How to have a Successful Family Zoom

Just over a year ago we started the tradition of Friday Family Zoom, gathering my family from PEI, Quebec, Ontario, and California together every Friday night for some family fun. At full strength there are 13 of us in the transcontinental clan, and the weekly connection has been a significant boon to our collective mental health. Indeed I’ve spent more time “with” my family over the last year than in the decade before; among other things that’s allow me to see my five nieces and nephews grow a year older, week by week by week.

When I mention this to friends, they often reply along the lines of “oh, we tried that early on and it was chaotic and we stopped,” which prompts me to describe here the elements that I think contribute to the success of the Rukavina approach to Family Zoom, which have evolved based on doing it more than 50 times.

The essentials of the template we use today was one that Olivia came up with after we’d been at things for a while, and we all owe a lot to her for that.

  1. Every week there’s a host. Olivia came up with a complex scheme to schedule the host for each week, and we have a shared family calendar so that we’re all up to date on who’s time it is. If, for some reason, someone can’t meet their hosting duties, they find someone to swap with. 
  2. Participation is voluntary. Not every one of our thirteen attends every week. People get sick, or have other plans, or just don’t feel like coming; there’s no social pressure for complete attendance. Whoever shows up shows up.
  3. Same time every week. We always start at 8:30 p.m. Atlantic, which is 7:30 p.m. in Quebec and Ontario and 4:30 p.m. in California. Not too late for the youngers, not too early for the west coasters. On rare occasions we’ll go an hour later if schedules demand it, but we tend to stick to the predictability of the 8:30 p.m. start.
  4. We start with a discussion. As a warmup, we start with a discussion on a topic, selected by the host, and related to the week somehow–an event or holiday or birthday that happened that week. Discussion topics past have included “Remembering Catherine,” ”Lesbian Visibility Week,” “Endangered Species,” “National Eat What You Want Day,” “different April Fools pranks that you have done or heard of,” and “what is your favourite snack food.” Discussion period lasts about 15 minutes, and everyone gets a chance to chime in.
  5. Next we have an activity. Like the discussion topic, the host is responsible for coming up with the activity. Because our ages range from 5 to 82, activities are skewed toward something that everyone can participate in. “Let’s recite Shakespearean sonnets as fast as we can” gets trumped by “let’s pick the worst song of all time.” Because we’re a neurodiverse bunch, we tend to avoid activities that involve timers or rushing or a lot of pressure; winning is never the point.
  6. It all lasts about an hour. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but generally about an hour. When we’ve gone longer, people get tired and grumpy and don’t want to do it again.
  7. We finish with a family photo. Which is just a screen shot of the Zoom. Sometimes there’s a prompt, like “okay, everybody look super-scary,” and sometimes there’s not. It’s a good way to signal the end, and a nice keepsake for everyone.

All seven of those points–host, voluntary, same time, discussion, activity, about an hour, photo–has proved integral to the enterprise. It’s also been helpful to have a Zoom paid subscription so we never hit the 40 minute Zoom timeout that comes with free accounts; it’s worth the $18/month for that.

Here’s a sampling of the activities that have proved successful:

  • Pictionary. I think this has been the most fun, in part because it’s something everyone can do and enjoy. We started off trying to use an external shared whiteboard app for this, which worked but was a little kludgy; then Zoom rolled out its own shared whiteboard, and that’s worked well. The host chooses the drawing subjects and private messages them in Zoom to each person in turn; sometimes the subjects are simple–”raccoon,” “ice cream sundae”–and sometimes they’re harder, like “the love you feel for your partner.” 
  • Kahoot. This does require use of a third party website/app, Kahoot, but it’s proved simple enough for everyone to use. Kahoot is essentially a “multiple choice test builder” and we’ve used it for things like “Rukavina family trivia” most successfully. There’s a little bit of countdown tension in Kahoot, but it’s seldom proved too much.
  • Scavenger Hunt. Host comes up with a list of common household things, and spools them out one by one, with time for each squad to locate one. It’s not timed: you get a point simply for finding your quest, with bonus points awarded for creativity. 
  • Charades. If I had my druthers, we’d do charades every week (if I had my druthers I’d be a professional charades player). It’s a little challenging to get the various Zoom devices set up to work well for this (placing an iPhone or iPad on a table and standing in front of it works well). As with Pictionary, the host hands out the charades by private message to each person in turn.
  • Make a craft. Host provides a materials list for a simple craft, common things found in every house, and then instructs us in how to make it.

Again, the key to the activity portion is that it’s something everyone can do, no matter their age; one of the great things that’s evolved over the last year is that nephew E., the youngest among us, has gone from being antsy passive bystander to active participant; he hosted his first Friday Zoom in April.

Our family, like many families, I imagine, has experimented over the years with things like “Christmas morning Skype call,” and they’ve always proved chaotic and disappointing; the difference between those and Friday Family Zoom (other than Zoom itself, which is much-evolved from ye olde Skype) is the structure and the emphasis on inclusion. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Friday Family Zoom helped keep my head above water over the last pandemic year, and I’m proud of, and grateful to, my family for rising to the challenge.

A blurred example of the "family photo" we take every Zoom.


Ian Scott's picture
Ian Scott on May 23, 2021 - 22:09 Permalink

What a great idea and structural elements to make it work smoothly. Thanks for sharing those Peter.

Renée 's picture
Renée on May 24, 2021 - 09:16 Permalink

I think that Zoom family thing sounds like so much fun. Would like to do it with fam in Quebec, but 1/2 English and 1/2 French would be too challenging.