We recognize instinctively that grandparents have a positive effect on grandchildren. An experienced caregiver with similar values and methods to your own who has nothing but the best interests of the child at heart and will brag endlessly to their friends about them; how could that not be a good thing? Now there are studies that not only back that up but also show that regular interactions can have great positive effects on the grandparents as well as the children. In this article I’m discussing some ideas to help grandparents and their grandkids bond and access some of those positive benefits.
Benefits for Young and Old
Before we get stuck into the ideas, let’s look at the specific benefits. Studies have shown that close grandparent - grandchild relationships can positively affect a child’s mental health, survival and nutrition and lead to fewer emotional and behavioral problems and fewer difficulties with peers.
Close grandparent-child bonds lead to decreased rates of depression in the older generation. They are more likely to offset dementia, have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's and can have a longer life. An Australian study showed better performance on cognitive tasks than those that don’t spend time with grandkids.
We can’t say exactly what produces these effects but here are some possibilities that make sense;
How grandparents contribute;
- Positive role models and influences
- They are the keeper of family history and culture and help build a child’s sense of cultural heritage and identity
- Love - when children feel loved by many it helps build their self esteem
- They have a lot of time to spend reading and playing with children and giving them their undivided attention
- Sleepovers at grandparents’ house can be less traumatic than those with peers which helps to build independence
- Help children to build trust and understand social norms outside the home
How grandchildren contribute;
- Provide grandparents with a connection to a much younger generation and exposure to different ideas that they might not otherwise have access to
- Interactions with children and hope for their future can bring them joy and self worth
- Being an active member of the family decreases social isolation which is associated with negative health effects
- Help their grandparents stay mentally and physically active and feel connected with the world
- A source of endless bragging!
Bonding Over Sweet Treats
If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know I’m a big fan of ice cream and several of the bonding ideas I have revolve around this cool sweet treat. I might be a little biased but I actually think ice cream making is the perfect activity for grandparents and kids to tackle together for these reasons;
- The science of ice cream is fascinating and a great opportunity to make this social interaction a learning experience as well (for both generations)
- Ice cream has a long and interesting history on which both grandparent and child will be able to share their experiences and stories
- It’s a sweet treat that most people will enjoy and is easy to eat for all generations
- You don’t need any special equipment (although an ice cream machine will make things more interesting)
Plastic Bag Method
This is a fun way to make ice cream that requires only some very basic ingredients and materials that can be picked up from the supermarket. Here’s how it works:
The result will be some nice ice cream of soft serve consistency that can be eaten straight away or put in the freezer to harden up and be eaten later. This method is ideal if you won’t have much time and you don’t have an ice cream maker. Using ice and salt is also the old method of making homemade ice cream so grandparents might have some stories to share on that. Finally, this method promotes physical exercise which is fun and healthy for all generations.
No Churn Method
The no churn method of making ice cream is relatively new and therefore perhaps represents something that grandchildren can teach their grandparent/s or that they can learn together. Here’s a video of me making Choc Cherry Ice Cream using the no churn method.
With this method, five to eight hours of freezing time is required to get the ice cream ready to eat so it’s best for a day long or overnight visit. As you can see in the video, the crux of ‘no churn’ is that the air is incorporated into the ice cream by whipping the cream and then it is frozen in a separate stage in the freezer. This gives an opportunity for kids to learn some cooking skills and see how food can change structure and texture in the process.
Churn Method with an Ice Cream Maker
For this method you’ll need an ice cream maker (click here for my guide to the best machines). The addition of a special machine makes this method even more exciting and interesting. You’ll get ice cream at soft serve consistency with 20 - 30 mins churning and then 4 - 8 hours in the freezer will bring it to scoopable hardness. Here’s a video of me making Clotted Cream & Jam Ice Cream using a relatively low cost ice cream maker with a freezer bowl (keep in mind that this machine type requires you to pre-freeze the freezer bowl at least overnight so there’s a bit more preparation required. However, there are some more expensive machines that don’t require this step).
This is the more involved process than the other two so more time will be needed but it also means there are more opportunities to learn some new skills and explore and experience the science of ice cream making. Here are some things you can experiment with in this method;
- Making an egg custard - what’s happening chemically when the custard forms, what is pasteurization and bacteria (food safety!), what role does the egg play in the ice cream (for young children you may choose to use a recipe that doesn’t require an egg custard to avoid dangers associated with cooking and raw eggs)
- How the air is incorporated into the ice cream (watch the churning process), how much the volume increases, how does air content affect the taste
- Why does everything need to be as cold as possible before churning, including the base mixture, mixins, containers and spoons
- Coloring - how does the color affect the perception of the taste (careful, this can get messy and stainy)
- Flavor combinations, mixins and toppings - kids will have a ball with this! (grandparents will too but they’ll try to hide it)
Other Cooking Ideas
If it’s cold out or ice cream isn’t really your thing, other types of cooking and baking activities can still be great fun. Cooking in general is a great bonding activity because;
- It’s food which is essential to our survival and often we’re talking about ‘special treat’ food which is rich, creamy or sweet and will get people excited
- There’s opportunities to teach and learn for both parties
- It’s hands on and messy which kids love
- After your hard work and dedication you’ve got something to show for it, whether it’s some cookies to take home or something to share with the rest of the family at dinner
See what special equipment or skills the grandparents have to guide what cooking projects to tackle. I remember for me growing up my grandma had a pasta making machine and one time I went over and we made pasta together and then served it to the family at dinner. Great memories.
We want to make these bonding experiences regular but it won’t be very healthy if we’re cooking every time so here are some other ideas you can try.
Games - games have changed a lot in the last few generations (board games -> computer games -> internet games) which means there should be lots to talk about and learn on both sides of the age gap.
History - have kids interview their grandparents about their childhoods. You’ll be amazed at the questions they come up with and they’ll be amazed at the answers they get.
Craft Projects - this is the non-food version of the cooking projects as there’s lots of opportunities for creativity, getting hands on and you’ll have something to show for it at the end.
Photos - go through some old photos albums or slide decks together. If you can get copies of old photographs you can combine this idea with the one above and do some scrapbooking.
Reading a book together - learning opportunities and the thrill of the story.
Video / Phone Call - if grandparents don’t live closeby, you can allow kids to call them and have a private conversation so they still get some one on one time together.
How to Make it Work
Those are just some ideas to get you going but there are plenty more. In this section I’ll give some tips to make the organisation of these bonding sessions work more effectively. In many cases these tips link back to the research backed benefits discussed at the beginning of the article.
- Create a family tradition (routine) for the regular bonding sessions and enlist the grandchildren to help choose what that could look like
- Help kids to get excited about visiting grandparents’ place by making sure the toys and activities there are different from what they have at home and allowing special treats and slightly different rules than at home, such as a later bedtime at sleepovers
- Occasional sleepovers are great to give additional time for bonding and allow for activities best suited to night and morning time
- Keep visits to one day per week maximum as this was shown to be beneficial in an Australian study while more frequent contact started to have a strain on grandparents and a negative effect
- Share your calendar of school and other events and activities with grandparents so they can plan to attend and be included
I hope those ideas have your brain buzzing about a new family tradition and future grandparent - grandchild catch-ups. Don’t forget there are benefits for both the young and old here and it can also give parents some free time to go and do their own thing or tick off some to do list items while the kids are occupied. If you have any ideas to add or stories to share, please put them in the comments below.
- Erola and Moisio 2006
- Zeng and Xie 2014
- Pettit et al. 2008
- Sear et al. 2000