How to Connect Long Distance with Grandkids
“PLAYFUL” GIFT CONNECTION
by Selma Wassermann
Grandparents are notorious in their
reputations for largesse toward grandchildren. Look at any group of
travelers—at the bus depot, the train station, the airport—and you
will be able to pick out the grandmother at a single glance. She is the
one loaded down with one, two, three shopping bags full of presents, in
addition to all of her other luggage. When I am ready to make a trip to
see the boys, a co-worker who shares with me a membership in the
department’s “grandmother club” jokes: “I’ll phone the airline
and tell them to put on an extra section.” She knows that I will be
carrying presents for the boys. This is what grandparents do—whether
they live near or far. We love to give, whenever we can, whatever we
can—sometimes to excess. Our desire to give knows no bounds, no
constraints. Grandparents are toy stores’ best customers. (We are an
There is, however, another kind of
gift giving quite different from what is normally done at Christmas or
birthdays or visiting times—and that’s what this article is about.
Here, what the gift does for the connection between grandparent and
grandchild is more important than the gift itself. I call these gifts
“playful” because they need to be chosen with some imagination and are
intended to be used creatively. “Playful” gifts are always small and
inexpensive, and are often used in some special, constructive way. They
may be sent frequently—but not more than once a month, lest the joy of
the experience becomes burdened by having to invent something new too
often. These gifts are always accompanied by a small note, suggesting how
the child might use the gift. This connection could begin at about age two
and one half, but you are likely to be the best judge of how to match the
gift to the child’s age and his or her ability to enjoy it.
Choosing What’s Appropriate
For example, if the gift requires
the child to do cutting and pasting, or sewing, or use of tools, or
winding a top, you will want to make sure that his small fingers are up to
the demands of these tasks. If it involves a messy activity that might
create dirt on mother’s immaculate kitchen floor (like papier maché,
finger paint, or water play) you will want to know in advance that such an
activity is acceptable to the parents and that your grandchild is capable
of helping with the clean up. If these gifts set up expectations that are
impossible for the child to achieve they can become despised, rather than
enjoyed. If unsure about how your small grandchild will be able to handle
a gift and the demands it makes, a consultation with mom or dad will help.
Here is a small list of
“playful” gifts with messages suggesting ways they can be used. You
will surely be able to think of dozens more.
Ideas for Very Young Children (3 to 6)
• A very small, hand-held
magnifying glass. (Found in stationery and variety stores.)
This is a magnifying glass. If you hold it up to your eye, you’ll see
that it makes things look bigger. Take it into the garden. Look at a
little flower. Does it look bigger? Look at a little bug. Does the bug
look bigger? Look at a little leaf. Does the leaf look bigger? Look at a
little stone. Does it look bigger? Look at your dad’s nose. Does it look
bigger? What else can you see with your glass?
• Two balloons.
I found these balloons in the store and I thought you’d like them. Blow
some air into them. Then, let the air out and feel it on your face. Blow
some more air in. Then let the air out and feel it on your hand. Blow some
more air in. Then, let it out and see if you can push a piece of paper
with the air. Does it work? Can you do a balloon dance? What else can you
do with the balloons?
• Small horseshoe magnet. (Found
in stationery, variety, hardware stores.)
Do you know about magnets? Well, now you can find out. Try to see what
this magnet will stick to. It will stick to some things. But it won’t
stick to other things. You’ll have fun finding out.
• Box of crayons or non-toxic,
Here are some crayons/felt pens for you to make some pictures. You can
make whatever you like. I hope you’ll send me a picture some day.
• A small pocket flashlight.
Do you have a flashlight yet? A flashlight of your own? Here is one for
you, all for yourself. You can make it shine in the dark. You can play
with it in the dark and see how the light shines. You can shine it behind
a door and see how the light creeps through the cracks. You can use it to
make shadows on the wall. Can you make some shadows with your flashlight?
• A pennywhistle or harmonica.
(Found in children’s toy stores, variety stores, music stores.)
You’ll like this pennywhistle/harmonica. You can play some tunes with
it. Try to make a loud song. Try to make a soft song. Try to make a song
that goes doodlidoodlidoodlidoodlidoo.
• A packet of flower seeds.
Do you want to grow some flowers—all for yourself? You’ll need a
little can, or the bottom part of a milk container. Maybe your mommy can
give you one. You’ll need to put some dirt in the can. Put some seeds in
the dirt and then put a little water in. Watch it every day and see if a
flower will grow. I hope you’ll have a beautiful flower.
• A box of plastic straws.
Straws are fun to play with. You can blow through a straw and make air
come out. You can feel the air on your hand when you blow. You can use the
straw and blow through it to push a piece of paper around the table. Try
it. What else can you push? You can use the straw to suck up some milk or
juice. You can suck up the air and use the straw to hold a piece of paper.
