For some, Zoom calls are a novelty brought about by the pandemic and social distancing. This holiday season, in particular, we know that there will be a lot of virtual catch-ups with families, since we are dedicated to keeping things small and safe. (Zoom is even lifting its time limit on free calls for Thanksgiving!) Since we live far away from the grandparents, though, video calls have been a part of our lives since our 4-year-old daughter was a baby. And let me tell you, it was not always smooth sailing.
At first, those calls were easy. We’d all chat while the baby cooed on a mat in front of us. As soon as our daughter began to crawl and walk, it became a different story altogether. We would spend the FaceTime calls flipping the phone in all directions as we scrambled after our daughter and tried to keep her engaged with her grandparents. She wanted none of it, so we’d cajole and bribe until an inevitable meltdown resulted in us hanging up, sighing our apologies. The calls became less about connecting and more about checking something off the list.
Let’s be honest: Zoom fatigue is real. We’ve all experienced that internal groan when firing up the computer and the stifled yawn when a call lasts longer than anticipated. It’s so much worse for kids who may not have all the conversational tools (and patience) necessary to keep a video call going. Plus, with so many kids going to school virtually, they are likely experiencing just as much fatigue as adults sitting through Zoom meetings.
Let’s be honest: Zoom fatigue is real … [and] it’s so much worse for kids who may not have all the conversational tools (and patience) necessary to keep a video call going.
I realized I wanted so much more from those calls with our family and friends. We wanted our daughter to feel connected to her family in a real way and to associate time with them (virtual or in-person) with joy, versus obligation. As she got older and her friends moved away, we wanted her to keep in touch with them too. So, I brainstormed some ideas about how to make virtual calls more pleasant and began to implement them—to great success. I wouldn’t say that every call is completely seamless, but they are much easier, and we all walk away feeling like we’ve had a real interaction versus a hectic and anxiety-filled shuffling.
In this season of Zoom calls and virtual family catch-ups, I’ve rounded up some tips on what works to keep kids engaged while they’re on video calls.
1. Plan calls around your child’s schedule
We used to try to fit our video chats in whenever we thought of it, spontaneously picking up the phone when we had a spare moment. Cue disastrous calls that lasted only a minute or so before we claimed defeat. I soon realized that a little bit of planning helps immensely in gauging my daughter’s shifting patience levels. For example, a call in the morning never worked out, because she was more interested in reacquainting herself with her toys after a whole night away from them. But if we did a call after rest time, after she’d been alone and was ready to re-engage, the calls went much better.
Figure out your child’s schedule and plan your video chats accordingly. If they’re younger, timing it around naps is always ideal. If they’re older, consider identifying times of the day when their energy levels are a little higher.
2. Come up with topics beforehand
I realize this feels like a lot of planning for a call, but trust me, having a few talking points really helps move the conversation along. I’ll often ask my daughter to tell her grandparents about a new movie she’s watched or see if she may want to sing a song she just learned. Sometimes we’ll do a craft or coloring activity right before the call, so she can show them her masterpiece during the call when she’s still excited about it.
It’s important to us that she’s also checking in with them, so we ask her if she wants to know anything about them. My daughter loves a good origin story (her obsession with Star Wars is truly epic), so we usually ask a more open-ended question like, “How did you and Grandpa meet?” or “Remember last Christmas when you came to our house?” I’m always surprised at how much even the adults can learn from one another during these impromptu story sessions.
3. Have them play a game together
In lieu of actually running around in person, there are plenty of ways to physically engage, even while on a video call. If you have a baby, a game of peek-a-boo is always a winner. For our 4-year-old, we let her play Hide and Seek with her grandparents. She grabs the phone and hides with it, while my husband or I try to find them. I just follow the sound of the giggles.
Other games you could play include freeze dance, Would You Rather?, Simon Says, or Rock Paper Scissors. It doesn’t have to be a long game, but having something up your sleeve helps to keep kids interested as their attention starts to wane.
4. Settle your kids with an activity or snack
Afternoon snack time is a great time for us to talk to family or friends because my daughter is already seated and restful. She loves to detail what she’s eating and talk about her favorite foods. (This is when we’ll usually play Would You Rather: Food Edition.) Sometimes, we’ll set our daughter up with some Play Dough, a puzzle, or paints and prop up the phone so she can chat while keeping her hands busy. Multitasking is sometimes the easiest way to keep everyone happy and engaged.
5. Get comfortable with silences
The companionable silences that come with face-to-face interaction can feel very awkward when translated to a video call. But they don’t have to be! If your child wants to play with their toys for a few minutes, let them take a moment to collect themselves. If you run out of conversation, don’t be afraid to sit with the silence for a few minutes. Not every moment of every call needs to be full of conversation. A lot happens in the quiet spaces, and it’s OK to normalize them! Plus, it’s a good exercise for your kids in being present.
6. End the call gracefully
All good things have to end, and there’s a natural moment when the conversation fades or when something else is on the family schedule. Say a warm goodbye, and reassure everyone you’ll talk again soon. There’s no ideal length for a call, and some calls may be shorter. What matters is that you had a chance to connect and touch base about your lives!
Of course, not all calls are perfectly facilitated—nor should they be. The best moments are still the spontaneous ones that sparkle out of the blue. But a bit of planning doesn’t take much time and may help you steer the conversation more pleasantly. As long as you stay flexible and allow time for kids to digress and express themselves, there will be plenty of meaningful moments to be shared, even at a distance.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and may your Zoom gatherings be joyful ones!
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