How to Connect Long Distance with Grandkids



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 economic force!)

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.)

Message: 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.

Message: 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.)

Message: 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, felt pens.

Message: 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.

Message: 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.)

Message: 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.

Message: 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.

Message: 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.)

Message: 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.)

Message: 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.)

Message: 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.)

Message: 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.

Message: 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 songs/games.

Message: Here are some songs for you to listen to. I hope you like them. Maybe you can sing and dance too.


• A pinwheel.

Message: 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.

Message: 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.)

Message: 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 construction paper.

Message: 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 ages.)

Message: 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.)

Pat-a-cake; Ring-a-round-a-rosie; 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; Twinkle-twinkle; Humpty-dumpty;

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.

Message: 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.”)

Message: 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.”)

Message: 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.)

Message: 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.)

Message: 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.)

Message: 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.

Baseball cards.

Discarded small appliances to take apart (like clocks, can openers, and old radios).

Tape measure.

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 doing repeatedly.

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.


From 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 here