Try it. What else can you suck up with your straw?
• A box of face decorating
pastels. (These can be found in some specialty toy stores, in shops where
theatrical make-up is sold, and in some well-stocked stationery stores.)
You can use these make-up crayons to make a mask right on your face. You
can make a happy face. You can make a sad face. You can make a scary face.
When you put make-up on your face, you can be anything you want! A cowboy!
A princess! The king of the castle! A monster! I hope you have a good time
with this face make-up.
• A finger or hand puppet. (Found
in children’s toy stores, and in some department stores carrying toys.
Grandparents may also make and send puppets.)
This puppet’s name is King (or Queen) of the Castle. He (she) is the
boss. When you put your hand inside the puppet, you can make him (her)
move and talk. See what he (she) will say and do.
• A packet of plasticine. (Found
in most toy stores, and in art and craft supply shops.)
This plasticine can be kneaded and molded. You can make any shape with it.
A pancake! A hot dog! A ball! You can stick it on your nose and make a
big, long, crooked nose for your nose. See what you can do!
• A plastic eyedropper. (Found in
“superdrugstores” and pharmacies.)
Here’s an eyedropper all for yourself. See how you can fill it up with
water. See how you can make the drops come out. You can make the drops
come out fast or slow. I hope you like it.
• A bottle of bubble solution and
one or two bubble pipes.
You’ll love making bubbles. Can you make some big, big bubbles? Can you
make some tiny, tiny bubbles? Have fun making bubbles.
• A cassette tape of children’s
Here are some songs for you to listen to. I hope you like them. Maybe you
can sing and dance too.
• A pinwheel.
Watch how the wind makes this pinwheel go! Watch it go outside! You can
make it spin inside the house, too, by blowing on it. It can go fast or
slow. I hope you like it.
• A box of old discarded clothes,
eg. worn or out-of-fashion hats, shoes, ties, handbags, jewelry. (Every
grandmother has, somewhere in the dark recesses of a closet, or attic, or
basement, a box of old clothing—dresses, hats, shoes, handbags—clothes
that were once favorites, but have gone out of style, or that we have
“outgrown.”) We have kept them because they are still in good
condition and it offends our sense of economy to throw them away. Some can
become very attractive and delightful dress-up outfits for your
grandchildren. Send only those that you are happy to part with, and
don’t send family heirlooms! They are unlikely to be in a returnable
state after dozens of dress-up plays.
A word of caution: There are, of
course, “costumes” or “outfits” that may be purchased for dress-up
as cowboys, or firemen, or ballet dancers. I urge against these for
several reasons. First and most important, they are artificial and phony;
they don’t inspire the kind of imaginative play that comes from “real
life” clothing worn by real people. Second, higher quality costumes are
costly and this is not what the “playful” gift connection is about.
(And the cheaper costumes are tacky and aesthetically unattractive.)
Grandma’s old hat with veil, a memento from her femme fatale days, is
likely to give her granddaughter far more pleasure and far more creative
play opportunities than any store-bought costume.
This box of stuff is for when you want to play dress-up. Do you like to
play dress-up? When you play dress-up, you can be anything you want. A
fireman! A prince! The King of the Castle! A shopkeeper! The mailman! You
can make up stories with your dress-up clothes. I hope you have fun.
• Face masks. (These are found in
toy shops, but may be more easily made from pieces of felt, with elastic
bands. Cut out holes for eyes and decorate imaginatively with other scraps
of fabric, buttons, beads, etc.)
These face masks are for you to put on and play with. You can play pretend
monsters. You can be scary. You can play ghosts and goblins. Boo! Watch
out for the scary masks.
• A packet of multi-colored
Here’s some colored paper for you to play with. You can make
shapes—circles, and squares, and triangles. You can make pretty designs
with your shapes. You can make spirals. You may want to use a pair of
scissors to do this or you may want to tear out your shapes. I hope you
have fun with these colored papers.
• A tape of grandpa’s songs.
(Some grandparents are amateur (or professional) musicians. Making a tape
recording of songs, unaccompanied or accompanied by guitar or violin or
piano, would make a wonderful “playful” gift for grandchildren of all
I’m sending these songs especially for you. I hope you like them. Do you
like to sing? Maybe you can sing along with me.
• A tape of rhythms and rhymes,
especially good for very young grandchildren. (If we were closer, we would
do these rhythms and rhymes in person. At distance, we can do these on
tape, and make the tapes a part of our “playful” gift connection. Here
are some suggestions that go right back to our own childhood days.)
