11 super-fun ways to keep kids social (at a safe distance)

March 18, 2020

During this pandemic, when we need each other most, we’ve been forced into isolation. To say it’s ironic is an understatement. And while this whole social distancing thing is certainly unpleasant for us adults (who couldn’t use a drink with friends right now?), it can be more distressing for kids, who may not fully grasp what’s happening but know something isn’t quite right.

“Social connection helps children feel less anxious,” says Tovah Klein, child development psychologist and researcher and Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in Manhattan. “Connection is supportive; it’s calming. Friends provide companionship, which is particularly needed during times of change or stress.”

According to Klein, socializing with friends and loved ones helps provide an outlet for kids where they can share their experiences, feel grounded and understand that they’re not alone. “Kids need friends to complain to and laugh with,” says Klein. “Plus, seeing people they know is a part of regular daily life, which provides a sense of normalcy in a very not normal time.”

Even though kids can’t have their standing Wednesday playdate right now or jump rope with friends at recess, they can still have social interactions (that don’t all involve a screen). Whether you're a parent or caregiver, here are 10 ways for you to keep children social while keeping everyone socially distanced and safe. 

1. Get walkie-talkies. 

Truth be told, as I type this, my kids are in the backyard talking to the kids who live directly behind us with walkie-talkies. While they normally play, you know, in the same yard, we thought walkie-talkies would be something fun and novel for them. Turns out, it is! From where I’m sitting, there seems to be a lot of talk about a “zombie apocalypse,” but I can confirm that all four of them are running around, communicating, playing and seem just as happy as they normally do when they’re together.  

(Note: Even though it’s not the 1800s, I’m thinking of introducing the idea of letting them communicate via morse code through flashlights in our two windows that face each other. That sounds like more of a week three quarantine activity, though.)

2. Write a letter. 

On the first day of our self-quarantine, my nearly 8-year-old daughter wrote her best friend a letter, replete with hearts and smiley faces, as well as a Polaroid of the two of them. Even though they’ve already had a Google Hangout (more on that in a bit), my daughter is anxiously awaiting a letter in return. Proof that, even in the age of digital everything, old-fashioned letter writing is always a little magical. (Also, working on writing skills while communicating with friends during a pandemic = wins all around.)

3. Take online, interactive kids’ classes. 

Through the Care.com Explore platform, you can connect your kids to hundreds of interactive and enriching online classes and activities, including music, dance, cooking, art and more. Care.com Explore offers lots of free and low-cost options.

Two of my kids tried something similar — a children’s yoga class via livestream run by a local studio Home Power Yoga in Cranford, New Jersey. As opposed to a YouTube video, all of the kids were able to see their fellow yogis onscreen and the teacher was able to interact with everyone at home, talking to them by name, commenting on their strong form, etc. 

“Since we can’t be together physically right now,” says studio owner Katie Tierney, licensed clinical social worker, “livestream is a good way to support each other and our children.”

4. Have a Netflix Party. 

Little ones may not be able to have movie nights with their friends given the current state of the world, but they can still watch a flick together with Netflix Party. Netflix Party, which is a free Google Chrome extension, synchronizes the playback of a film and then allows people to chat in a sidebar, which is up on the screen. It may not be as good as giggling on the couch together, but they can still share musings about Milo Manheim’s hair in “Zombies 2.”

5. Try Google Hangouts Meet. 

For most kids, seeing the people they’re used to interacting with on a daily basis — their classmates — will offer a sense of normalcy even if it isn’t in person. “My son’s class is going to catch up on Google Hangouts Meet everyday,” says mom of three Krysten Mace of Cranford, New Jersey. “Today, their teacher read them a book and all the kids were so happy to hear each other’s voices and show their friends their pets and toys.”

6. Go on walks “together.” 

Full disclosure, this is a plan my friends and I have for ourselves — we’re thinking of going on a walk “together” and walking on opposite sides of the street or as far away from each other as possible. Another option a friend suggested was meeting in a field and staying at least six feet apart. Obviously, once upon a time, this would be ridiculous, but these are strange times. Try something like this with older kids — who can control themselves — so they can see their friends’ faces and know that they’re OK just like them. (Note: I would try this with my eldest daughter, but definitely not my 5-year-old son, who doesn’t quite have the self-control to not run to a friend.) 

7. Reach out to teachers. 

Sure, there’s regular email and a number of parent-teacher communication apps, but something fun both of my kids have done is send a sweet video message to their teachers. They were both completely ecstatic when their teachers responded almost immediately. A message! To them! From their teacher!  

8. Create a video for grandparents. 

They’ve also sent fun videos and skits to their grandparents, which obviously have been much more candid (read: weird) than those they sent to their teachers. In one video sent back to us, their papa pulled out the old “elevator trick” of slowly disappearing behind a counter. Huge hit.

9. Connect with neighbors à la sidewalk chalk. 

On many of our walks, we noticed that a lot of kids were drawing chalk rainbows in front of their houses. To be completely honest, we have no idea if this was intentional or not, but a) we’re choosing to look at it as a harbinger of what’s to come, and b) it seemed to inspire others to write cute messages on their driveways and sidewalks for walkers to see — and there are a lot of them! We actually all look forward to the new messages we’re going to see on our walks each day and have started writing some of our own.

10. Hire a virtual tutor or babysitter

Due to the pandemic, some tutors, babysitters and nannies are adapting to provide their skills and assistance online, especially to parents of toddlers and school-aged kids. While the tutor, sitter or nanny can’t be there with the child physically, a true pro may still be able to contribute to your child’s learning and enrichment or engage them in play and fun virtually.

“These are hard times for nannies and for the families and children that are suddenly without their ‘village,’” says Christina Vlinder, a career nanny and training consultant at Respectful Caregiving in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I do find it encouraging to see people coming up with creative digital solutions." 

A virtual tutor or sitter can engage your child via Zoom, FaceTime or any other conferencing platform in the following: 

  • Tutor your child in math, English, science and more.

  • Work on specific school assignments.

  • Read books or write stories with your child and talk about them.

  • Offer interactive exercise or dance activities.

  • Work with your child on art and crafts.

  • Play games with your child.

Vlinder’s remaining nanny job has moved to FaceTime for now. “This school-aged child and I do two hours of FaceTime every day where we play board games and card games, play Minecraft, read books together, and do some of his schoolwork.”

11. Open up the windows and say hello. 

My 5- and 2-year-olds are famous for greeting anybody and everybody that’s within a 20-foot radius of our house — mail carriers, delivery people, the garbage collectors. But now, instead of it seeming like a cute habit, it feels necessary and important. Our kids may not be able to see everyone they want to right now, but in-person familiar faces certainly seem comforting to everyone these days. More of that now, please — and hopefully forever. 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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