On a trip through the American South, my family stopped at a field of cotton to talk about the enslaved African American history tied to the area. It was a conversation that was easier for the kids to take in when they could feel the heat of the midday sun and touch the cotton we were speaking of.
That kind of serendipity—in which education and family time intersect—are a road-tripping parent’s dream: Parents get the out-of-school opportunities they’re hoping for, and kids are so engaged they may not even realize they’re learning.
“There’s nothing like real-life application,” says Houston educator and mother of two Reiko Foster. “Connecting the textbook to the real world is critical for students to really transition from just learners to our next leaders.”
This summer, families will have lots of time to practice. According to MMGY Global’s Portrait of American Travelers, nearly 65 percent of U.S. adults say they’ll travel by car for vacation this year (compared with 38 percent who said they’d take a domestic flight). And of more than 500 moms surveyed by BSM Media in April, two out of three said they have a summer road trip planned.
Families who make the time for unstructured learning through in-car conversations and roadside stops can help foster their child’s curiosity outside the classroom, develop empathy for others, and increase environmental stewardship, says Laura Mylan, senior vice president of the Children and Nature Network.
“When kids start thinking [about the world around them], they start caring,” she says. “They realize that learning can be fun when it's not so structured, intentional, or deliberate.”
Hoping to help your kids discover a love of learning even when they’re away from their desks? These activities will help keep road-trip teachings fresh and fun.
Kristy Alpert, author of Road Trip Activities and Travel Journal for Kids, suggests parents skip the flash cards. Instead, find ways to work math into fun competitions along the way, like having the kids add up the numbers on a licence plate or highway distance sign.
“I’m a big fan of quick challenges, like asking if anyone can guess how long it would take to get to the next city if we drove 60 miles an hour,” Alpert says. “Winner gets to pick the next song.”
Foster suggests getting kids to note the populations of towns you drive through, then adding them up to see how many “people” they’ve passed. “To make it more challenging, have them find out the population of where [you] live and ask for the difference in population,” she says. And if you pass a sign that tells you when a town was established, ask the back-seaters to figure out how old the town turns this year. The challenges will get brains working, but the competitions keep things fun.
Stopping at every historic marker or drilling kids with boring facts will only get you an eye glaze. But kids love stories that include them, so try to relate historical stops to their own lives. On a family road trip to Quebec, Kathy Buckworth’s kids’ attitudes went from “so done” to “that’s cool” when their dad began to talk about his family’s connection to the historic pulp and paper mills they were passing.
“Finding out there was a family connection in Quebec City was really fun for the kids,” she says. “They could imagine the hot summers in the city and their relatives making their way to their version of ‘cottage country.’”
To make sure history lessons are included on your trip, be intentional about including them. Choose routes that include Indigenous or women-centered historical happenings. And keep in mind that everything has history, so if your kids have specific interests—even things like sports or movies—help them plot out related stops before you leave home.
Once you’re on the road, Foster suggests finding ways to connect fun facts to where you are: “As you pass through large cities or even just states, you can easily ask your little ones to look up how places got their names.” Doing so will get your kids reading, and their fact-finding may lead to new in-car conversations.
The drive can also be an opportunity to talk about the people who’ve used this land over the years. Older kids might like a podcast, audio book, or video that speaks to the area you’re driving through. (Check out Common Sense Media for reviews and recommendations.)
In-car trivia can be a great way to pass the time on your trip while still paying attention to the places you’re passing along the way, Alpert says. Guessing the populations of towns, the types of rock in the mountain range you’re passing, or how many lakes are in the state can all get kids engaged in their surroundings while you drive.
“I also love having kids keep track of the license plates they see on the road and then figuring out on a map which car came from the farthest state or province,” she adds.
Ready for a break? Rest stops that are planned to include a bit of geocaching or an unexpected scavenger hunt can help break up the monotony of the ride. And getting kids onboard with navigation can be a lesson in time and distance, too.
“On a recent trip from Texas to Florida, my five-year-old kept asking, ‘Are we there yet?’” says Foster, who then handed over the pre-programmed map and checked in with her son for information. “He was able to give us time checks and let us know how many miles we had to go.”
Finding science on your road trip is as easy as looking up, says astronomer Jarita Holbrook. She, her astrophysicist husband, Romeel Davé, and their two kids share their travel and science experiences on Instagram. Evening drive? Holbrook suggests packing a star chart (or downloading an app) and using a sunset rest stop to work together to identify the planets and stars.
Family sing-alongs can also be both educational and fun, Davé says. “In science we use a lot of Greek letters, so one thing you can do is introduce your kids to the Greek alphabet song,” he suggests. There’s also one for the elements. “If it doesn’t drive you insane, kids will definitely know their periodic table!”
Stretching your legs? Hand kids a camera or your phone and encourage them to photograph bugs, trees, birds, or animals they see along the way. That might inspire them to search for more information, then share and compare with what they might find at home. Those lessons in biodiversity will help them be more in tune with nature back home as well.
“Maybe the sky looks really big here. Maybe the grass is different. Maybe you see different birds,” Mylan says. “We all experience the natural world very personally and very differently. And it's one of those times when kids kind of get to be the expert.”
Sometimes the science lesson will present itself. “We learned that crayons will melt in the hot sun if left in the car,” Buckworth says, “and that you should always dispose of dirty diapers as soon as possible.”
And if the dreaded words “I’m bored” are still uttered? Don’t freak out.
“Boredom is the time when creative ideas can thrive,” Alpert says. “By taking away the stimuli, we allow our brains the chance to create and our thoughts can wander, and we often wind up in a place that we never imagined we could go.”