8 Tips For Keeping Kids Engaged During Phone Or Video Calls

by Lisa McKay on May 31, 2017

If you have children and live overseas, you probably spend time with them on the phone or video call with far-away family.

How does that generally go for you?

Our children (aged 3 and 5) approach every video call with their grandparents with tremendous anticipation and evident delight. They sit still and pay close attention during the entire conversation. They answer every question when they’re asked, and they ask thoughtful and relevant questions themselves. Indeed, video calls with relatives are a family-fun highlight of the week. We all emerge from them feeling more bonded and relaxed.

OK, so that’s not really how it goes most of the time.

In fact, just this week out three-year-old came running up 4 minutes into a call with his grandparents, yelled out, “Bye bye! All done now!” and tried to shut the laptop on them.

Helping kids connect with far-away family and friends by phone or video call can be frustrating and exhausting. It’s always a bit “hit or miss” when it comes to kids and calls, but if you’ve been having more “misses” than “hits” on this front lately, you might want to try some of these tips.

  1. Schedule ahead

Consider making “kids included” calls a regular part of your routine (e.g., every second Saturday morning) and schedule these “all family” calls for times when your kids are not likely to be too tired or hungry.

  1. Keep calls to a reasonable length

Even if it’s been a while since you last talked, resist the temptation to make calls extra-long to make up for preceding weeks of no contact. You don’t want to turn these calls into infrequent extended chores that children learn to dread.

If you do want to have a longer chat, let the kids know they can run off and play at some point.

  1. Use a webcam when you can

Use a webcam whenever internet bandwidth and data plans allow. Even if your computer doesn’t have one build in, external webcams are cheap, easy to set up, and add enormously to the quality of the contact. If relatives don’t have webcams on their end, buy them one for Christmas and install it during a home visit.

One word of caution, however. Don’t push communication styles that step too far outside another person’s comfort zone. For example, if a grandparent is partially deaf, phone and video calls might be very taxing. They may prefer to send emails or instant message so that they can catch everything.

  1. Prepare a “show and tell” with kids beforehand

If your child struggles to connect well on Skype, encourage them to identify something they want to talk about or show family before the call (toys, books, something from school, bugs–whatever).  

You can also ask kids in advance if there’s anything they want to ask. Then you can help them remember their question during the call.

  1. Do something during the call

Don’t do all your calls sitting on the couch or at a table. Especially if you have very young children, try doing the call in the playroom while you’re sitting on the floor doing something together (like building a train set or a tower). Having an activity to do can help calm and focus children.

You can always try following kids around with your phone or the laptop, too. The person on the other end would probably love to see them riding the kids riding their bike, etc.

  1. Try a bath-time call

If you have young kids who sit and play in the bath, do a call during bath-time. That way the kids are a (relatively) captive audience. Keep your captive audience entertained with bubbles in the bath, bath crayons, or other bath toys.

  1. Ask kids good questions

If you’re the person on the other end of the line, it may help you to know that children often freeze up or struggle to talk via telephone or computer.

You can help them by asking a couple (not dozens) of open-ended questions that require the children to give more than a simple yes or no answer.

Click here to download a list of 30 questions you can ask kids during phone or video calls.

Once you’ve asked a question, give children time to come up with those answers. Don’t rush in too fast to fill pauses or silence—children may just be struggling to find some words.

And try not to take it personally if the child doesn’t seem interested in talking on a particular call. Kids are going to be kids at times, whether they’re on a special bi-monthly family call not.

  1. Read stories together

Have you ever tried doing a story-session via video call? Have the person on the other end read a story to the children. This tends to work best if you both have a copy of the book on hand, especially if kids are young.

Or, try Caribu. This app turns video calls into story time Both readers are visible on the screen while reading. Available on iPhone and iPad.

If children are a little older, you can try reading chapters from a book that holds their attention. Our five-year-old has just become engrossed in Enid Blyton’s classic, The Enchanted Wood. He will happily sit still and focus for at least 20 minutes listening to that story without needing to see the book, and the chapters are just the right length and cadence for “read-aloud.”

He has also (somewhat to my surprise, I must admit) responded well to my mother playing a reading game using flash-cards on Skype.

  1. Play a game together

There are lots of options for these, but here are just two games you can play via video call.

Show me: If children know and love your place, let them tell you what they want to see. Then take the phone or laptop and show it to them.

Find something that starts with: Give the child a letter of the alphabet and ask the child to go and find something in the house that starts with that letter. Then they have to show you on camera.

I know many of you have a lot of experience with kids and calls.
What tips and tricks would you share?
What games or activities do you do via video?

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.

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