Canadian parents are leaning on a virtual village of online babysitters to help fill their children’s time this summer. The concept exploded in Canada this spring as parents attempted to work remotely and look after children learning from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elize Shirdel launched HELM Life after five years of connecting parents with babysitters.
“When we saw coronavirus, coming we saw what a problem this was going to be for all the families and companies we support, as well as for a lot of us personally. So we came up with this idea of virtual child care of online activities for kids,” Shirdel said.
HELM Life connects children with one of 1,500 police-checked caregivers for 20-40 minute sessions, depending on their age.
“We’ve got lots of early childhood educators who run some of our sessions for kids, from three, four, five, six. Drawing groups, words and games, travelling animal math, magic carpet where they go on a story and they have to guess where they are going – things like that,” Shirdel said.
“Then we have older hosts who are long-time babysitters, camp counsellors, teachers in training, and they run interesting sessions like decide your own adventure, draw with an artist – all kinds of interesting things.”
HELM Life is among numerous North American companies to offer online babysitting. Dr. Michael Rich, founder of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health, says he’s intrigued by the idea, but believes the concept may need some time to mature.
“There are a couple of things. Number one is the age of the child. How the child interacts through a screen is incredibly variable depending on development,” Rich said. “So I think the younger the child, the less likely it is to work.
“The second piece of it is, it is not a very intimate way of connecting with people and I think it would work a whole lot better if the virtual babysitter were a known person in real life to the child.”
Rich believes connecting with a grandparent online would be a more meaningful experience for a child.
Anu Rana, an Ontario mother of nine-year-old twins, believes there is room for both. Over the course of the pandemic, her son and daughter have connected with numerous virtual babysitters while also getting lessons in Hindi from their grandfather.
“I found that these people were like camp instructors,” Rana said. “They were engaging with the kids in such a creative way so the kids would leave feeling happier and it was kind of a release during that really intense COVID period.”