(CNN)When my 3-year-old's preschool went online back in March, I was dubious.
He loved his teachers and classmates, but up until now those relationships had been entirely, and developmentally appropriately, in real life.
Sure, there was a lot of talking at school, but the special sauce of his relationships was non-verbal. That came from all the hugs, collaborative games, group singing, lap sitting and toy sharing.
Now my son was going to have to maintain his relationships with his peers, teachers and grandparents through a medium that allowed for essentially none of that.
But since it was either Zoom or nothing, we decided to try.
As expected, his initial foray into online relationships generated a lot of blank stares and compulsive gadget fidgeting. But over the past few months, I've watched him evolve into someone who can be engaged, and engage others, online.
This is the result of strategic experimentation on behalf of his grandparents and preschool, as well as necessary improvisation by grandparents and other family members who live far away.
While not a replacement for what he's missing, experts have said he and other preschoolers can, and, when possible, should, be maintaining some of their IRL relationships online. It's good for their psychological well-being and that of the grown-ups who adore them.
When our children feel better, we feel better. And in these difficult times, as we grapple with the pandemic and racial injustice, we could all use a small dose of better.
The benefits of a virtual connection for preschoolers
"Virtual programming is not a substitute for school, but it is a good stand-in for connection," said Tovah Klein, director of the Center for Toddler Development and adjunct associate professor of psychology at Barnard College and author of "How Toddlers Thrive."
Online interactions "allow them to see that their teachers are still here, their friends are still here and their grandma and grandpa are still here. This relationship piece is very important for young children. It is the grounding of safety and security and trust."
The benefits increase when the connection takes place as part of a familiar (or if new) regular routine, Klein said. This reinforces the consistency piece for children, allowing them to consciously or subconsciously connect yesterday to today.
Here's how it works in my home: Every weekday morning, my son has his regular preschool morning circle — on Zoom. Same songs, same people and even the same stuffed animals. The kids have improvised a tradition of their own in which they all show off the loveys they used to bring to school.
Then, around lunchtime, it's reading and music with Grandma Sally, across the country in Massachusetts. Together they pick a book to read on Epic, a digital library for kids, which allows her to flip through the pages digitally. After their reading time, the music-loving child picks a song or two for Grandma to play on the cello. The "ABC" song is in heavy rotation, as well as some of the Bach cello suites.
For kids this age, who, paradoxically, lack a concrete sense of time and yet have emotional lives whose well-being depends on routine, such standing appointments provide a sense of security.
"Just being able to see someone they know, and do normal things with them, can become a really nice ritual" for preschoolers, Klein said. "It's not the same as being together, but it is a bridge until the time comes when we can be together."
Also, while there is no question that this is less than ideal, they can still learn.
In recent years, researchers and experts have changed their attitudes toward video chats, separating them out from the often maligned "screen time." The American Academy of Pediatrics now acknowledges the value of video chats for children of all ages, explaining that any "back-and-forth" engagements are good for language skills, even when through a screen.
Toddlers (ages 1 to 3) can expand their vocabularies through virtual engagement, studies have found.