Virtual playdates bring connection during COVID-19

By: Mary Beth Almond | Metro | Published January 26, 2021

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METRO DETROIT — With many schools and activities closed due to COVID-19, kids nowadays are missing out on much more than face-to-face instruction.

In school, kids are constantly testing boundaries with their peers, which, during a global pandemic, is nearly impossible to replicate at home — or is it?

Although virtual school ties students to their devices most of the day, experts say parents shouldn’t be afraid to loosen screen time limits if their kids want to connect with a friend after hours.

“Prior to COVID, kids were already interacting a lot through technology, so I think for us, as adults, it seems like a bigger change than maybe it feels like for kids,” said Beaumont Senior Behavior Consultant Jenni Arnold.

Many kids haven’t been able to see their friends and peers in months, wreaking havoc on the development of their social skills. Kids learn through observation and imitation of other people, so spending time with their friends is crucial to their development.

“We don’t want kids to only learn how to socially interact like adults do. We want them to interact in the way that kids do — so developing a child-friendly sense of humor, skills like conflict resolution and how to advocate for themselves, and learning things like empathy and recognizing their own feelings,” Arnold explained.

Virtual playdates can help kids improve their communication skills, learn how to talk through a problem and figure out how to meet everyone’s needs, all while remaining socially distant.

“As kids get older, they really start to drift more from looking for that adult acceptance and start looking more for peer acceptance. Peers begin to take a more prominent role in their life, so we still want to find ways to facilitate that and make that happen, even if we are doing that in a virtual setting,” Arnold said.

The virtual and remote school options available during the pandemic have armed students with the technology skills needed to connect with peers outside of the classroom during COVID-19.

“They know how to manipulate Google Meet to connect with kids. They know how to manipulate a Zoom and utilize it to connect with kids. Our kids are very tech savvy. In many cases, they knew how to FaceTime before we did. It’s common for them,” said Cory Heitsch, the executive director for elementary teaching and learning at Rochester Community Schools

Still, sending your child off with a device without supervision isn’t the best idea, so discussing your expectations and staying close enough to monitor technology usage can be helpful.

Whether kids meet online to play video games together, build Legos, draw or simply chat, what they do during a virtual playdate isn’t as important as the social connection.

“Overall, with kids who are typically developing and are developing similar to their peers, I would actually minimize how much you structure that time, because part of learning through childhood is to learn through mistakes, and trial and error, and learning how to structure their own time. I would actually encourage parents to step back a little bit, still monitor, but step back and let them work it out,” Arnold said.

For younger children, it’s best to discuss what time limit you’re comfortable with before the call to avoid any arguments when it’s time to say goodbye, and make sure everyone in the house knows when the playdate is happening because those on the other side of the screen can probably hear  — and see — everyone else in the house too.

At the end of the day, virtual connections can have a really positive impact.

“It’s really important that kids are able to connect with somebody who is experiencing life in a similar wave as they are,” Arnold said.

Heitsch has seen it firsthand.

“My own daughters — I have a fifth grader and a second grader in a neighboring district in Oakland County — utilize Zoom and FaceTime after hours to connect with peers in the classroom. It’s a natural progression for our kids in this environment because they obviously yearn for connection and they benefit from connection,” he said.