Open Psychology Research Centre, Psychology, Research in the School

Intergenerational play at a distance: Using technology to support grandparent-grandchild relationships

Photo Credit: Pexels Images

By Professor Rose Capdevila and Dr Lisa Lazard (Psychology & Counselling-FASS) and Anna Taylor (Independent Researcher), Amanda Gummer (FUNdamentally Children)

Research suggests that the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren can have important positive psychological benefits for both. For children, the support grandparents can give has been linked to positive emotional outcomes (Tan, 2018). For grandparents, being emotionally close to grandchildren promotes a sense of attachment, belonging and feeling useful in the family (Grinstead et al., 2003). Geographical distance has been identified as an issue that can hamper the grandparent-grandchild bond. During the Covid-19 social mixing restrictions of 2020/21, family separations became amplified for many extended family members, particularly grandparents. Our proof of concept study, conducted over the Christmas period of 2020, investigated how grandparents and grandchildren used digital technology to maintain their relationship and how technology mediated intergenerational play could be used to support this relationship during times of geographically separation.

This study, funded by OU RES, is part of a consortium project between the Open University and FUNdamentally Children with our partners Anna Taylor (Researcher) and Amanda Gummer (CEO of FUNdamentally Children).

A number of studies have explored how grandparents and grandchildren use phone calls to keep in touch. This research suggests that while phone calls are a frequently used communication tool by families, it is a poor method for supporting grandparent-grandchild relationships. This is because young and preteen children become easily distracted, will leave during the phone conversation and are often not motivated to talk (Ballagas et al. 2009; Forghani & Neustaedter, 2014). Evjemo et al (2004) attributed these patterns to how phone calls are often not embedded in a joint activity, such as playing a game together, as is often the case in face-to-face interactions.

Intergenerational play is important for maintaining grandparent-grandchild bond (Taylor & Gummer, 2019). Much of the intergenerational digital gaming literature has focused on digital game systems and suggest that there are age-related barriers in using some digital games for grandparent-grandchild play. For example, children tend to be much more familiar and comfortable using technologies compared to their grandparents which may produce uneven capabilities with using digital games. In addition, age-related physical limitations can hamper digital game playing for grandparents (Seifert et al. 2021). To date, there has been fewer studies examining how technology can be used to support traditional board games, which are familiar to both older and younger relatives. To address this gap, the present study asked grandparents and grandchildren to play an online version of the traditional board game Articulate on a video-call during the Christmas holiday Covid-19 lockdown of 2020.

Twelve child and grandparent pairs took part in this study (both same and mixed gender). Grandparents aged from 55 to 77 and children aged between eight and twelve were recruited. Pairs were selected on the basis that they communicated with each other once a week and were both competent users of digital devices (specifically video calling). The researchers interviewed grandparents and grandchildren together on the video call about their communication and play habits before and after lockdown for approximately 15 minutes. Grandparents and grandchildren were then asked to set up and play the online version of Articulate for about half an hour while being observed on the call by the researchers. After the game, participants were then interviewed for another 15 minutes about the game they had just played.

Preliminary analysis of the data suggested that while grandparents and grandchildren preferred video-calls over audio-only calls, they nevertheless found it difficult to meaningfully communicate on family video calls. Conversations were described as stilted and limited to standard predictable questions asked by grandparents (e.g.: How’s school? What is your favourite subject?) which were answered briefly by grandchildren. These experiences of intergenerational communication at a distance were characterised as abstract, forced, repetitive and monotonous. However, we found that playing a traditional game online provided a conversational context that facilitated communication. Grandparents and grandchildren were able to talk about shared experiences and memories relevant to the game which consolidated their relationship in a context designed to facilitate family fun. The game also enabled grandparents to perform caregiving and support by enabling them to help their grandchildren during gameplay and by celebrating children’s successes.

This study also identified barriers to intergenerational play online. Game instructions are designed for adults and, as such, do not take into account the expertise of children. We found that grandparents often turned to children for help in working out what to do. However, because children could not easily understand the game instructions, parents as well as the researchers had to step in to support grandparents and grandchildren in setting up the game. Our research makes several recommendations, particularly for game developers, for increasing accessibility to encourage intergenerational play.   This full analysis of the data from this proof-of-concept study will contribute to our ongoing research as well as an upcoming funding bid.


Ballagas, R., Kaye, J. J., Ames, M., Go, J., & Raffle, H. (2009, June). Family communication: phone conversations with children. In Proceedings of the 8th international Conference on Interaction Design and Children (pp. 321-324).

Evjemo, B., Svendsen, G. B., Rinde, E., & Johnsen, J. A. K. (2004, October). Supporting the distributed family: the need for a conversational context. In Proceedings of the third Nordic conference on Human-computer interaction (pp. 309-312).

Forghani, A., & Neustaedter, C. (2014, April). The routines and needs of grandparents and parents for grandparent-grandchild conversations over distance. In Proceedings of the sigchi conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 4177-4186).

Grinstead, L. N., Leder, S., Jensen, S., & Bond, L. (2003). Review of research on the health of caregiving grandparents. Journal of advanced nursing44(3), 318-326.

Seifert, A., Cotten, S. R., & Xie, B. (2021). A double burden of exclusion? Digital and social exclusion of older adults in times of COVID-19. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B76(3), e99-e103. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbaa098

Tan, J. P. (2018). Do grandparents matter? Intergenerational relationships between the closest grandparents and Malaysian adolescents. Contemporary Social Science13(2), 246-260. Taylor, A., & Gummer, A. (2018, July). Connected Grandparents: Are Smart Toys the Future for Intergenerational Play. In 8th International Toy Research Association World Conference.

1 thought on “Intergenerational play at a distance: Using technology to support grandparent-grandchild relationships”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s