We lean on our digital devices for a lot of things. They provide directions, curate the music we listen to, and keep us in constant communication with the wider world. They are our pocket meteorologist, physician, personal assistant, and occasional babysitter.
These devices’ utility seems to justify their ubiquity, and rarely is this more the case than when we need to occupy our kids on long car rides. Today an otherworldly glow emanates from the eerily calm backseats of modern America’s mini-vans. I know what you’re thinking dear reader, but Chris, these devices have been a godsend. The days before the iPad were dark days indeed, days of seat kicking, sibling punching, Kool-Aid spewing backseat mayhem. Today’s road trips are no longer punctuated by the hourly threat to “turn this car around!” but instead by the brief interlude between episodes of a Netflix binge.
Ought we return to a time when our 9-year-olds obsessively read aloud every bumper sticker they saw in poorly executed Scottish accents (Ba-ad Cup, Nu Doo-Newt!)? No, that’s not what I’m suggesting. But we could take a closer look at road trips spent with our kids silently staring into their laps instead of out the window. Culturally, we’re starting a new conversation about the potential downsides of extended screen time and social media for ourselves and our kids. One where a family road trip spent immersed in the digital effectively eliminates both the “family” and “road” parts of the equation.
So what’s the alternative? Like, talk? To my kids?! Ha, of course not! Who said it’s the kids who need entertaining? Mom and Dad are just as bored and only half as imaginative.
Here’s a list of alternatives to on-the-road screen time that will get you and your kids talking (and thinking).
One player chooses a person, place, or thing and the other players have a total of twenty questions to guess the right answer. Toughen the challenge by limiting questions to yes or no answers.
This can be done in a number of ways, choosing road signs, billboards, fast food restaurants, and then seeing who can spot the most new words starting with a given letter.
The starting player begins with the phrase “I spy with my little eye something…” followed by a visual clue i.e. something brown, something shiny, etc. Players try to guess the object. The spying player adds a detail with each round. The winning player is the one who achieves the most rounds without a correct guess.
This one begins with “I’m coming to the picnic and in my basket I’m bringing apples.” The next player adds to the list as follows, “I’m coming to the picnic and in my basket I’m bringing apples and beets…” With each new player an item is added. The last player to remember all the items without forgetting one is declared the winner. This can be done in alphabetical order, by theme (say food or animals), or you can make up your own variant.
You can make these up on flash cards ahead of time (and to save for later) or make these up as you go along. Examples might include, Would you rather have x-ray vision or be able to fly? Would you rather be president or a movie star? Would you rather have a pet unicorn or a pet dinosaur?
Make a list of common roadside items i.e. brown cows, green gas station sign, fruit stand, etc. Print a list for each kid to see who can check off the most things they see along the way.
The classic spelling and vocabulary game. The picture of the hangman is completed step-by-step whenever a player guesses a letter wrong.
One player starts with a “Fortunately,” like “Fortunately the dog was asleep…” The next player has to add an “Unfortunately” like “Unfortunately the cat was not…” Players have only 5 seconds to come up with a follow-up or they get a strike. Three strikes and they are out. The final player standing wins. (Don’t forget to assign a timekeeper.)
This can begin with anything, “Once upon a time…” or “It was a dark and stormy night…” are go-to starters. Pass around the story and see where it leads.
This can be done with any broad category like animals, places, people, food, etc. Once you have your category a player starts with a word, the next player must start their word with the last letter of the prior player’s word, the next player switches to begin with the first letter, and so on switching between the first and last letters. Example: hippo, octopus, snake, elephant, turtle…
Assign a timekeeper. Each player gets 30 seconds to name as many A-words, B-words, and so on. Each new turn is a different letter and each word is a point. Whoever has the most at the end of the alphabet wins.
This one is good for getting to know people better, cousins, co-workers, as well as our own kids (or parents even!). Players tell two truths and a lie about themselves and the other players have to guess which one was the lie.
Give each kid a spiral notebook in which they can write about the pitstops and tourist traps, best and worst meals, etc. They can add items they find along the way (with Scotch tape). It’s especially fun to read these years later not only as a document of the journey but also as a window into who your kids were at a given age.
We play iSpy all the time with our 2 year old, this works well in the car too!