Interesting times call for interesting measures! While we are currently required to physically distance from our friends and play mates, many kids are undoubtedly craving some degree of social contact outside of the home. For older kids, online interaction with their friends may already be part of their pre-isolation life. However, parents may be wondering how to help their younger kids get together online with their play buddies. We’ve put together some of our best tips for how to get started and make an online play date a success.
- Firstly, consider whether an online play date is something your child would enjoy. The reality is, a physical play date at the playground is very different to an on-the-screen experience, so it may not suit every child. Having said that, it can be worth giving it a go.
- Choose a play partner. Ideally this is someone your child already knows and gets along with. You also need a way of contacting the parents. Even if you don’t know the parents that well, chances are that any parent would welcome an opportunity for their child to connect with a playmate.
- Book in a time. While a spontaneous video call for a chat can be nice, this risks interrupting the other child in the middle of whatever they’re doing. If they are deeply involved in play or another activity, getting called over for a video call requires that child’s brain to switch quickly out of something in which they were deeply immersed and into the social world of being expected to interact with someone on a screen. This can be challenging, and may be reflected in less-than-desirable behaviours. So best to book a time in ahead of time.
- Consider your technology options. Is a smart phone best because of its portability? Would a tablet work better because of the larger screen? Or would a laptop work best because it can stand up easily without falling over? What works for one child might be different for another.
- Consider the video call software (or app) you’ll use. Choose an app that both parties either know how to use or can pick up easily, and that has decent video and audio quality. Some apps have other features, such as virtual backgrounds, ‘filters’ or emoji effects – these can be a fun, goofy way to play together, however, they may become more of a distraction. Be aware, there might not be quite the same quality of interaction occurring if your child is more interested in their own unicorn head than in their peer.
- Consider your location and set up. For older kids, it may work well to have the child sitting at a table with the device in front of them. For younger kids, it can work best to have the device set up somewhere where the child has more space to move around while still being (mostly) visible on the screen, like a lounge room or inside play area. Try to avoid setting up somewhere with too much space – like a large backyard – your child could get easily lost and forget they are on a call.
- Minimise distractions. Turn off other screens! Put away most toys. Keep out just the few toys that your child would like to show their friend. If you can, have siblings taken care of elsewhere – schedule the play date for during a younger sibling’s nap, or set up a non-napping sibling with an activity in another room.
- Pre-plan some interaction ideas with your child – a toy or item they want to show to their friend or an interactive activity to do together (e.g. I spy, Simon Says, singing and dancing, or a musical instrument jam session!). If choosing a toy to show, it can help the other child to feel included if it is something that they are also likely to have some of at their home, too (like dress ups, dolls or action figurines, or blocks).
- Set a time limit. End the play date while it’s going well! – ideally while the kids actually want to do it again. Around 40mins to one hour is a good guideline for younger kids.
- Nominate one adult to facilitate the play date. While it is a good idea that there is an adult on each side of the call within earshot for any technology trouble-shooting or individual support, it can help the flow of the play date to have one adult primarily in charge of facilitating the play. This would include keeping the kids on track, helping them talk (mostly) about the same thing, helping them listen to each other, reminding them to stay on screen (ideally with their whole face visible, not just their nostrils or the top of their head…), and modeling how to fix any communication breakdown that may occur (“Sorry, I couldn’t see what you were showing me”, “Could you say that again?”).
- Make it about them. If you want to have a proper adult catch up with the other parent, schedule a time for when the kids are in bed or set the kids up in front of Playschool then sit down for a virtual coffee date. Or, get your adult catch up fix via text. Either way, a virtual play date needs to be about your kids – hijacking their video call with adult discussion about home-schooling or surviving isolation is a sure-fire way to end up with kids bored and whining and climbing all over your head.
- Keep your expectations realistic. While this is a great opportunity to model and build our child’s social skills (“Pardon?” versus “what??”), be realistic. Kids (especially young kids, but also kids of any age) will commonly talk over the other person, talk about their own ideas and interests instead of asking the other person questions, and will occasionally run off abruptly without explaining to their play partner what they are doing (going to get a toy / going to the toilet / going to hug their dog…). This is okay. Absolutely, you can model and encourage appropriate skills to use (“Hey, I’m just going to the toilet! I’ll be back in a minute!”), but, if the play date is going generally smoothly, the kids both still seem mostly interested in each other, and they haven’t upset each other irreparably, then relax and consider that a win!
- Speaking of going to the toilet… Take care of toilet needs and give your child something to eat before the play date.
- Step back when you can – if it is going smoothly (i.e. if both kids seem engaged and interacting happily), then take the opportunity to sit a few steps back and reward yourself with a cup of tea!
- Schedule another one. Virtual play dates take practise. The more we can make online play dates a regular part of our week (especially while physical play dates are off the table), the better our kids, and we, will get at it.
Written by: Alyssa Murray
Speech Pathologist and mother of two
(Image by Light field)