FaceTime with friends: How to make video chats meaningful + fun for babies and little kids

30% of kids under age 6 use video chat at least once a week—here's how to make it work.

virtual playdate ideas for toddlers babies
Crystal Sing/Twenty20

My daughter carefully held her finger up to the camera on my laptop to show my mom her band-aid. They talked about how she scratched her finger playing outside. Then my mom held her finger up to the screen and they "touched" fingers across two states and 500 miles.

Today's babies and toddlers will never know a world without the ability to talk face-to-face with distant friends and family. In fact, about one-third of children under the age of 6 use video chat at least once a week, according to studies. But how can families make the most of this technology, starting early? Turns out there's some emerging research to guide the way.

Do babies and toddlers really engage on virtual playdates?

First, let's think about how toddlers handle "old-fashioned" phone conversations—usually babbling into the receiver and then handing it over to an adult. They have a hard time understanding that there's actually a person on the other end, especially if it's someone they don't know well, like a grandparent they don't see often. That's why video chat can work well for young children. Babies and toddlers can see who they are talking with, interact with them, show them things (like band-aids), use gestures, and respond to facial expressions.

And these on-screen chats are meaningful—studies have found that children as young as 12 months old remember and show a preference for the people they interact with on video chat. Young children can also learn from video chat interactions, but only when adults on the screen and in the room tag-team to explain, describe, and point out important information. In fact, video chat is such a powerful and positive tool for connection and relationship-building that the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't even count it as "screen time."

Here are 7 research-based guidelines to guide virtual playdates in your family:

1. Make video chat a social, back-and-forth experience. Try rhymes, songs, dancing together, finger plays, peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek that young children can participate in with their video chat partner. Another big toddler favorite is pretending to feed each other or rolling toy cars back and forth together across the screen.

2. Turn the routine of story time on its head by book-sharing over video chat. Adults can share stories with the child—either with a toddler following along in their own copy of the book or by looking at the pictures as the adult holds the book up to the camera. To make it more interactive, try acting out stories over video-chat as you read—a great strategy for wiggly toddlers. From Head to Toe by Eric Carle and Here Are My Hands by Bill Martin, Jr. are fun choices for stories that invite active play on-screen.

3. Enrich video chats with props. Puppets and stuffed animals make great props that encourage playing together across the screen. Or, ask the adult to blow bubbles at the screen, while the adult in the room with the child blows bubbles at the same time, making this a game that video-chat partners can enjoy together.

And don't forget that one of a toddler's great joys is simply showing you objects in their world (this is why "show and tell" is a part of so many preschool classrooms). Try this: Have the adult on one side of the screen show something from their house—like the coffee mug they're drinking from. Then the toddler on the other side of the screen can pick something to show as well, like a favorite book, toy or blankie.

4. Stay in the room, parents. Babies and toddlers need someone to be the "hands and heart" of the person on-screen. When parents stay in the room, they can play this important role so when the person on-screen "tickles" the baby's tummy, the dad who's holding baby can give her tummy a tickle in real life. When a grandparent leans toward the screen to "kiss" a toddler, his mom—who's sitting nearby—can lean over to give him a kiss on the cheek. By doing this, the parent in the room helps to make the relationship between the child and their on-screen partner stronger and more concrete.

5. Explain any technical difficulties. Like why the video chat partner may appear to "freeze" on the screen, why the call may be dropped or why the video chat partner may appear to not be looking directly at the child. Explaining these experiences in child-friendly language helps children understand both the technology and the interaction better. For example, if the call gets dropped, a parent might say, "Oh, our cell connection isn't working right now. We'll try again later." It can also help on-screen partners adjust factors on their side (like the angle of their webcam) to make the interaction even better.

6. Keep it short. Even when they are having lots of fun, the attention span of under-threes is not very long. Follow your child's lead and use some of the ideas above to make video calls fun and engaging. But when your baby or toddler starts to fuss or makes a run for it, it's okay to end the call. Remember that the goal is to make video-chat with family members something fun that children look forward to, rather than a chore.

7. Let children take the lead with the technology as they grow. For example, toddlers can learn how to touch the camera button to call or the red button to hang up. Parents will be amazed at how quickly children pick up on video-chat technology. Recently, my friend's 6-year-old told her grandfather to mute while his dog was barking in the background.

While we've all been feeling "distanced" this year, video chat offers our families something special—the chance for babies and toddlers to begin building meaningful and loving relationships with some of the most important people in their lives. Even as children grow, these social connections continue to be supported by technology connections…like the burping contest my 15-year-old son and my dad just had on video chat (SMH). But that's another story.

Rebecca Parlakian is ZERO TO THREE's Senior Director of Programs and develops resources for parents, alongside training of parents and early childhood professionals.

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