If, like me, you live in a city with limited public transport and terrible roads, you’ll spend lots of time in the car with your kids. For some of us, that time can feel wasted. Lost. Dead.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

With only a bit of planning, even painful gridlock with wailing kids in the back can be converted into enjoyable family time.

Here’s how:

Change your mindset – the advantages of family time in the car

Lots of car advertisements trumpet personal freedom: sitting in the car alone without a care in the world, tearing down a deserted highway with the windows and top down and the music up. The reality – especially for us suburban dads and mums inching our way through Saturday sports traffic in our SUVs and station-wagons – is very different. But, even when trapped with loved ones at close quarters strapped into your seats, a car is not a prison. As Igor Stravinsky said “the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self”. And, compared to home, cars have a lot of advantages:

  • Time. For Dads who work long hours, the school drop-off may be one of the best (or only) times available to chat with their kids during the week. And this is true of some Mums, grandparents and other carers too.
  • Fewer distractions. Travelling together in the car gives you uninterrupted time with your kids. While the purity of this “time alone” has been diluted by the increased use of smart phones, back seat DVD players and other devices, you’re still physically separated from the rest of the world together.
  • Lack of eye-contact. This may seem a disadvantage in light of the research about the importance of face-to-face interactions for young or language-delayed kids. But some children are much more likely to experiment with sounds, singing and even language without an adult directly looking at them (e.g. kids that get embarrassed easily).
  • Less physical parent intervention. I once glanced in my rear view mirror and beheld the sight of my son thrashing about with his jumper stuck around his head. Kids have to be more self-sufficient in the back of the car. If you’re a parent who rushes to anticipate your child’s every need, being physically unable to do so easily may give your child more opportunities to help themselves or to ask for help – to initiate more interactions with you, which is good for language development.
  • More interactions between siblings. This can, of course, go either way. But studies show that siblings interact with each other for longer and in more ways when they are stuck next to each other in the car. As most parents know, apart from squabbles, the back-seat/front-seat divide can also foster a cheeky “kids versus parents” dynamic that brings siblings closer together – even if at the expense of poor Dad or Mum!
  • Relaxation and time for reflection. After a hard day at school, a meltdown-tantrum at Grandma’s house, or a soccer win, cars can provide an opportunity to reflect on the things that have happened. For older children and young adults, car trips can also provide an opportunity for discussions about difficult topics. Again, I suspect the reduced eye contact in a car might be one reason sensitive topics can be broached more easily on the drive home, than face-to-face at the dinner table.
  • Changing gears. One rather poetic researcher talks about the car being a place “betwixt and between” social environments. In plain English, I think she meant that car trips often happen between the time we spend in the outside world with strangers and the time we spend at home with family.

