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Technology Makes Virtual Playdates Possible for Distant Grandparents

Amazon Glow and Caribu are two options that make connecting for reading, games and online activities easier

By Mark Ray

In many respects, John and Denise Gillard are luckier than most grandparents. Since they moved from Kansas to Washington state, in September 2020, they live only 70 miles from their 4-year-old granddaughter, Cora Nelson. According to AARP, most grandparents have at least one grandchild who lives more than 200 miles away.

A toddlers on a virtual call with her grandfather. Next Avenue, distant grandparents
A grandfather and granddaughter doing a virtual activity with Amazon Glow  |  Credit: Amazon

But the Gillards are lucky in another sense. Last year, they got to beta-test a new product from Amazon called Amazon Glow. An interactive projector and video-calling device, Amazon Glow lets distant family members connect to read, draw and play together almost as if they were in the same room. It's the latest tech product aimed at bringing far-flung families closer together.

Introducing Amazon Glow

The $249.99 product features a dedicated 8" display for video calls and a 19" silicon mat that serves as a touch-sensitive, projected space. Those are for the child. Grandparents (or other remote loved ones) connect with an iOS or Android tablet or smartphone, much as they might use FaceTime or another video-calling app. Amazon Glow includes a one-year Amazon Kids+ subscription, which is required for accessing content (normally $2.99/month for Amazon Prime members).

So what do the Gillards do during that time? Whatever Cora wants to.

"It's really easy for us," Denise says. "When [our granddaughter] initiates a call, we just have to open up the app and answer. We don't have to do anything complicated."

They do have to pay attention, however. "If we don't answer fast enough, our daughter will FaceTime us and say, 'She's calling you," John says.

The Gillards typically have two virtual playdates with Cora each week. "It could last a good half hour plus," John says. "Basically, her mom takes her away and says it's bath time."

So what do the Gillards do during that time? Whatever Cora wants to. They often read together, with the animated book pages appearing on both Cora's mat and their iPad. "I always try to deviate from the words, and she critiques me," John says.

But they'll also draw a picture together or play a game like memory match. "The match game has different themes," Denise says. "It might be candy, so all of the cards are a different piece of candy."

What the Gillards don't do—because they don't have to—is work to keep Cora's attention. "When we listen to her talk to Denise's mom on FaceTime, the conversation is short," John says. "She gets distracted and just runs away."

That's no surprise to Behrang Assadi, senior manager, product and marketing at Amazon. "It meets kids where they are," he says. "It lets kids be kids and brings the grownup into their world as opposed to asking them to meet us where we are on the phone."

Caribu: A Software-only Alternative

Meeting kids where they are is also the goal of Caribu, a service that predates Amazon Glow and offers overlapping features, according to Caribu CEO and cofounder Max Tuchman.

A young grandchild playing a virtual game with their grandparents. Next Avenue, distant grandparents
A Caribu breakfast call   |  Credit: Caribu

"I think grandparents across the universe realized a video call is built for adults to have adult conversations; we can stay on a video call just talking to each other for hours," she says. "Five-year-olds, that's not how they want to engage; 'the Spanish Inquisition' is our terminology for it."

Caribu, which was named a Time magazine best invention in 2019, got its start as an app for reading books together while physically distant. It was inspired by a newspaper photo of a deployed soldier trying to read a book to his daughter on a video call. "You have this humongous book and this tiny little webcam," Tuchman says. "It's a terrible experience."

More recently, Caribu has added games, drawing activities and virtual dress-up dolls. Older kids can even choose online/offline activities like cooking. "They both can see the recipe and the child can say, 'Hey, is this the right flour? What's the difference between baking soda and baking powder?'" Tuchman says.

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Unlike Amazon Glow, Caribu is a software-only service. "Literally all you need is your phone or tablet or computer," Tuchman says. "We actually launched web [in 2020], making us the world's first multiplatform video-calling experience for kids and families." The cost of Caribu is $9.99/month or $99.99/year; a free limited subscription is available.

The Keys to Connecting Successfully

Whether you buy an Amazon Glow, subscribe to Caribu or figure out a do-it-yourself option, you can do a few things to ensure success.

First, be sure the child's parents are in the loop—and not just so they can prompt you to log in. "Make sure the parent is on board and they understand the type of relationship you're building, that the content is educational, that it's positive screen time," Tuchman says.

"We have some grandparents that call literally every morning as the kids are having breakfast."

Second, establish a routine of regular playdates. "We have some grandparents that call literally every weekday morning as the kids are having breakfast," Tuchman says. "Mom and Dad are putting together lunches or getting the backpacks together or holding one of the babies and Grandma or Grandpa is reading to the child while they're eating their Cheerios."

Third, pick a conducive setting. The Gillards have found that sessions work well when Cora is sitting at the dining room table. "She's in the dining room, but her mom can see her from the kitchen," Denise says.

Finally, let the child lead, just as you would in person. "When Grandma comes over, she doesn't just sit on the couch and read books," Tuchman says. "The kid jumps off the couch and grabs Legos, grabs clay, grabs a doll. Then they want to color together. Then they want to go back to the book."

Although Amazon Glow and Caribu are technology solutions, their developers strive to make the technology invisible.

Catherine Teitelbaum, Principal, Family Trust at Amazon, remembers a beta-tester who was reading a book to her granddaughter. After she was done, the woman looked at the interviewer and said, "Wow, that was really fun; we read the entire book. Oh, we read an entire book. I've never heard her read an entire book. I'm going to cry."

"I thought, she's going to remember the first book she read," Teitelbaum says. "I wonder if she'll remember if it was through Glow or not."

Mark Ray Mark Ray is a freelance writer who has written for Scouting, Eagles’ Call, Presbyterians Today, Kentucky Homes & Gardens and other publications. He has also written, edited and/or contributed to a dozen books for the Boy Scouts and the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches. Read More
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