On the other hand, it’s also fine to have long calls. I know one family in Seattle where the grandmother in China “comes for breakfast” every day (before grandma turns in for the night.) She “sits at the table” with them, and chats with the children as the parents get ready for the day.
Before the call, gather anything you’ll want to use during the call: books, instruments, and show & tell items so that no one has to step away from the computer during the call – that might cause the child to lose interest.
Prepare the child. Talk about what will happen and how long the visit will be. Remind them who they will be speaking to and what they talked about last time.
Consider staying nearby. Young children may be best able to engage with a zoom call if they’re sitting on their parent’s lap or the parent is sitting beside them. (Note, some organizations, like Outschool, require that adults be off camera, but when I teach preschool age children online, I find that the children who do best in class often have an adult right next to them – I’ll see the parent’s arm reach in to help out. Once children have done several classes, they no longer need that active support, and you may be able to step away and get things done while they’re on a call.)
Teach them to un-mute. The host can mute the child, but not all systems allow the host to un-mute, so be sure the child knows how to un-mute. There are a few choices: if you have a touch screen, the easiest may be to teach them to tap the bottom corner of the screen to bring up the command bar, then tap on the mic icon. Other options: moving the mouse cursor to the bottom of the screen and clicking on the microphone (this can be hard for little ones), pressing alt-a, or holding down the space bar (note: as soon as they let go of the space bar they return to muted.)
Over time, help your child learn Zoom skills to be more independent in the call: how to mute, how to chat, how to use the reactions like clapping, how to share screen. How to place a call. Help them understand what’s happening when their screen buddy “freezes.”
During the Call
Have familiar rituals – perhaps the same greeting each time, or the same song each time – these cues help a young child to remember who they’re speaking to and reconnect.
The remote person should speak slowly and clearly. The person in the room with the child can repeat questions and comments from either side, as needed.
The remote person should look directly at the camera – this will feel like eye contact to the child. Don’t be tempted to look away at other distractions while talking. Use a lot of gestures, body language, and big facial expressions – it’s much more engaging.
Stay unmuted as much as possible so everyone in the call can hear each other and feel as though they’re in the same room.
Consider using a mobile device like a tablet or laptop so you can move around and show each other new things.
Some children focus better if eating a snack while talking – for others, that is distracting. Some children focus better if they have some simple toys nearby to hold in their hands and play with during the call. Others may find that distracting.
Let the child know when the call is nearing its end, and make a clear ending. (Maybe a song, or a story, or something to signal the ending.) Talk about when you’ll “meet” again.
Making Video Chats Interactive
Here are ideas for interactive activities to try out:
- Play Peek a Boo. Normal style, or by covering the camera and uncovering it.
- Read Stories. If you have a physical copy of a book, you can hold it up and read it. Or you can scan in pictures of the pages and share those as you read. Or find a YouTube of a read aloud book, but mute their video, and read along with your voice.
- Sing Songs. With audio lag you can’t sing in unison or it sounds awful. But you CAN take turns singing.
- Silly Faces. Take turns – who can make the silliest face? (Spotlight them.)
- Pretend to Be – Take turns pretending to be different animals, or whatever.
- What is My Stick? Hold up a stick. Demonstrate how it could be a fishing pole, or a baseball bat. Try a few more and ask them to guess what it is.
- Use Props. Puppet shows can be fun!
- Make Art Together. Get out art supplies on each end, and draw pictures together. Hold them up to the camera from time to time to share your work.
- Show and Tell – each person brings an item to show to people and to talk about.
- Play Guessing Games.
- Share a travelogue – each person takes pictures of their day, and shares it with the other on the next call.
- Dance Party. Put on some music and dance!! (Learn how to make music work well on Zoom.)
- Talent Show – Take turns demonstrating special talents you have: telling jokes, crazy dances, singing songs, patting your head and rubbing your belly…
- Progressive Stories. One person starts a story: “Once upon a time, a polka-dotted elephant…” then the next person continues “… boarded a spaceship headed for… “
- Would you Rather? “would you rather ______ or _______”
- I Spy: Do a google search for “I spy pictures.” Choose one, then share your screen and play I Spy together.
- Play Simon Says.
- Play Tic Tac Toe, Hangman, and other pencil and paper games on the Zoom whiteboard.
- Guess How Many. Person A fills a container with objects (20 pennies? 30 mini marshmallows?) and shows it to Person B. They have to guess how many objects there are, then they count them together. On the next call it’s B’s turn.
- Scavenger Hunt. Name an object – they run and find it in the house and bring it back.
- Find the Hidden Object. The remote adult can conspire with the in-house adult. The in-house adult hides an object before the call. During the call, the remote adult can give clues to help the child find the treasure.
- Pretend to Share Snacks. Plan ahead and have both of you have the same food to eat together. Make it a fancy tea party if you’d like.
- Go on a walk “together” with mobile devices. Share what you see.
- Go on a field trip “together.” Lots of zoos, aquariums, and museums have created virtual field trips or have “panda-cams” and such. Go on one together by sharing your screen and talking about what you see. You could also do virtual tourism together. My mother-in-law has found a whole world of “virtual walking tours” on YouTube and goes for walks all over the world every day in her living room.
- Watch movies together. Share a screen and talk as you watch.
- For older children (elementary on up), there’s lots more ideas here: https://janelledurham.com/games-interaction-on-zoom/.
I also like this suggestion from Zero to Three: “Be the “hands and heart” of the the person on-screen. When the screen partner “tickles” your baby’s tummy, give your child’s tummy a tickle, too. When a grandparent leans toward the screen to “kiss” your toddler, you can give him a kiss on the cheek. By taking this role, you help nurture the relationship between the child and their on-screen friend.”
Long Distance Babysitters
During the coronavirus stay-at-home time, many parents were with their children 24/7 for a long time with few breaks. You can use a video chat as a “babysitter” to get you a break. Have your child talk with grandpa, or an aunt, or a friend while you rest. If you have a very young child, you may need to be in the same room but at least the child’s attention is captured by someone else. For older children, you may be able to be elsewhere in the house, and let your child know where to find you. I know some parents of elementary age kids who will go for a walk in the neighborhood while their child is online – the remote adult has their cell phone number and can reach them immediately if needed.
This blog is primarily aimed at parents of kids age 1 to 6, so I assume the parents are nearby during video calls, and keeping their eyes and ears on what is happening. If you have an older child who may be making video calls independently to friends, here are some helpful safety tips: https://www.protectyoungminds.org/2019/02/19/11-safe-video-chat-rules-you-probably-havent-taught-your-kids/.
If the person on the other end seems to have a hard time hearing you: Figure out whether you need to add an external microphone to make your child audible (especially if they’re speaking with an older person whose hearing isn’t what it used to be). Children tend to have quiet voices and may be hard to hear over a video chat if the internal mic on your device isn’t great. Plus they wiggle around a lot and don’t always stay near the mic. You can test your mic – use the “voice recorder” app on your computer and record your child talking, then play it back. If you can hear it with your speaker volume at any setting, it’s fine. But if you can only hear the recording if you crank your speakers up to 80 or 90 out of 100, then consider buying a mic. (Click for more tips about audio settings.)
If you’re teaching classes to young children, here’s a handout you can send to the parents about help your child succeed on Zoom.
Here are some of the sources I used when writing this.
What the research tells us about developmental impacts of video chat vs. other screen time for kids: https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/10/03/496362094/could-video-chats-be-good-for-your-infant
If you need a tutorial to the basics of how to use Zoom, or any of the advanced features of Zoom, check out my Guide to Zoom.