How to have the perfect digital family Christmas
Christmas will be different in many ways this year, so give thanks that the internet has been invented.
Though some activities will be off limits this holiday season, the digital world offers many workarounds and a multitude of opportunities. And remember, going online is no compromise for most children – though you might have to swap Monopoly for Minecraft, the memories you create playing together will last in just the same way.
So here’s our guide to the ways you and your family can bring Christmas online and still have a wonderful break.
1. Explore your child’s favourite games
Gaming plays a huge role in the lives of many children, and joining them in their favourite world can be a fantastic bonding experience.
And 2020 has been a great year for games, with Animal Crossing: New Horizons selling millions in the spring, Among Us going viral during lockdown and the Sony PlayStation 5 and Microsoft Xbox Series X arriving last month.
Among Us, in which you try to unmask an imposter on a spaceship (or get to play as the imposter) is certainly worth checking out with your child.
While its unmoderated chat system means you may not want to let them play on their own, you can easily set up a secure private game. Simply share the code with your child and their friends, then have fun trying to spot the baddies.
Minecraft, meanwhile, offers a world of creativity. The best-selling video game of all time is a sort of Lego for the digital age, in which you can create your own adventures and play any way you choose.
One of its best features is how accessible it is: it’s available on everything from consoles to PCs to tablets and smartphones, and so long as you’re all on the same network, it’s easy to play together. Simply create your account, search for their username, and get mining.
It’s also generally a safe game to leave them alone with, if you aren’t able to play alongside them. As with any online game, you need to take a few precautions – but our expert guide to Minecraft has plenty of pointers for you on that front.
Roblox is another game that many children love and that’s available on multiple devices.
It features hundreds of different mini-games made by a range of different creators: players choose one then go online with up to 100 others, in experiences that often mimic the sort of imaginative play you might find in the school playground – for instance build a theme park, compete as a professional driver, star in a fashion show or become a superhero.
If your kids are unwrapping a new console or game this year, have a browse through our parents’ guides for tips on how to make sure they’re set up and ready to game as safely as possible.
2. Give your child the gift of coding
Learning to code can be a great way for your child to understand how some of the digital games and toys they receive this year actually work – and it can also be lots of fun.
Cast aside the image of long pages of impenetrable code and instead head to Scratch for a super-usable introduction. You create programs by dragging and dropping colourful icons and following simple logic, with no need for any previous experience.
It's aimed at eight to 16-year-olds and is surprisingly powerful, with some users turning out amazingly advanced games on it. There’s also a simpler version, ScratchJr, for five to seven-year-olds.
Parents should be aware that there's a big social element, with users able to follow each other, comment on projects and send direct messages, but there are robust parental controls and a zero-tolerance moderation system that make it a generally safe environment for teens and tweens.
3. Make a Christmas playlist
The internet has changed how we listen to music – but it hasn't changed the delight (or horror) of a cheesy Christmas song.
Introducing your child to the festive classics is a must; after all, you had to suffer through Last Christmas often enough as kids, so they should too.
Plus, sitting down to create a playlist together can be lots of fun. Do they prefer John and Yoko’s original Happy Xmas (War is Over) or the Miley Cyrus, Mark Ronson and Sean Ono Lennon version? Can you stand Peppa Pig’s Bing Bong Christmas for the 30th time? All important questions to answer.
Depending on your child’s age, you could task them with creating their own. Spotify Kids is a child-friendly version of the popular streaming app, with no risk that they’ll stumble across anything inappropriate. Check out our parents’ guide here – and listen to our own Christmas playlist below.
4. Throw a virtual Christmas party
Everyone loves a Christmas party, right? But Covid will have scuppered most people’s plans to throw a traditional mistletoe-and-mulled-wine gathering.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have any fun – you just have to bring the party online instead.
Most video-calling platforms will let dozens of guests join: on Skype it’s 50, on Zoom it’s 100 and on Google’s Hangouts you can have up to 150. Which, unless you’re very popular, should be more than enough.
Simply share the link, make sure you’ve got a nice festive backdrop and a Christmas playlist and let the festivities start.
Some video-calling platforms – for instance Houseparty – also have built-in games, but not all are suitable for all ages, so check out our parents’ guides to Zoom, Skype and Houseparty before you start.
For a child-friendly Christmas party, you could contact other parents and arrange for them all to join a call at the same time. Add party food, hats and a few festive games and you’d be surprised how much fun they’ll still have.
Or you could have an in-game party: how about setting up a group Minecraft session and tasking them all with building Santa’s village or a giant Christmas pudding?
