Britt Goodenow figured she had virtual playdating nailed when her sons joined a video Dungeons and Dragons game. The Takoma Park, Maryland, mom figured it’d be the perfect activity to keep her kids occupied while she and her husband got some work done.
Then the screen crackled, and the rolling-dice website went down. One boy started crying, saying that not being able to play was ruining his day. Then everyone started yelling advice—all at once.
“It was complete chaos for close to a half hour,” Goodenow says. “Eventually everyone just gave up and signed off.”
Tears might be the extreme when it comes to virtual playdates, but almost any parent who’s tried this solution to keep their kid social is familiar with that awkward silence when kids just stare at each other across the screen.
Although states are cautiously reopening, many parents are still hesitant about face-to-face interactions, especially when it comes to their children. But even in these socially distant times, kids still need to be social. “They need to learn how to coexist,” says Sarah Kanter, an elementary school counselor in Montgomery County, Maryland. “They need to learn how to regulate their emotions, how to solve problems and build resiliency.”
As parents know all too well, virtual playdates just aren’t the same as the real thing. When kids play together in real life they use non-verbal clues to communicate, such as silently collaborating on building with Legos or playing catch. Video chats reduce that interaction to only what’s on the screen. (Learn the science beind "Zoom fatigue.")
“Our daughter would run off to get something to show her friend during the video chat but forget to take the phone with her,” says Heather Bachor of Shokan, New York. “Her friend would be left hanging with a good view of the ceiling.”
But it is possible to have a successful virtual playdate—parents just need to follow their kid’s communication style and have a few activity suggestions for kids to try because maintaining relationships and being social is especially important now.
"This is obviously a very stressful, highly charged, emotional time for everyone, including children,” Kanter says. “I think it helps to normalize their experience to be able to interact, connect, and share.”
Getting them started
Often the awkwardness of a virtual playdate has a lot to do with the personality of the child.
For instance, quieter kids might not take naturally to making conversation on camera, which can cause anxiety. “They don’t want any part of it,” Kanter says. “Unfortunately, this is the only option right now.” She suggests parents start with short playdates with the camera turned off, then work up to longer, more interactive ones. And always follow a child’s lead—never force them to interact if it’s truly upsetting to them.
Even children who are comfortable with online gatherings can struggle without structure. Kid-led birthday parties can quickly spiral out of control, with everyone yelling at once and trying to take over the screen.
Even though it can be chaotic and feel forced, parents should keep encouraging kids to try to socialize virtually. “I think you really need to emphasize that this is temporary," Kanter says.
Creating a framework
The key to a successful virtual playdate? Having a game plan. Developing conversation starters provides focus and helps shy kids feel more comfortable. Then parents can let the kids take the meetup in whatever direction they want. Here are a few ideas to get them started.
—Write silly stories: Have kids take turns creating fill-in-the-blank stories. Bonus: They’ll practice writing, reading, and grammar.
—Show and tell: Each kid takes turns showing each other their toys. “My six-year-old daughter Emily and her friend show each other their American Girl dolls and play with them together virtually,” says Jana Manu of New York City.
— Collaborate on newspapers: Kids understand they're living in unusual times. Encourage them to document it together. The kid reporters can collaborate and share ideas during video chats; they can write about their own experiences, what's going in their neighborhood, or what’s happening internationally. The paper can include cartoons, poems, photos, and games. (Get inspiration from these kids.)
—Play music together: Grab an instrument and let the music flow. Bachor says daughter Philanthe plays duets with her friend. “Her friend is a great piano player, so Philanthe got out her violin, and they played back and forth to each other,” she says. “It was really cute.” (No instrument? No problem. Have kids make their own guitars.)
—Create a cooking show: Agree on a recipe in advance, then have the kids follow it together and narrate the steps, just like on a real show.
—Room tours: We’re all getting sneak peeks into each other’s homes these days. Let kids give a virtual tour of their rooms.
—Lessons: Know kids who can braid? Fold paper airplanes? Make friendship bracelets? Do TikTok dances? Invite them to teach each other.
—Talent show: This works well for a small group. Nominate a master of ceremonies to introduce the performers who take turns playing music, telling jokes, doing tongue twisters, performing magic tricks, or showing off other special talents.
—Hide and seek: This might not sound like an IRL game that can go virtual, but Takoma Park, Maryland, mom Marisa Taylor was impressed that her 10-year-old daughter, Zola, pulled it off. After showing each other around their houses, one friend covered the camera and hid, then uncovered the camera. “The kid who was ‘It’ had to guess where the friend was in the house by seeing only her face on camera,” Taylor says. “They found this pretty funny.”
—What am I? Hold up a small image or household object super close to the camera, then have the other friend try to guess what it is. Get inspiration from this video series.
—Mystery sounds: Anything that makes noise can work for this one, as long as it remains off camera. Try bouncing a ball, flipping through a book, cutting paper, or squishing slime.
—Board games: Some games work better than others, and both players need to have their own version. Gina Bruns of Tokyo, Japan, says her seven-year-old son, Jackson, has played Battleship, Guess Who?, and Monopoly Jr. “The games take much longer to play than I would have thought because they simply become the backdrop for talking,” she says. “But it enables the kids to stay focused and in one location.”
—Or just let the kids run with it. Jennifer Knowlton of Silver Spring, Maryland, overheard her nine-year-old son on a call with his cousin doing nothing but making ridiculous noises. Her first instinct was to explain the importance of being a good conversationalist, but then she realized that they needed this time to be silly like they would be at school. “I stepped back and thought, I don’t want to give him any suggestions whatsoever,” she says. “I want this to be whatever it is for him. And if it’s just him making faces at someone on FaceTime or Zoom, then that’s what he needs right now.”