With summer ticket prices through the roof, plus tons of delays and canceled flights, many families are skipping air travel in favor of an old-school favorite: family road trip! A friend of mine stopped by last weekend for a quick overnight while road tripping with her family. She and her kids were having a great time (the Badlands! Wall Drug! Yellowstone!), but she confessed she was feeling sad because everyone was spending most of the drive time on their phones. They weren’t talking much. They weren’t looking at the scenery. Her initial excitement about having days and days of time to bond was disintegrating into sadness and frustration.
While road trips can be an awesome way to spend hours of uninterrupted time with your kids, they can also be torturous. That’s why we parents give in to the screens. Better to have everyone entertained than bored and fighting. I have the same challenges with my kids and their phones, but we do have a pretty unique road trip etiquette that evolved over 20 years. Every summer for nearly two decades we drove from Oregon to Colorado and back—a six day round-trip drive we did starting when the kids were babies until they went to college. The unique part? We did them almost entirely screen-free. And we lived to tell the tale.
Why Put Screens Away?
There are many reasons—here are just a few. Without distracting screens, you and your kids can:
- Enjoy the scenery. Our connection to the earth is strengthened by Paying Attention. We can Pay Attention to the natural world as we are driving, too.
- Get bored. Contrary to popular belief, boredom is really good for you. Experts say boredom actually fosters creativity, self-esteem, and original thinking. So ignore the whining and let them be bored.
- Hone Trackers skills. At Trackers, we teach kids to Pay Attention, use their Whiskers, and care for the Silent and Invisible. You and your kids can practice all of these skills from inside the car. You can spot wildlife, notice geologic formations, navigate using a paper map (assign this job to a kid!), or just practice being still and quiet.
- Talk to each other. About stuff. Let’s unpack this one…
Car Time is Great Talk-to-Your-Kids Time
Experts agree: car time is one of the BEST times to talk to your kids —about their lives, your life, what’s happening in the world, dreams for the future, etc. Without screens to distract you, drive time becomes a perfect opportunity for “deep talks” with your kids because:
- They’re a captive audience. Believe it or not, most kids want to talk with you about stuff. They just don’t want to get grilled. So don’t grill them. Ask open ended questions and then shut up and listen. If you don’t know what to talk about, use The Kids’ Book of Questions to get the ball rolling. It’s our go-to conversation starter–kids love it!
- It’s less intimidating. Not being face-to-face makes it easier for kids (and you) to open up and share things with each other. It feels less like grilling.
- There are less distractions. So long as the screens are off.
Take the Challenge (…and Win A Prize!)
Now that you know the benefits of the screen-free road trip, why not take the Trackers challenge and go 100% screenless on your next summer adventure. You can even swap out phone Maps for paper maps! If 100% screen-free is too much for you, set a goal together for how much time out of each drive your family will turn them off. Make a game out of it! If your family makes your screenless goal, you all win a prize. It could be something as small as ice cream at the next town, to something as irresistible as a visit to a waterslide park along your route!
Tips for a Screenless (and Happy) Road Trip
Here are the secrets I shared with my friend for how to do a screenless family road trip and maintain your sanity:
- Listen to books together. This is my secret weapon. Listening to a story together is really fun (my kids still remember many of the books we listened to together more than 10 years ago), and it makes the driving hours fly by. You can buy audiobooks on Audible or borrow them from the library on Libby. Some popular books have a wait list, so get online a few weeks early. For no wait time, you can borrow audio CDs (make sure your car has a CD player first!). Most people have forgotten about CDs, so there’s rarely a wait. On your library website, type in “audiobook CD” and then filter that list by age. At my library, for example, there are currently over 1000 audio CDs for kids available. Most audiobooks will fill a day or two of driving time! Some will take you a week to finish! Make sure to get a few, in case the first one isn’t popular. You can stop after a few chapters and try a new one.
- Keep a snack bag in reach. We all get grumpy when we’re hungry. And often the food is miles away in the next town, or buried in a cooler in the back. Keep a cooler bag in kids’ reach and fill it with easy, clean snacks like pretzels, dried fruit, gorp, cheese sticks, meat sticks, baby carrots, snap peas, grapes, cuties, and apples.
- Pack a Fun Box. What is a Fun Box, you ask? It’s a box ‘o fun! It goes in the back seat, squeezed between your kids. It can be a fancy storage bin, but a plain old cardboard box works great. Cram it full of fun stuff like Mad Libs, colored pens & pencils, paper. Toys like mini figs, small Lego sets, and Polly Pockets. Some twine and a knot tying book. When kids get bored, they just reach into the Fun Box for something to do.
- Collect and ID stuff. Give your kids blank nature notebooks, a plastic container with a lid (like a peanut butter jar), and some field guides in the Fun Box. At stops, encourage them to collect rocks, leaves, etc. in their container (harvest only a small amount and make sure it’s not poison oak or ivy). Back in the car, they can draw these finds in their notebooks and ID them with the field guides.
- Get The Kids’ Book of Questions. This book, all by itself, will entertain your family for hours. And you will laugh and learn a ton about each other. It’s a magical boredom killer.
- Play some games. There are a ton of fun games to play in the car. You can find them online, but here are some of my family’s faves:
- ABC Categories: choose a category, like cities, movies, songs, foods, etc. Players take turns naming items in that category in alphabetical order. For example, if you chose foods, the first person could say asparagus, the second person could say bacon, etc. If a player doesn’t say their answer within 10 seconds, they’re out.
- Alphabet Game: each player looks for a word on signs that start with a letter of the alphabet. You start with A and go to Z. The first person to get to Z wins!
- Animal Name Game: one person names an animal, the next person names an animal that starts with the last letter of the previous animal (Eg: I say “dog,” you say “goat”, next person says “tiger”).
- Counting Cows: Just like it sounds… Whenever you pass a cow, yell “moo!” The first person to moo gets a point. Most points wins.
- Find the Fast Food: Each player chooses a fast-food restaurant and earns points by spotting it along the road, or on a billboard, food/fuel sign, etc. Set a time limit, then add up your points.
- License Plate Game: Players try to spot a license plate from each of the 50 states.
- Mystery Mapper: One person looks at a road map and finds a small town, body of water, or landmark. They say the name and pass the map to another player who has 1 minute to find it.
- Name That Tune: take turns singing a line of a song lyric. Other players try to guess the song and singer. Bonus points for singing the rest of the song together!
- Bring A Trackers Journal. If your child has been to a Trackers camp, they got a Trackers Journal. It is entirely colorable and full of fun road trip activities. Your kids can use it to find the Sun Time, write up a Story Bundle, fill in a Weather Compass, compile Trackers Trivia, and more. During rest stops they can stretch their muscles with Animal Forms and decode Bird Language.
There’s no shame in letting your kids use screens while on a long road trip. But it is a missed opportunity for some fabulous, old-school family bonding. At Trackers we are all about family bonding time, so why not take our challenge and try going screenless (or at least limiting screen time) on your next family road trip. Pay Attention to the beautiful countryside you are traveling through. Listen to stories together and maybe tell a few of your own. Sing some songs. Play some games. Do some art.