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Updated by Rose Garalde on Apr 26, 2021
Headline for How Grandparents Can Help Virtually
Rose Garalde Rose Garalde
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How Grandparents Can Help Virtually

Nothing is “normal” these days. While we don’t yet know how bad COVID-19 will ultimately be, we do know that people over 60 are at particular risk for complications, should they become ill. That has many grandparents sheltering in place and unable to be physically with their grandchildren.


Create New Bedtime Rituals

Each night as he’s being tucked into bed, 4-year-old Teddy (with his dad’s help) calls grandma. Teddy recaps his day, and grandma Elizabeth tells him a story, helping to settle him down for sleep. Although they live just a few miles apart in Ottawa, Canada, Elizabeth hasn’t seen Teddy or his siblings (ages 8 and 18 months) since their city’s shelter in place mandate started in mid-March. This new evening ritual helps keep them connected.

How You Can Do This

Arrange a time with mom or dad to call just before bedtime, bath time or another quiet time in the evening.

Ask the child some open-ended questions, for example “What did you do today?” which promotes conversation, rather than “How was your day?,” which can often generate monosyllabic answers, says Elizabeth, a retired teacher.

Have a “Once upon a time...” story from your child's life ready to tell — most kids love hearing tales of when their parents were about the same age; it helps strengthen the bond to know they’re just like mom or dad. Elizabeth also sends old photos to Teddy and his older sister, which creates prompts for further storytelling.

If you’re not adept at impromptu storytelling, you could substitute a beloved book or two to read, perhaps one that mom or dad loved as a child.


Read a Classic Book Together

Thirteen year-old Kincaid, who lives near Minneapolis, FaceTimes grandma Cathy in San Francisco nearly every day, after he’s completed his schoolwork. He hangs out in his attic for some privacy, while they discuss To Kill A Mockingbird. They’re reading it together, while apart.

Kincaid’s dad, a sixth-grade teacher, suggested the classic novel; it was a book Cathy was also interested in rereading. Even better, Kincaid is starting to open up to his grandma about other things in his life, too.

How You Can Do This

Make sure the book is age-appropriate. Check with mom or dad first! You can also ask them to contact the grandchild’s teacher for suggestions. And, make sure it’s something you both will like. Otherwise, the effort is bound to fail.
Read the same edition in the same format, whether it’s a hard copy or e-reader version. It will make it easier to reference specific pages. If it’s not on your bookshelf, major retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble will deliver; some local bookstores may also offer delivery.

Almost all public libraries allow you to electronically “borrow” books for several weeks. It may require setting up an account or virtual library card; make sure to keep parents in the loop.
Many classic books are also available for free download through several reputable websites.


Learn a Language

Sophie, age 8, has been curious about learning Hebrew, a language her grandparents speak fluently. She had asked grandma Wendy to teach her, but busy lives meant only sporadic lessons until the pandemic hit. With Wendy sheltering in Utah with one of her sons and Sophie at home in northern New Jersey, they now hold weekly FaceTime sessions, practicing about 10 words at a time. They are up to lesson four, and Sophie is already speaking simple sentences. She loves that she and grandma have a “secret” language.

How You Can Do This

Wendy, a grandmother of five, says if you already speak another language fluently, start with words that a child can easily grasp, like greetings, objects and people.
Ask your grandchild to practice the words even when not doing lessons, but don’t make it feel too much like “homework.” Use repetition, songs, games and visuals to reinforce words already learned while slowing adding new ones.

Start early; kids are like sponges, and experts say the younger they are, the easier it is to pick up a second language.
You can also learn a new language together. Language learning sites like Babbel and DuoLingo, offer beginner level-lessons; you can practice together by phone, FaceTime, or Zoom.
Find additional opportunities to practice. A random phone call offers the chance to incorporate the chosen language.

Be patient, and praise frequently!


Encourage Curiosity Daily

First grader Maddy, who lives in Minnesota, logs on to her computer every weekday morning at 10:30. Grandpa Jon, a retired high school teacher in a small northern Wisconsin town, is waiting for her, ready to discuss whatever has piqued her interest from her homework assignments or her imagination. They’ve talked about everything from climate and geography, to animals, art and science topics. The sessions last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the topic and the tangents they go off on.

A discussion about George Washington and how his spies used codes to pass on information about British activities led to a rousing discussion of codes . . . including Morse Code. Before long, they had worked out a system of hand gestures for dots and dashes and began sending coded messages back and forth. On National Tell a Story Day, they studied the Statue of Liberty and had a good time making up stories of how people came to the United States.

How You Can Do This

Ask the grandchild to make a list of topics they want to talk/study about. In Maddy’s case, she listed everything from magic to dogs to pottery to how milk is made.

Remember, the main goal of the experience is being face to face and sharing, and listening to each other. Jon says his role is to listen and perhaps ask questions that stimulate her interests.
Be flexible. Come in with a plan but realize that kids will go off on tangents. Sometimes, the planned lesson should be set aside to tackle other issues or questions. The goal is to enjoy being together; you can always come back to the topic at hand another time.


Play Classic Games

Henry, 7, and Anna, 10, from Long Island, love the impromptu FaceTime sessions with grandma Frances. Although they live about 30 minutes apart, they play classic games together, like Charades, which are a lot of fun for everyone. Many party games translate well to a virtual space — Simon Says, Scattergories, 20 Questions and Pictionary also work well over Zoom or FaceTime. These activities can be easily adapted to the children’s ages and interests.

How You Can Do This

Each “team” writes topics on small slips of paper and places them a bowl. One person on each side then chooses. Rotate play between the grandparents and the grandkids.
Make sure everyone has paper and pencils/pens for games like Pictionary or Scattegories.


Help Reach a Milestone

Every Tuesday at 4 pm, Ruby, 12, studies with her tutor and grandma Jane Isay. They’re preparing for Ruby’s Bat Mitzvah, a coming of age ceremony for Jewish girls. While the lessons are serious, they also have a lot of fun, says Jane, a grandparenting expert and author of Unconditional Love, a Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today.

Since their in-person lessons moved online — with Ruby temporarily sheltering in upstate New York, Jane in Manhattan, and the tutor in the Bronx, Ruby finds them “less boring.” Jane helps keep the mood light — she encourages and praises her granddaughter’s progress by interspersing emojis and gifs throughout the sessions. This approach can work for many religious and life events, like confirmations, Scouting or extracurricular activities, such as debate team.

How You Can Do This

Set up a regular day and time to review materials with the tutor or adviser.
Keep sessions short, from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the lesson and child’s age.
Offer plenty of praise and encouragement.

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