Schools have been closed for a month, and families are sheltered in place. It’s mid-April 2020, predicted to be the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic. As a mom, one of my first priorities has always been to give my four-year-old son MJ opportunities to explore the world around him and connect with friends. I started taking him to Toddler Thursday at the High Museum of Art when he was about 10 months old. Every week we would enjoy great artwork with story time and play time. We befriended other moms and their children. Over time, we began to attend each other’s birthday parties and other fun activities and became like an extended family.
When the schools closed and in-person activities were cancelled, I had an idea to coordinate a weekly virtual play date with our little group of toddler friends. I jotted down a list of themes that kids like, just like I would for a birthday party. I called my friend Jozan, one of the moms in our group. She has a background in education, and offered ideas about activities that would translate well to the computer screen. I also reached out to our friend Joanne, a mother of three girls. Her seven-year-old, Maya, is like a surrogate big sister to the whole group, so we decided she would make a perfect moderator and story teller for the younger children. I scheduled the first meeting, and invited the other moms in our group to join us
We hold our virtual play date once a week. I take notes as we go along, then Jozan and Joanne and I have a separate phone call to review and fine tune the process. As adults, we’ve all had a fairly easy transition to the virtual meeting world, but setting up a virtual play date for toddlers took trial and error to find a method that works. With that in mind, I’ve outlined these tips for toddlers.
Assemble a small group of parents and kids. For toddlers, eight children or less works well.
Create a text message group for the parents. Group texting is an easy way to send a "day-of" reminder about the virtual playdate, or communicate last minute changes.
Designate a moderator (In our case, the moderator is an older child, so we have an adult to guide her as we go along with the play date).
Choose a fun theme. Select a song, story, and snack to go with the theme. We've used themes like My Favorite Things, Springtime (Easter, Passover) and Things That Go (cars, trains, airplanes).
Schedule a date and time.
Create a (private) virtual meeting. We use Zoom.
Write the agenda (Part II of this blog post).
Create and send the email invitation. In our case we use Evite. Evite has a “Virtual Events” category. Choose a design that fits the theme of the play date. Include the agenda in the “Message from the Host” section.
Two chairs- one for the parent, one for the child
Laptop or tablet
Show & Tell item
Snack and water
If you have a specific room of the home for the play date, that’s ideal. If you live in smaller space, try to find a quiet corner with as few distractions as possible.
Place the laptop or tablet in the middle of the table. The larger the screen, the better. Place the supplies- Show & Tell item, snack and water- and set them to one side of the laptop or tablet. The parent should sit on the same side as the supplies.
Toddlers can be easily distracted, so removing all other items from the table will keep the child focused. If space allows, remove any additional chairs that may be around the table and place them out of sight.
Remove any surrounding toys which may cause a distraction. If you have a small space where this isn’t possible, try to cover any nearby toys with a sheet or screen.
If your space has a window, set up the table and chairs so that your child’s face is facing the window. When your child is facing toward the light, everyone will be able to see your child clearly. It’s a common mistake for people to sit directly in front of a window with the sunlight behind them. This causes “backlighting” which creates a shadowy, clouded image and makes it difficult for faces to be seen.
Be sure to have everything set up early and be ready to log in at the meeting start time. Keep in mind how much transition time your toddler will need. For example, one child in our group doesn’t like his play time to be interrupted, so he needs 30 minutes to prepare. Another child isn’t quite alert if he just woke up from his nap, so now he takes a nap after the play date. It’s a good idea for any toddler to have a bathroom break shortly before the play date.
Send group text reminders to the parents a day or two before, the morning of, and 15 minutes before the play date. Remember to include a reminder about the theme, and what to bring to Show & Tell.