Leave the Screens at Home on Your Next Family Road Trip

Do it the old-fashioned way and use games and books to entertain your child.

kids playing with slinky in back of car

@beachbumledford via Twenty20 

A friendly PR rep sent me an email this week, asking if I'd consider writing about educational apps for children to watch while on road trips. The email said, "Many are turning to road trips for a late-summer escape – and often with long car rides comes the use of on-screen entertainment. These educational apps engage little ones while tapping into their art, math, science, engineering and design skills." 

While I realize the intent is well-meaning, and doubtless would lead to a quieter, calmer car ride for the parents, the thought of sticking kids in front of screens on a road trip makes me queasy. You see, if they're glued to a screen for hours on end, they will miss everything that's going by outside the window. And that means they'll miss out on a major part of the trip – and the opportunity to engage in conversation with family members, to be alone with their own thoughts, or simply to be bored.

There is so much to see on a road trip! Unusual cars, trees, buildings, weather, fields full of sunflowers, wind turbines and towers, geological formations, interesting faces, tiny and huge buildings, street-side farmers' markets and corn stands at this time of year, airplanes landing, emergency vehicles racing by – the entire world is out there, and staring at it from the backseat of a car familiarizes a child with what goes on.

I have a theory, too, that paying attention to one's surroundings while traveling by car helps children to develop an internal compass and sense of direction. If they don't pay attention during all those years when they're being driven, they'll struggle to know where to go and how to orient themselves once they're independent. This doesn't mean they have to be alert for the entire journey; but not being on a screen naturally allows for a higher level of engagement with one's surroundings. When you read a book, do a Sudoku puzzle, or listen to music, you'll look up occasionally and situate yourself; you'll pay attention to major landmarks, be aware when your parent hits a traffic jam, and be able to participate in conversation.

So What Can a Child Do in the Car?

There are plenty of off-screen activities that a child can do to pass the time. Audio books are one, a source of entertainment for the whole family. My kids are huge fans of Odds Bodkin's retelling of the Odyssey; it's six hours of ancient Greek adventuring, but he also has delightful stories about dinosaurs and folk legends. The younger ones like Magic Treehouse audiobooks, which have a good historical lesson. Podcasts are another good idea; we've listened to every episode of National Geographic's Greeking Out show that recounts Greek mythology in a fun and humorous way.

Take physical books along. Select some gripping novels for an older reader, get comic books, or take interactive books such as "I Spy" or "Where's Waldo?" Sticker books, coloring books, puzzle books, etc. are always a hit.

Get car-friendly board games. We have a magnetic Hangman game that's great in the car. Battleship is another good car game, as is LEGO tic-tac-toe (played on a flat LEGO building base) and Trivial Pursuit. 

Play games. The Great License Plate search is a fun one. Print out a map of the country and color in each state as you spot a license plate from there. (It's a built-in geography lesson!) Keep a tally of the different colored cars you see (maybe leave white and black off the list). Play the old classic alphabet game, where you start with "I'm going camping, and I'm going to take..." and name an item starting with A; the next person has to say all the items that came before.

Have some conversation starters ready. Parents can find online lists of good questions to get older kids talking, such as, "If you could travel anywhere in the world, what are your top three destinations and why?" "If you could have a dinner party with three people living or dead, who would you invite?" "What would your superpower be?" "What are 5 things on your life bucket list?" Not only is this fun, but it keeps the driver stimulated and alert.

Have fun road stops to look forward to. I like to show my kids an old-fashioned paper map so they can see the whole route laid out. It offers perspective for them, and helps them understand how long it will take. On regular travel routes, such as the four-hour drive to visit grandparents, we always have special pit stops along the way that they look forward to – a gelato place in the summer, a coffee shop in the winter, a few good playgrounds if they need to get out and run around.

Check out Atlas Obscura. It's a great resource for anyone wanting to find "curious and wondrous" sights along the way. You can look up things to see along your route, or plan a route around these interesting sights. Kids also love weird and giant things, so check out some lists of unusual roadside attractions. See if you can find any ruins or haunted spots.

Long road trips shouldn't just be about endurance (although some of that is needed); they should also be about learning how to pass the time without needing a screen as distraction, and that training should start from a young age. So, challenge yourselves to a screen-free road trip the next time you go somewhere as a family. You may be surprised at what a success it is.