by Judith Van Hoorn, Pete Van Hoorn, and Rebecca Wheat
“Our son Grant came over with some food for Cooke and myself last night and brought the kids, ages 2 and 4 years, to our back door because it has a window. We waved at each other, blew kisses, and talked… we sang songs they know, like ‘Eensy Weensy Spider.’ Then we came up with the ideas of drawing on opposite sides of the glass. Grant had some water-based markers in their car, and we had some whiteboard markers. We drew pictures on opposite sides of the glass. We outlined the kids’ hands, and Grant helped them outline ours… It felt like a real visit.”
Parents are wondering how they can help their young children flourish during these stressful times. On a day-to-day level, we know that when our children are content, we feel more content – and our home is a happier place. We want to help our children be happy, creative, sociable, curious, and resilient. A parent’s list of dreams and hopes goes on and on. Grandparents share these same hopes for their grandchildren. They want to contribute to family happiness and harmony, to be there for their children and grandchildren –even when they can’t be “there” physically.
This article offers ways to enhance family relationships and ensure that loving bonds continue for both grandchildren and grandparents during this pandemic. Many grandparents are feeling isolated now and need nurturing, life-affirming connections with their grandchildren. Young children are missing their grandparents’ loving hugs and the fun they have together. Strong intergenerational connections during challenging times support each individual in the family and the family as a whole.
Supporting Joyful Grandchild-Grandparent Connections
Play and playfulness promote loving relationships. Research shows that play contributes to children’s emotional well-being and social abilities – confirming the wisdom of generations of grandparents. Play is fun for grandparents and grandkids, and a traditional way to promote loving relationships.
Familiar routines and rituals reassure infants and toddlers. Mary told us about the familiar routine that helps her 20-month-old granddaughter Hannah warm up more quickly during their weekly FaceTime visits. “I ask her if she wants to see my house. She always says, ‘yes.’ I take her on her usual tour (just as if she were visiting) – the kitchen, her high chair, family photos on the wall, her toys behind the sofa, and of course, Ella, the elephant!”
Diane Levin, a grandmother, and early childhood educator offers this advice: “I find play rituals make things special. They’re something unique to you that your grandchildren associate with you. My granddaughter just had her first birthday. She knows I’m the grandma who plays fingerplays. Whenever we Skype, she starts wiggling her fingers as soon as she sees me.”
Grandchildren and grandparents can still enjoy many favorite activities and create new ones. Grandparents love opportunities to be with parents and grandchildren virtually or in-person at a distance. Everyday activities are memorable now. Sometimes, Judy and Derek join Pete’s family for a ‘virtual’ dessert. Recently, three-year-old Jake spontaneously started singing “Ring Around the Rosie,” and they had a great time joining in.
Some grandparents are sending small packages to their grandchildren with creative art supplies and paper for drawing, favorite books, or toys. When the package arrives, they and their grandchildren re-play favorite activities together virtually, like reading a book or having a virtual puppet show. It needn’t be a package to bring joy. Any day is a special day when a child receives a card from a grandparent. And when a grandparent adds paper to draw on and a self-addressed envelope, great joy is returned.
Sharing the details of daily life helps us feel connected. When parents and grandparents talk, sharing little anecdotes and small milestones can give everyone a sense of being in each others’ lives – and a welcome measure of normalcy. Remember to take family photos – even when they’re screenshots. Later, everyone can look back and remember the good times the family had – even in hard times.
Tips for In-Person Visits: Ways to Have Fun and Maintain Distance
When grandparents live nearby, families can maintain physical distance and still have a great visit. Parents and grandparents should agree on a basic distancing plan and explain it to children. Many families find it works well when grandparents and children visit through a windowpane or a glass door, or when children and parents play outside while the grandparent watches from a distance. Families can also set up socially distanced outdoor visits with age-appropriate measures, like placing a hose to mark 6 feet from where the grandparent sits. If young children have difficulty with this artificial situation, try switching to virtual visits for a while before arranging another in-person visit.
Tips for Making Virtual Visits Fun
Advice just for grandparents: Even if you’ve never used Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom, don’t be camera shy. Be the grandparent your grandchild knows and loves. Be outgoing or a quiet observer. Ask questions or tell stories. Sing and dance around. Listen patiently to your grandchild telling a story. Enjoy being silly together. Give yourself permission and go ahead!
- Make virtual visits special times to focus on grandchildren. Plan other times for adult talk, especially talk about personal worries or the latest news.
- Virtual visits will feel more natural when grandparents follow the grandchild’s lead. Each child behaves differently online as well as off. Some are always eager to talk– others prefer to listen or want to go off and play. It’s helpful when parents and grandparents agree not to push young children to talk or interact with their grandparents during online visits.
- Many grandparents delight in watching their grandchildren play. When a child goes off-screen, a parent or older child can help by keeping the camera focused on the child so the grandparent can continue to watch.
- Reading together virtually is a popular activity that takes some planning. Grandparents can read and talk about a book while a parent or older sibling positions the book so the grandparent can read easily. Grandparents also enjoy watching as a parent cuddles up with the child and reads the book.
- Use virtual visits as opportunities to continue family traditions like singing, dancing, sharing stories, and exchanging jokes with young children.
Feel free to experiment and see what works for your family. Have fun and continue being a special part of each other’s lives.
Dr. Judith Van Hoorn, grandmother, Defending the Early Years (DEY.org) National Advisory Board, and author of publications on children’s play, including the forthcoming book: THE GIFT OF PLAY: How Grandparents Enhance the Lives of Young Grandchildren
Pete Van Hoorn, ecologist and father of two of Judith’s grandchildren.
Dr. Rebecca Wheat, grandmother, retired principal, and author of books on building community and transforming education.
*Defending the Early Years (dey.org) has numerous excellent COVID resources for young children and their families: https://dey.org/covid-19-resources/
Parents and grandparents will find creative ideas and practical information in the free booklet Guidance for Supporting Young Children Through COVID-19. https://dey.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Guidance-FINAL.pdf.
Young children will enjoy watching puppet shows in which Dr. Susan Linn and Audry Duck help them learn more about COVID-19, understand their feelings, and learn what can help them feel better, including how they can still see their grandparents: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nXDnUIBNFU&t=9s.