Jack-be-nimble; Peas-porridge hot; Row-row-row your boat; Baa-baa black
sheep; Hey diddle-diddle; Hickory-dickory-dock; London Bridge;
Sing a song of sixpence;
Farmer in the dell; Jack and
Jill; Did you ever see a Lassie?; Little Boy Blue; Loopy loo; Mary had a
little lamb; The muffin man; Pop goes the weasel; Here we go round the
mulberry bush; Three blind mice; Tisket-a-tasket.
Here are some songs and rhymes I made especially for you. If I was there
with you, we could sing them together. But maybe you can sing along with
me, on this tape. I hope you like these songs.
Ideas For Children 4 to 7
• Marbles. (Found in most toy
shops and “superdrugstores.”)
Do you like to play with marbles? Here are lots for you and there are two
shooters, too. When I come to your house we can play marbles together. Did
you know that I was the marble champion of my block when I was a boy? Do
you think you can beat me? Hah!
• Pipe cleaners. (Try the tobacco
shop or the “superdrugstore.”)
These pipe cleaners can be twisted and turned and made into all kinds of
shapes—circles, squares, triangles, and free forms. You can twist
several of them together and make figures of all kinds. Will you send me
something you have made out of these pipe cleaners?
• Wool scraps. (Grandmothers who
knit will have lots of wool scraps to send. Or wool can be bought
inexpensively at the supermarket. Heavy wool is better for this. Cut the
wool into long, even strips, and secure them so that they don’t get
tangled in the mail.)
Here’s some wool with many different colors. See what kinds of designs
you can make with these strands. Then, maybe you can paste your designs on
a piece of paper. When I come to your house, maybe you’ll show me what
designs you made with this wool.
• Cloth book. (For grandmothers
who like to sew! Cut 5 or 6 pieces of unprinted, colored cloth into
12" ¥ 16" rectangles. Arrange them evenly, one on top of the
other, and sew a seam down the center, to bind them together. You may want
to pink the edges so they won’t fray. Write your grandchild’s name, in
crayon or felt pen, on the cover.)
I made this book for you. You can write or draw in it, and make
anything you like. You can use crayons or felt pens. Have fun with your
book. When you’ve filled up this book, I can make you another one.
• Special boxes. (Sometimes I get
a gift wrapped in an unusually attractive and sturdy box—good for
keeping lots of little treasures in. I don’t know why these “treasure
boxes” have such appeal for children, but they do.)
I found this box and I thought of you. Would you like to have it? You
can keep all sorts of things in it—all your treasures. It’s a special
box, and you are special to me.
For Grandchildren Eight Years and Over
Stamps, from near and far.
Discarded small appliances to take
apart (like clocks, can openers, and old radios).
Hobby and craft activity cards.
(Book shops, hobby shops, craft shops are all good sources.
“Superdrugstores” and large supermarkets may also carry a stock of
crafts books.) Instead of purchasing entire hobby and crafts books, and
sending out reams of these in a steady flow, purchase only one book, then
tear out pages to send, one at a time. Mount them on a card to reinforce
them. They may even be laminated, if the activity is worth saving and
Recipes. (Include dishes easy for
the child to make with a minimum of adult supervision.)
Cloth, needles, and thread.
Mobile-making activity. (Four or
five 1⁄4" wood dowels, cut into lengths of 3" to 12";
colored cardboard shapes; a roll of magic tape; string.)
Instructions for a card trick.
Instructions for a magic trick.
This list of “playful” gifts
barely scratches the surface of what is possible. It does, however,
provide some ideas about how many different kinds of things can be sent
that will encourage creativity, imagination, and a child’s investigative
play that will bring grandparent and grandchild closer. In adding to the
list of possibilities, you will want to keep your eyes peeled, not in toy
stores that trade in tanks, trucks, designer dolls and their wardrobes,
battery operated robots, and toy machine guns, but in shops that emphasize
arts and crafts materials, construction materials, hobby shops, hardware
shops, cookware shops, stationery stores, museum gift shops, aquarium gift
shops—even the neighborhood junk shop and flea market. Once you have
developed the “playful” gift habit of searching for possibilities,
there will be no end to the imaginative options you will find.
“Playful” gifts send messages of
love—much more so than the toys that cost a month’s retirement
benefits. They say to your grandchild: “Hey, sweetie. I am thinking
about you. I found this and thought you might have a few moments of
pleasure with it.” They do not depend upon a special occasion. They come
from the connection, from the desire to be close and make an intimate
contact. They are tokens of love, rather than symbols of material
acquisition. And many grandchildren will want to reciprocate in kind.
The Long Distance Grandmother by
Selma Wassermann. Copyright © 2001 Selma Wassermann. Excerpted by
arrangement with Hartley & Marks Publishers, Inc. $16.95. Available in
local bookstores or call 800-277-5887 or click