Using Skype and Videochats with Young Children

robot-props-for-skypeSkype can provide an open window to interact with the world. For young children, it can make different languages and cultures take on a whole new meaning. Skype can be downloaded for free on any computer or tablet device. Similar results can be achieved with other videochat platforms like Facetime or Google Hangout. Here are some ideas for using Skype with young children – at school or at home:

  1. When young children interact in person, they pick up communication cues from sight, sound, smell, and touch. Since Skype only uses sight and sound, you really have to concentrate on those senses.
  2. Who can be invited to Skype with children? Relatives from their home countries, other classes in other parts of the world, or an interesting expert or author.
  3. Invite a Skype partner to share in their home language and share stories, artifacts and activities that are part of their daily life or culture.
  4. Choose a good time of day. Using Skype means children have to sit quietly at times and focus on the screen. Don’t set up for disappointment by picking a time when they are hungry or restless.
  5. Both sides should use Skype on your tablet or laptop so you can move around to show different views, different activities.
  6. Ask your Skype partner to practice looking at the camera – it is tempting to keep your eyes on your own picture to see what you are doing, or the images on the screen – but you really make eye contact with the audience when you look at the camera.
  7. The adults should plan to have materials at their side – storybooks, musical instruments, or whatever they plan to show so they don’t lose the interest of the children while they are scrambling to find something.
  8. Get young children engaged with you on the screen by playing ‘peek a boo’ – turn the camera away from you, then back to your face – and then sometimes when the camera comes back – you can surprise the kids by showing a book, or toy, or something else that you want to talk about.
  9. You can pretend to share snacks – if you prepare in advance that people on both sides of the screen have the same snack and the adults can pretend to hand it off camera to camera
  10. For infants and toddlers – make sure to use the same greeting each time – in the same tone of voice. Infants and toddlers can learn to recognize and feel comfortable with a real person on the screen when they hear that same sound each time they see the person. This is important because they often depend more on smell and touch when meeting a person – so they need more visual and sound cues to recognize you on Skype.
  11. Use a lot of gestures. Be close to the camera – but not so close that the Skype audience can’t see your hands. Don’t be afraid to move – don’t be a talking head.
  12. If you play music – both of you can hear it and both can dance together and join in with instruments.
  13. Help Skype partners get to know the children in advance. Don’t ask vague questions like “how is school?” You could ask – “Your teacher told me you have tulips growing in your garden outside. I have flowers growing in my garden too – come with me and I will show you. How have you been caring for your tulips?” This helps the children feel a real, authentic connection with the Skype partner.
  14. If sharing a story – be prepared to discuss. Don’t expect young children to sit silently while someone on a screen reads a whole story. Stop from time to time to ask questions and keep everyone engaged.
  15. If children have props – make them meaningful to support communication. Funny hats are cute – but they really lead to nothing when you are talking about a story or interacting with a friend via Skype. In other words – if you are going to Skype with Eric Carle – making ‘hungry caterpillar’ hats really doesn’t give anyone anything to talk about when going over the story. Props that would help the story move along or make more sense would be: caterpillar puppets, real or pretend fruit .
  16. Give the children BIG name tags – they will stay more engaged if the speaker can call them by name.
  17. Share toys and props so everyone can hold up their items and play together. If the Skype partner wants to talk about how they make up their beds in their country, your children should be ready to show their lovies, their cots and blankets too. This is more hands-on and engaging than just talking about beds.
  18. Practice in advance – have children introduce themselves, ask and answer questions by using a puppet theater or cardboard replica of the screen so they don’t freeze up when it’s time to participate live on Skype.
  19. Use Skype as a way to practice new languages for communication value. Don’t just memorize random words – plan ahead to learn the appropriate greetings or key words that can build communication across the internet with your friends on Skype.
  20. Skype doesn’t always have to be a major event. You might set up one or two children who want to ask a question to the local librarian or hear a song from their mom or dad.
  21. THIS LIST IS NOT FINISHED – Please comment with your own tips and tricks!

Here is an example based on my new children’s story book: New Words, New Friends.

Materials needed on both sides:

  • Copies of New Words, New Friends in English and/or Spanish, in print or ebook on hand held devices.
  • Indoor safe ball such as beach ball
  • Paint brushes and cups of water and dark colored paper
  • Large name tags

Begin with greetings in English and Spanish

Introduce the key words of the book such as:  ball, paintbrush, paper, paint, point and show, slowly and clearly, patient, play, and friends.

Introduce the title, the author, the illustrator, and the four characters of the story.

If the children are ready – read through the book from beginning to end, then prepare for a second reading as follows:

Read the story. Stop at “So if you ask her to share, she probably won’t.” Talk about how the boys might be feeling and how Violet might be feeling. Ask if anyone has any ideas to help everyone feel better.

Next read the three solutions proposed by Teacher Nan. Invite children to act out how they would do each of the strategies.

Next use the materials and actions to imitate and talk about how the children’s activities in the second half of the book were more successful to help everyone get along and play together. The Skype partner should actively participate along with the children – responding to what each child is doing and joining in the conversations. The large nametags will really be helpful at this point!

At the end of the book, invite the children to join together with the Skype partner to recite the last page of the book as a reminder to be a caring and supportive friend.

Have children give the high five sign to each other and to the Skype partner.

Resources:

Digital Decisions: Choosing the Right Technology Tools for Early Childhood Education by F. Simon and K. Nemeth, Gryphon House 2012

“Using Technology as a Teaching Tool for Dual Language Learners in Preschool through Grade 3” by K. Nemeth and F. Simon, Young Children March 2013

Technology Skype in the Classroom website  https://education.skype.com

“Responsive interactions are key to toddlers’ ability to learn language”  This study showed that toddlers can learn a new language via live interactions with a responsive adult on video chats like Skype, but gain little from passive viewing of unresponsive videos.  Science Daily, September 24, 2013 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130924091802.htm

By Karen N. Nemeth

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