About once a week, Shoshanna Berger reads bedtime stories to her five-year-old grandson, even though he’s in Toronto and she spends the winter in Palm Springs, Calif.
“We have an activity we can do together to keep in touch,” Shoshanna says. “We keep the connection going, which is amazing.”
They use Kindoma Storytime, an app that allows them to video chat while reading a story from a library of 250 books. As they read, the app synchronizes page turning. When one person points to something on the page, the other person sees a duplicate hand shadow on their page.
Before using Kindoma, Shoshanna says her grandson tended to dart in and out of video calls. “It’s very hard to sit him down and have a conversation,” she says. But reading together, talking about the pictures and then choosing a new story for next time is a ritual that clicks. “It’s so enjoyable for him because he’s so comfortable with the technology,” Shoshanna says.
A growing number of apps, websites and games offer opportunities for long-distance grandparents and grandchildren to go beyond conversation and engage remotely in educational activities and play.
The founders of Kindoma are working on a few different apps that add child-friendly activities to video calls. Co-founder Carly Shuler now lives in Winnipeg, but used to work for Sesame Street in New York. While there, she was involved in research on how military families use video calls to stay in touch. She says the research suggested that adding a shared activity like reading or drawing boosted the average video call from three minutes to about 20.
While reading is one online activity option, older children might prefer to create their own stories with grandparents. The website Storybird, which is used widely in schools, allows users to choose storybook illustrations and write stories inspired by them.
“The pictures really make kids feel like accomplished authors,” says Kaye Puhlmann, the company’s Toronto-based co-founder.
Grandchildren can invite their grandparents or other Storybird users to collaborate on the story and then get the finished book printed. In this case, the activity is asynchronous, so users don’t have to be online at the same time to create a story together.
Kaye says some of the site’s first customers were grandparents who collaborated with grandchildren on a story and wanted a copy. “It sort of reflects a moment in time of the child’s growth and development, of their relationship with their grandparent; it’s something they can hold on to.”
For grandparents willing to venture into a whole new world, Minecraft might be the portal. The game involves “mining” various kinds of blocks to construct buildings and other structures; players can invite friends and family members to play remotely.
The Minecraft learning curve is “fairly slight” and kids will enjoy guiding their grandparents along the way, says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, an Ottawa organization dedicated to digital and media literacy. “A game like that, that involves creativity and socializing can be a really productive activity between children and grandparents.”
Online activities also offer new ways for grandparents to take part in family life, says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family. While parents are getting dinner ready, for example, a grandparent could be playing online with an older child. “So you’re almost babysitting virtually,” Nora says.
Meanwhile, finding digital ways to connect also helps grandparents and grandchildren build a strong intergenerational relationship. “We know that people acquire things like values from grandparents, they learn history from grandparents,” Nora says.
“It’s also good for the grandparents because it teaches them the technology, it engages them socially, it engages them intellectually and they get to have fun. That’s over and above the strengthening of the relationship with children.”
Kindoma Storytime: This iPhone/iPad app allows for users to read stories while video chatting. The free app comes with access to 10 books; after that, users can buy stories individually or through a subscription. The books target children from age three to six. Kindoma is now beta testing two new apps, Kindoma Drawtime and Kindoma Talktime. Kindoma.com
Storybird: Storybird allows users to write stories using artists’ illustrations to spark their own imaginations. After creating a free account, a child can start a story and invite a grandparent to collaborate. The finished book can be bought in various formats: download, softcover, hardcover or premium hardcover, then printed and shipped. Storybird.com
Minecraft: Minecraft is recommended for about age eight and up. The goal of the game, which is a bit like building Lego in cyberspace, is decided by the players. Downloading the game itself costs about $30 at Minecraft.net. In order to play remotely with an approved list of family members, players can get set up on Minecraft Realms for about $13 per month.
Words With Friends: This free app allows users to play a Scrabble-style game on the go with remote opponents. With parents’ help, kids can get set up to play with their grandparents; a chat window allows for messaging while they play. Kids may need guidance to avoid clicking in-app ads.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June 2015.