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Visit With Your Grandchild … Virtually

This post, written by the authors of The Grammie Guide: Activities and Answers for Grandparenting Today, first appeared in Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood.

Attention grandparents: Are you missing “real” contact with your small grandchildren during this pandemic? The present shelter-in-place dictates are hard on all of us. Not only do you miss your grandchildren, but you long to help their overburdened parents.

What you can do

Consider scheduling a time to be your grandchild’s remote observer-playmate who can respond to “look at what I can do,” or “see what I made.” True, virtual meetings serve businesses and adults well, but small children need to move, manipulate items, talk (or not), AND know that someone thinks what they are doing is wonderful! Watching grandchildren play is right up a grandparent’s alley, even if it needs to be on a screen for now.

Setting expectations

Keep your goals for the visit realistic and simple! You have two primary objectives: to spend time (albeit remotely) with your grandchild and to provide, hopefully, a respite for the parent who is struggling to manage childcare, home, and work all at once. Don’t be discouraged if your grandchild is not in the mood or if their attention span is shorter than you’d hoped. With the parent’s support, try again at a better time.

Consider both the age of your grandchild and their temperament. Some toddlers play well independently and are content simply to know you are interested in what they’re doing; others move from one activity to another at record speed! Older children may be more willing to sit and listen to a story; others may need more of an interactive session. You will learn what works best as you go.

Communicating with parents

Run the idea of a virtual playdate by your grandchild’s parents for approval. You’ll need their help to position the screen, set up some play props and set the time for your “visit.” You’ll also need to create a few simple systems with the parent so that you can communicate with them while they work – perhaps texting if a child gets hurt, or needs to use the bathroom.

The set-up

The actual meeting space could be a corner of the same room where parents are working or in a room nearby. Children will be most comfortable if their favorite toys are nearby and at eye-level. Toddlers enjoy simple stacking toys, special stuffed animals, much-loved books, or a push-pull toy. Older preschoolers will want to show how they use their art supplies (markers, colored paper, stickers, playdough), dress-up clothing, blocks, puppets, and other toys. How might this time together actually work?

Tips for your time together

For the first virtual visit, you might greet the child with a big smile and introduce what’s about to happen: “Hi, Susie! I’m so excited to visit you today! I’m going to stay right here on your screen and watch you play! I see what you’re wearing (those pink slippers, that firetruck shirt, etc.) Do you see what I’m wearing? YES! My heart necklace (fuzzy sweater, red vest). And who/what is that on the floor with you (your teddy, blocks, truck, etc.)? What’s teddy going to do today? Where is your truck/train going?”

Depending on the child’s age, language development, comfort level with the screen, etc., their length of engagement will vary. Young children are primarily focused on exploration and trying to figure out how things work, and most will only want to check in with you for an appreciative comment now and then. “Wow! That is a tall tower! Your picture has lots of green in it. That bunny looks really comfortable the way you wrapped him in that blanket.”

What your grandchild wants is for you to be fully present, really listening, and totally aware of what they’re doing. Once they’re busy playing, simply observe and wait to see where they’re headed!

Need some inspiration?

What if there’s a lull or need for a little inspiration?

  • Hold up a little box and ask, “What do you think is in this?” Wait for a guess. “Let’s see if it makes a sound when I shake it.” After more guessing, say: “Shall we open it and see?” It could be a few pebbles or a small bell.
  • “It’s your turn now to surprise me. I’ll close my eyes and you hide something under (that blanket, your legs, that pillow.)” Guessing games or “I spy with my little eye” games can go on for a long time!
  • Hold up a favorite book to read to your grandchild. Make sure you hold it close to the screen so the child can enjoy the pictures as you read or tell the story.
  • Children love singing with someone, and they are NOT critical of vocal talent! How about “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Old McDonald” (of course with LOTS of enthusiastic oink-oinks and moo-moos)?
  • Play some lively music and invite your grandchild to dance, march or twirl for you. Don’t hold back…you might join in the fun, too! With a scarf in your hand and your grandchild’s favorite dress-up hat on his head, the two of you could put on quite a show.

Your grandchild will have their own ideas: “Let’s have a birthday party for bear, take a pretend trip to the park, an airplane ride to Hawaii, or visit the zoo.” Ask follow-on questions such as, “How would we get there? Who would you like to visit?”

You’ll learn lots about your grandchild’s likes and ideas that you can build upon for another visit together!

Afterward, think about what went well and what could go better next time. Ask yourself and the child’s parent, “Was this fun for your grandchild? Helpful for the parent? Something to continue? What would make visits more successful?”

You did it! These may be uncharted waters for us all, but you’re doing your part to brighten the day for your grandchild and offer parents a few moments of free time. Dig out a few more children’s books, fine-tune a finger play or silly song, practice your “oohs and aahs,” and look forward to your next play date.

Jan Eby, Laurie Mobilio, Lynne Noel, and Cindy Summers are the authors of The Grammie Guide: Activities and Answers for Grandparenting Today.

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