Taking a road-trip tech break

Car trips and devices go hand in hand. Try these ideas to help kids tune in to the real world, too.

When Andrea Davis takes the 10-hour road trip with her family to visit her parents in Idaho, an iPad is sure to be in the car. So will strict limits on its use—and plenty of non-tech activities.

Although the mom of five (and founder of Better Screen Time) was once so concerned about screen time that she literally hid the family TV in a closet when her kids were younger, she now believes in a tech compromise. The American Association of Pediatrics agrees. Even though children’s screen time—as well as parental concerns about it—are up, the AAP says parents should start shifting their focus from time limits on screens to how their kids are using them.

“We’ve really had to think about everything as a balance, especially during the pandemic over the last two years,” says pediatrician Nusheen Ameenuddin, chair of the AAP’s Council on Communications and Media.

That includes while kids are in the car during road trips, she says. Although travel decreased significantly in 2020 because of the pandemic, 97 percent of those surveyed by the American Automobile Association in 2020 said the car was the favored mode of vacation transportation—up 10 percent over the previous five years. And the amount of tech in vehicles is expected to rise, too.

Most parents would agree that some kind of tech device is a must-have when road tripping with children. Ameenuddin says that’s OK—as long as parents can offset that screen time with real-world activities. The key, she says, is to support their digital interests with hands-on ideas and real-world extensions that play on those interests. Here are some ideas to stretch your child’s on-the-road screen-time activities into real-world fun.

Get road ready 

Ameenuddin acknowledges that the normal screen-time rules won’t always apply during road trips. But that doesn't mean you have to give up completely and rely on technology. “Giving kids an idea of what to expect will actually make a much more pleasant experience for everybody,” she says. Use these tips to prepare for the journey.

Make a plan. Davis, author of Creating a Tech-Healthy Familysets clear rules before hitting the road with her family. For instance, her kids know the iPad won’t come out until two hours after the trip begins. And because the kids (ages five to 17) share the screen, they know they must choose things they can do together. Davis suggests encouraging young road trippers to download movies and music they agree on before they get in the car. It’ll help set expectations—and avoid arguments.

Set time limits. The AAP recommends strict screen-time limits for children five and younger, but it’s a bit more flexible for older kids. Still, you don’t want them buried in a screen until you reach your destination. Davis suggests helping kids adhere to clear time limits by using a built-in timer or perhaps an alarm you set on your device. For younger kids, consider offering a warning when time is winding down.

Post your tech breaks. Tech platforms make it easy for kids to become completely immersed in their screens, but parents can help break things up with an in-car activity at a pre-arranged time or distance. For instance, before her family heads out, Davis posts a series of sticky notes on the windshield. Each note represents 100 miles, and the kids know to expect a surprise—stickers, dollar-store toys, pencil games, snacks—when they hit that point. It helps shift eyes away from the screen … and helps avoid all the “Are we there yet?” questions.

Combining screen time with real time

Finding ways to transition your kids’ favorite on-screen experiences to real-world activities on your road trip will ensure that no one complains about the tech downtime. Here are some ideas to get started.

Be art smart. Turn what your kids are seeing on the screen into a kid-inspired masterpiece. Take inspiration from a movie they’ve just watched in the car and have them draw their favorite character, write a new ending, or describe a scene out loud—with the child starring as the main character. If your kid is more of a builder, have craft supplies or Legos at the ready to spark a real-world interpretation of the show.

Take a shot. Once kids have had an appropriate amount of time on their social media apps, have them turn the phone or tablet’s camera outside. Encourage kids to snap the weirdest / coolest / funniest thing they see from the car’s window, or set up a scavenger hunt for children to find specific shots (something yellow, something furry, etc.). Set up a digital family photo album and have everyone share their favorites for a special road-trip souvenir once you get home.

Get their game on. Help your little gamers give their fingers a break with some real-world extensions: Hand over a sketch pad and challenge them to create a pencil version of the game. For instance, if a child can’t get enough “Minecraft,” perhaps she can initiate a sort of “… and then?” activity, where one person starts to draw a new landscape, then someone adds on, and so on. Or if a kid’s into something like “Mario Kart,” he could try drawing a maze and using toy cars to race along it.

Scroll outside. Kids engrossed in YouTube or TikTok are often being fed videos based on interest, whether it’s sharks, fashion, or food. After letting them spend a bit of time on these platforms, play a sort of “I Spy” game based on what they’re watching. For instance, if they’ve been watching puppy videos, challenge everyone to shout “Puppy Power!” when they spot something related outside the car, whether it’s a billboard for pet food, a canine license plate, or a dog being walked at a rest stop.

Uh, talk! Helping your child think through and discuss big issues by relating them back to a show or movie they’ve watched in the car can make it easier for them to express what they’re feeling. So use what kids are watching as conversation starters during your road trip. Ask big questions (Have you ever felt like the character did?) or offer your own observations (I loved how those friends came together and helped each other!) to prod some memorable exchanges.

Listen up. Instead of letting kids zone out while plugged in to their music the entire trip, have them create playlists on their device before leaving home. Then ditch the headphones, hit play, pause after 15 or 30 seconds, and see which family member can guess the name of the song first. (Parents, you can create a playlist, too!) Twist it up with themes from movies or TV shows, or select genres like punk or oldies-but-goodies.

See who’s smarter. Turn your kid’s favorite viewing into a family quiz. Sites like Sporcle have trivia quizzes based on TV shows, movies, music, and other special interests the whole family can participate in. Or before leaving home, design your own family quiz on a site like Kahoot based on the games, movies, music, and shows your kids love best. Set one person up as quizmaster while everyone else plays along.

Heather Greenwood Davis is a National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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