The Hell That Is Keeping Little Kids Engaged With Zoom Meetings

by Elaine Roth
Scary Mommy and Mint Images/Getty

A year ago, most of us either didn’t really know about Zoom or had never used it to conduct a face-to-face meeting. Now, nearly a year into this pandemic life, we’re all Zooming—for everything. In my house, there’s Zoom school, Zoom therapy, Zoom birthdays and grandparent check-ins and holidays. You name it, we’ve Zoomed it.

Or, more accurately, we’ve started to Zoom it and it often dissolved into something where Zoom is on, but the kids are either nowhere to be found, arguing about nonsense, or putting their open mouths to the camera (because I have a nine-year-old and he thinks it’s hilarious to show his grandparents his tonsils and the inside of his nose.)

My son can often be found pacing the kitchen and chatting to me about Fortnite while his teacher is giving instructions to the class over Zoom, and my out-of-state in-laws have often found themselves hoping for some virtual quality time with their grandchildren, only to quickly hang up because for reasons no one can understand both kids become shrieky balls of energy that only want to argue with each other the minute they are asked how their day was over a screen.

And that’s behavior from kids who are older and should know better. From kids who are younger, who don’t understand why their teachers and grandparents are on a screen all the time and not in front of them, who have more energy than they know what to do with at any given time, keeping them engaged on Zoom is an exponentially greater hassle.

My three-year-old nephew refuses to respond on Zoom unless he’s addressed by the name Cat Boy (of PJ Masks) and will only sit in front of the screen for as long as his snack lasts him. Once the snack is gone, he’s gone, too.

My sister’s kindergartner has (attempted) to wander into the bathroom while hanging out on Zoom with her grandfather (my sister’s father-in-law) while my sister was showering. She’s decided she needed an outfit change in the middle of class—and began to change on the spot—and has left her grandmother reading to an empty room after she forgot that they were reading the book together over Zoom.

Between all my little nieces and nephews, I’ve been ditched on Zoom, ignored, or taken on a dizzying tour through the house as the screen I’m watching them through is dragged from room to room. My two-year-old nephew even hid under the table to avoid making eye contact over Zoom. (I get it and don’t take it personally, but as a parent, I can’t help but worry that the people we’re Zooming with aren’t of the same mindset.)

Put all together, it’s a lot with younger kids. They lose interest and run around; their disengagement potentially offends grandparents or whatever family member is trying to get a slice of their attention, and school—well, it’s anyone’s guess what kind of learning (or simply just engagement) is happening at any given moment. It’s a lot when parents already have a lot on their plates.

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But with COVID cases still high in many (most) places and a vaccine rollout that has been less than super-efficient, Zoom is still the only way friends and family are getting any time with grandkids, nieces, and nephews they don’t live with. Parents of young kids are left with no good options really—either to chase the kid around, bribe them with toys and snacks to stay in front of the screen, or shrug and assure your family member that the kid’s short attention span is nothing personal. All while, they’re tired and completely over Zoom, too.

In an essay for Wired Magazine, a veteran preschool teacher offered some tips to keep little kids engaged on Zoom. While her advice was directed toward preschool teachers, it can translate to anyone trying to keep a little kid engaged in a Zoom.

Her first advice—move. The younger they are, the more you want them to move. Ditch the sit-down chat and have a dance party together or go on a scavenger hunt to find treasure around the house. Or download a virtual book, share your screen, and read that book together with both of you able to see the picture.

The core of her advice seems to be to keep the Zoom interactive, mobile, and dynamic. Throw out the shoulds of what Zooming with kids, especially the very young ones, looks like.

Or, just quit Zoom, if possible. That’s the advice that was shared by the parenting advice column, Care and Feeding, on Slate.

Give yourself and your kid a break, explain to those well-meaning family members that you love them and your kid loves them, but Zoom communication is not working. And then find other ways to connect. Send photos and videos. Send texts—let your kid send texts even. Because more than watching my niece forget she’s Zooming with me, I love getting a random series of texts from her, drafted from a combination of emojis and predictive text. Because it means she remembers me and wants to connect with me. And the truth is, that’s all I really want—and I suspect what we all want: to feel connected in some way, remembered in some way, by the people we can’t physically be around.