A Parent's Guide to Virtual Playdates During Social Distancing

With schools closed, kids haven't seen their friends in weeks. Virtual playdates can keep kids socially connected to their networks—and are fairly low lift for already stressed parents.

Kids have been home from school due to the COVID-19 pandemic for weeks, and, well, they're bored. Parents are starting to get desperate for ways to keep them occupied during social distancing, but might be running out of crafts and recipes and motivation. So instead of letting them mindlessly zone out on YouTube videos or mobile games, how about arranging a virtual playdate with the friends they haven't seen in weeks?

According to Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, kids need access to the coping mechanisms adults and teenagers have in being able to reach out to their usual networks.

"Our young children don't have access to FaceTime. They may be able to see grandma or aunts or cousins, but the likelihood of seeing their friends is really reduced," explains Dr. Gurwitch. "So having virtual playdates, as difficult as they sometimes are to arrange, allows children to see that their friend is still there."

While it may be hard to imagine what a virtual playdate looks like, it can be a low lift activity. "Virtual playdates really don't have to be more than a few minutes, it's just enough to say 'Hey, there's my friend that I saw every single day and now I haven't seen in weeks,'" says Dr. Gurwitch. "It can be as simple as we're going to get online and I'm going to show you what I'm made out of Legos and you show me what you made out of Legos."

There are a ton of video chat apps you can use–everything from Facetime to Kids Messenger or Zoom. Here's how to set up a virtual playdate for kids at any age.

happy Asian family use digital tablet
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Many preschoolers need nothing more than just seeing their friends from school. These playdates don't need to be extravagant or long and can be as simple as a quick "Hello!" If you want to liven it up a bit though, toys and craft items you already have on hand are all you need for a fun time online.

  • Building challenges: Pull out the Play-doh for the littles and ask each child to create something.
  • Sing-along: Pretty much every little kid ever loves to sing, so crank up those Disney soundtracks or Baby Shark for the umpteenth time and let them sing their little hearts out!
  • Imaginary play: Playing together is super important for young children, so grab their favorite characters or creatures and let them go to town.

Ages 5 to 8

Virtual playdates for school-aged kids take less parental involvement than those for younger children. Five to 8-year-olds are more independent and require less supervision as long as parents know the children on the other side of the screen. Pull out a few simple toys or supplies and they're all set for some quality social time with their buddies from school.

  • Lego time: Grab some Legos and let each child become their own Lego Master. Tons of Lego builds are available online or just encourage them to let their imaginations run wild in a free-build.
  • Filters: Many kids will enjoy just using the silly filters that are so common in video chat apps these days–prepare for laughs and giggles as kids explore what's available.
  • Drawing together: Take out your child's fave art materials, set up the chat, and let the creativity flow. Each child can take turns suggesting what to draw or it can be a freestyle draw-what-you-want party.

Big Kids and Tweens

Older kids and tweens can spend time online with their friends with minimal input from parents, and many will be happy to chat the day away, but if you want to spice it up a little, there are so many fun options for these age groups.

  • Board games: As long as all parties involved have the same games, a virtual round of checkers, chess, or even Catan or Catan Junior will be a hit. Some of our favorites that can translate to a virtual hangout include Monopoly and The Game of Life.
  • Netflix Party: Netflix recently released an option allowing viewing parties where participants stream the same show or movie simultaneously and can chat about it all right in the app.
  • Yoga or exercise: Kill two birds with one stone and get your kids moving their bodies and spending time with friends at the same time. Sync up online exercise videos for a virtual exercise party.
  • Video games: And then there's the old reliable. Your kids can meet up with their friends in Minecraft or Fortnite complete with video chat and while away the hours.

Screentime During Coronavirus

As hard as we try to limit our kids' exposure to screens during normal times, now is the time to loosen the reins on screentime. The social interaction they'll get online with friends is vital to keeping boredom and loneliness at bay and has the added bonus of letting you get your work done without worrying about a preschooler videoconference-bomb.

However, with an increase in screentime and time spent online comes the potential for an increase in cyberbullying or other cybersafety issues. For information on how to keep your kids safe online check out the Parents.com Internet Safety page.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently recommended using video chat and social media to stay in touch during social-distancing and the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended video games as a way to cope with our new isolated lives. So take a deep breath, let go of the guilt, and release the screens, parents. It's a new world out there and we all have to do what we can to make it through. If that means letting your four-year-old make silly faces with their friends or your 11-year-old play more Fortnite than you're normally comfortable with, go for it. And don't forget to grab a nap while you can.

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