5. Have a virtual bake off
Eating is a major part of Christmas, and that means cooking is too. If your child is a budding Nadia, why not have a Christmas bake-off with them? Find a recipe you both want to cook (we’d suggest Christmas pudding, but it’s horrible), set the timer and go. Your family can judge who the winner is.
Or you could take the contest online: create a Zoom/Hangout with a friend or relative, set up your laptop or tablet in the kitchen and get cracking. You won’t be able to judge this one by taste – so presentation will be key.
6. Enjoy some festive family viewing
Christmas is all about spending time with loved ones – such as plucky Kevin McAllister in Home Alone, Mogwai in Gremlins and Buddy in Elf.
Yes, Christmas telly is an important part of any festive experience, so to help you choose what to watch we’ve put together this guide to the best family favourites streaming on all the major platforms this year.
Need more suggestions? YouTube plays a key role in many children’s viewing habits, so you could also check out our list of 14 fantastic YouTube channels. And because they’re all family-friendly (though some are better suited to older kids), you’ll be able to slip off and leave them unsupervised while you cook the turkey.
And of course don’t forget our own Legends Family Adventure films.
The series, created by Google and Parent Zone and animated by Wallace & Gromit creators Aardman, takes your kids on an exciting journey through Interland with Lumen the Internaut and her family.
Lumen must face tricky characters and challenging situations in order to rescue her beloved teddy bear. Will she succeed? Tune in with your family over the holidays to find out.
7. Stay in touch with relatives
Many people spend time at Christmas with grandparents and other relatives, but this year it's not going to be so easy to meet up with loved ones.
But tech can again come to the rescue. There are loads of things you can do with relatives remotely, beyond simply having a video call: you could play an online game, have a family group chat (complete with hilarious GIFs), or do a virtual quiz.
We’ve got a full list of activities to try here.
8. Play an online board game
Board games are a festive family favourite – but you don’t even have to be in the same room to play them together.
Many of the most popular games now have an online version, so you can fall out with relatives in a different part of the country just as easily as if they were right next to you.
Monopoly has an app for iOS or Android, as does Risk (iOS / Android), Cluedo (iOS / Android) and many others. Words With Friends, meanwhile, is an extremely popular version of Scrabble that can be played on iOS, Android and even Facebook.
For something a little different, you could try Jackbox. This selection of irreverent games is available on various devices including most consoles, Windows and Mac PCs, tablets and even Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV streamers. One player buys the game then shares a code with others, who can join in via their web browser.
The games range from Pictionary-style drawing contests to madcap trivia quizzes – and we can confirm that they are a lot of fun. They’re rated ‘T’ for teen but many also have a family-friendly mode that makes them suitable for 10+.
Just remember, it’s not the winning that counts.
9. Get active outdoors
Covid restrictions still allow families to get outside – although do read the latest guidance as to what you can do – and there are plenty of ways you can use tech to get active in the great outdoors.
Pokémon Go is still, er, going strong several years after it launched in a blaze of publicity – and it’s arguably better played as a family than individually. It’s great fun to fire up the app and hunt for those elusive Pokémon in your neighbourhood, and while your child tries to catch Pikachu you can make sure they’re not putting themselves in any danger.
Biba, meanwhile, is an innovative app that breathes new life into your local playground. It’s available on iOS and Android and works by building games around the equipment nearby – for instance a slide and swing become an ancient temple complete with hidden treasure. Some playgrounds even have extra augmented reality features to really bring the game alive.
Wildeverse also uses augmented reality, but this time to transform your garden, home or neighborhood into a jungle. Think of it as the Pokémon Go of wildlife. The game serves as a platform that helps children understand and empathise with endangered wildlife and the organisations that support them. Available on iOS and Android.
10. Keep those Christmas traditions alive
Many Christmas traditions won’t exist in a conventional sense this year, but fortunately plenty of them have found a new home online.
Christmas carolling, for instance, may be off limits this year due to lockdown restrictions, but several services will instead be streamed live. There’s a useful list here.
Pantomimes, too, have had to adapt; The Big Panto Guide has a great selection of streamed versions here.
With offices closed, parties cancelled and travel either not allowed or discouraged, exchanging gifts in person might also be harder this year. Elfster is a free, virtual Secret Santa generator that makes it super-easy to spread some festive cheer from afar.
VFridge, meanwhile, lets you customise and send a virtual Christmas cracker – complete with a traditional (and terrible) joke, a print-out mask and a virtual ‘toy’. You can even add a personalised message to make it that little bit more sentimental:
Fortunately one Christmas tradition is still alive: Father Christmas will still be visiting children (so long as they’ve been good), and you and your child can follow him via the online Santa tracker. Just make sure you’re all tucked up in bed before he pays a visit.