15 activities to try out

  1. Sing songs and make up verses: For younger kids, try “Wheels on the Bus”, but add silly verses for each family member (e.g. the Dad on the bus went “shush shush shush!”, the Grandma on the bus went “no, no, no!”). For older kids make up alternative lyrics to their favourite songs or songs on the radio. The sillier the better!
  2. Listen and wiggle to music: For the little-lys, I favour old school nursery rhymes, like my retro-beloved Patsy Biscoe, with lots of actions and repetition. But, as with movies, music for kids is much more sophisticated these days. Personal favourites include the For The Kids album featuring artists like Tom Waits, Cake and Sarah McLachlan. I also like some of the independent children’s music “radio stations” you can stream from services like Pandora and Spotify.
  3. Name that tune: Take it in turns to hum a song, while everyone else tries to guess what it is.
  4. Opera-talk: Use a silly “opera” (or monster or fairy) voice to sing rather than say your words. To keep it simple, use the “na-na-na-na-na-na” tune kids use when they are teasing each other (e.g. “na-na-na-na-na-na-you-can’t-have-it”). Alternate comments and questions to avoid it becoming an interrogation and to keep it going e.g.:
    Dad: “I can see a tree-ee”.
    Mum: “I can see a green ga-ate. What can you see?”
    Child: “I can see a…”
  5. Listen to gripping audio-books: My little guys used to love Roald Dahl audio books and CDs – particularly Esio Trot, Fantastic Mr Fox, The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me and The Witches – look for talented narrators like Simon Callow, Hugh Laurie, Geoffrey Palmer and Miriam Margolyes. But what captivated us the most were the old-fashioned Enid Blyton Famous Five mysteries. We’ve spent many a day-trip worried about the fate of know-it-all-Julian, second-fiddle-Dick, girly-girl-Anne, tomboyish-George and Timmy the Dog! It also helped get my first son into reading the “real book” at home.
  6. Podcasts: Whether your kids are into dinosaurs, trucks, beanie babies, or dolphins, these days you can download or stream podcasts on almost any topic from places like iTunes or Stitcher. Replace the inanity of FM radio with a podcast on your child’s favourite thing in the world, and you’ll have one riveted kid and something to talk about together. You might even learn something yourself.
  7. I Spy: An oldie, but a goodie, the “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…” game has powered us from Sydney to Dubbo. As kids get better at it, start throwing in more difficult things to spot, e.g. parts of objects and less concrete nouns (I once flummoxed my kids with “shoelace”); and giving less obvious clues (e.g. it starts with a letter in the second-half of the alphabet, it has seven letters).
  8. Counting and sorting games: Start with competitions to spot the most white versus red cars, one kid to each colour. Then extend the competition to other features e.g. car make, number of seats, roof-racks, etc. Extend the game into counting and sorting other objects you might see on your drive (e.g. trees, buildings, power-lines, petrol stations, rest stops) and talk about attributes, e.g. colour, shape, textures, materials, tastes, size, sounds, smells. These games can morph in all sorts of directions, and, where possible, follow your kids’ interests. For example, armed with her trusty “What Bird is That?”, my sister became quite the twitcher as a young girl.
  9. Road sign bingo: search for all the letters of the alphabet in road signs. For older kids, get them to find them in order, or find each of the letters for their full names, or their weekly spelling words.
  10. Find number plates for every State and Territory of your country. (Good for interstate road trips.)
  11. Where are we going?: For young school-age kids, get them to spot street signs and local landmarks (e.g. the library). For older kids, print out a detailed map of your drive, and get the kids to chart where you have been.
  12. Can you beat Siri/Google Maps?: Let the kids pretend to be your GPS navigator to direct you using spatial terms and directions (first, next, last, left, right, turn). Will you reach your destination?
  13. Bumper sticker debates: This is for older kids. Start with simply reading bumper stickers. Then discuss what they mean literally, looking for double meanings, puns, famous sayings, jokes, etc. to discuss. Then imagine what kind of person drives the car and why they would want the chosen bumper sticker on their car. Start with simple ones (e.g. the clichéd “Child on Board” or much-maligned stick figure families). For older children, look for more complex stickers (e.g. for commercial stickers, ask “What are they trying to sell us?”) and controversial bumper stickers (e.g. on political, religious, social justice and environmental topics). Discuss what kind of bumper sticker each of you would get on your car and what it would tell people about them. Can your family agree on a perfect bumper sticker for the whole family?
  14. New trading card characters: Are your children into trading cards, e.g. Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh!? If so, talk about the different types of characters, e.g. Pokemon come in Electric, Metal, Grass, Fairy, Psychic, Dragon, Water and various other stripes. Who knew!? Take it in turns to add made up characters to each of the types, e.g. today we added bindi, whipper-snipper and water-fountain-feature to the Grass type.
  15. Awesome singing and jokes: In my experience, nothing is more likely to provoke a furious reaction from the back than Dad belting out a power-ballad or cracking a hilarious Dad-joke!

Principal sources:

(1) Huisman Koops, L. (2014). Songs from the Car Seat: Exploring the Early Childhood Music-Making Place of the Family Vehicle. Journal of Research in Music Education, 62(1), 52-65.

(2) Norton-Meier, L.A. (2004). The bumper sticker curriculum: Learning from words on the backs of cars. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 48:3, 260-283.

(3) Family experiments with brilliant Dad jokes and songs.

Image: http://tinyurl.com/jcpe5k4

Banter Speech & Language Banter Speech & Language
Banter Speech & Language is an independent firm of speech pathologists for adults and children. We help clients in our local area, including Concord, Rhodes, Strathfield and all other suburbs of Sydney’s Inner West.

Banter Speech & Language is owned and managed by David Kinnane, a Hanen- and LSVT LOUD-certified speech-language pathologist with post-graduate training in the Spalding Method for literacy, the Lidcombe and Camperdown Programs for stuttering, and Voicecraft for voice disorders. David is also a Certified PESL Instructor for accent modification.

David holds a Master of Speech Language Pathology from the University of Sydney, where he was a Dean’s Scholar. David is a Practising Member of Speech Pathology Australia and a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist (CPSP).

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