13 ideas for using video chat with kids

By Rebecca Parlakian

man and toddler boy looking at computer

My daughter was five and had just gotten over her first stomach bug. A few days afterward, she and my mom were on video chat when Ella shared her new, favorite game: Making her toy ponies throw up. She held a pony carefully in front of the camera and then bent it over and made retching sounds. My mom — forever the most patient and supportive Grammy ever — held a teddy bear on screen and made him throw up too. The two of them carried on for a few more minutes. Witness the magic of video chat!

Pretend play vomiting aside, video chat is a great tool for staying in touch with distant family and friends. And it’s very different from other screen time because children get individualized, timely feedback to their gestures, expressions and language. The research on video chat shows that children — even babies — can learn from these live interactions. Another big benefit is that young children come to recognize and build relationships with the people they see on video chat, a huge bonus for distant grandparents who quickly become familiar faces using this technology. In fact, video chat is such a powerful and positive tool for connection and relationship-building, that the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t count it as traditional screen time.

But how do you make the most of this technology for your little one?

Be the “hands and heart” of the person on-screen. When the person on-screen “tickles” your baby’s tummy, you can give her tummy a tickle in real life. When a grandparent leans toward the screen to “kiss” your toddler, you can give him a kiss on the cheek. By taking this role, the adult in the room nurtures the relationship between the child and her on-screen partner.

Explain any technical difficulties that occur. Explain why the video chat partner may appear to “freeze” on the screen or why the call may be dropped. Explaining these experiences in child-friendly language helps children better understand the technology.

Let children take the lead with the technology as they grow. For example, toddlers can learn how to touch the button to call or hang up. This learning happens faster than you expect — recently my friend’s 7-year-old daughter was overheard telling a fellow Girl Scout (during a virtual meeting), You need to get off mute!

The other key part is to make video chat a social, back-and-forth experience. A successful video chat will feel like everyone is playing together, even though we’re apart.

Try these ideas and activities to engage your child with the person on the other end of the video chat:

  1. Try rhymes, songs, dancing together, peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek that the adult and child can play on-screen. Get these printable song lyrics to all sing together with Daniel Tiger.
  2. Reading aloud is a great activity for video chat! Grandparents and family can read to your child, and older children can practice reading to family. Grab a favorite book from the shelf, or try Daniel Tiger Storybooks.
  3. Do the same activity on both sides on the screen — sharing a snack through the screen is a favorite of young children. Or play with a toy car while the child rolls her own toy car.
  4. Puppets and stuffed animals make great props that encourage playing together across the screen. Create your own sock puppet or print out The Cat in the Hat and Thing 1 and Thing 2 for a fun puppet show.
  5. Have your child interview a grandparent, aunt, uncle or other friend or family member, asking questions about their childhood: What was your neighborhood like? What was your favorite toy? Get question ideas from Arthur’s Family History Fun game or write down answers with this printable worksheet.
  6. Through the magic of video chat, play a family game together! With the Pinkamazing Family Game, everyone can play charades, dance, sing and draw using fun prompts from the game. Or print out the Pirates and Peaches Board Game from Peg + Cat and go on an amazing pirate adventure.

Video chat is a perfect antidote to the isolation many families are feeling now due to shelter-in-place rules. Like all of us, babies and toddlers thrive when they have a chance to connect with the people who both love them and — more importantly — “get” them. Using technology to make this magic happen when we all need a little extra love? That’s an expert-level parent hack.

Looking for more ideas? Here are some additional activities for fun play time with friends and family over video chat!

  • Let’s Go Luna! Recipe Card: Write down your favorite recipes here and share them with your friends and family. If you like a new food someone else made, ask for the recipe!
  • Let’s Go Luna! Postcards: Write a message on the back of a postcard and send it to a friend or family member who lives far away. Ask them what makes their city special!
  • Arthur Play Maker: Set up a show and pass out tickets to your performance!
  • Arthur Home Olympics: Try out some silly games and invent your own sports activities.
  • Cookie Monster’s Foodie Truck: Run a pretend Food Truck. Print out and create your own menu for guests to order from!
  • Cyberchase Boredom Buster: Think of something to draw, color a square, tell your friend to color the same square, and keep coloring squares to have your friend guess what you’re trying to draw!
  • Cyberchase Pop-up Card: Make a pop-up card or book with your friend!

13 ideas for using video chat with kids was originally featured on PBS Kids, and is being reposted to provide insight into popular tech for families.