The secret to a calm family road trip? Nature.
Long car rides can be stressful for kids. Here’s how adding a nature break can help.
After most family gatherings were canceled last year, holiday get-togethers seem to be back. In fact, a recent report by the American Automobile Association found that 48.3 million Americans plan on hitting the road for the Thanksgiving holiday. That’s up eight percent from last year, and down only three percent from pre-pandemic travel in 2019.
But though the destination may motivate families to step on the gas, everyone might be better served by applying some brakes … er, breaks.
AAA recommends that drivers schedule a stop every two hours or 100 miles to ward off fatigue. And according to Lisa Nisbet, an associate professor and environmental psychologist at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, turning those stops into nature breaks—leaving your vehicle to get out into green space—can be a huge benefit for the passengers as well.
“Finding ways to de-stress and boost everyone’s mood and energy level in the context of traveling and family visits is really important,” Nisbet says. “Even a 10- ,15-, or 20-minute walk can have a benefit. It doesn't have to be a long stop to have some impact.”
Why children need driving breaks, too
Plenty of research has shown that long-term exposure to nature is good for a child’s development. Environmental epidemiologist Payam Dadvand, who specializes in the connection between children and nature, says that continued exposure to green space and nature can literally change parts of our brains and improve everything from short-term memory to self-satisfaction in adolescents.
(This article explains how nature can boost kids’ brainpower.)
But short-term exposure to nature can help children as well. And that can be especially helpful on a road trip.
Travel can be stressful for kids, says Sarah Denny, a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “Trips to see family can be really exciting for some children, while the break from routine might create stress in others,” she says. “If children have been especially anxious about being around extended family or friends during the pandemic, holiday gatherings might make them feel anxious.”
Hansa Bhargava, pediatrician and author of Building Happier Kids: Stress-busting Tools for Parents, adds that “adult pressures,” like getting somewhere on time or being around family members you haven’t seen in a while, do trickle down to kids. “Kids are somewhat like sponges, soaking in their parents’ mood,” she says. “They can get anxious, upset, or depressed if they sense their parents are stressed.”
Stretching your legs at a rest stop can help—but exposure to nature might offset that stress even more. “Being in nature helps reduce some of the negative emotions that might be involved with travel,” Nisbet says.
That’s because a quick nature break can reduce a child’s stress response. “It slows the heart rate, improves our blood pressure, and puts our brains in a more relaxed state,” she says. “It can make us feel more relaxed and less anxious. It can also make us feel more positive and energized.”
And there are other benefits. Nisbet refers to something called attention restoration theory, the idea that nature contributes to feelings of awe or wonder, which can help children be more attentive and focused soon after the exposure. “When a child picks up a leaf, examines a rock, or touches a tree, it gives their brain a break,” she says. And that break can be just what they need to prepare them for the next leg of the road trip.
Plus, though breaks in a city or at a highway rest stop can help, Dadvand’s research shows that a quick stop in a green environment can result in a greater reduction in hyperactivity—good news for parents dealing with a child’s pent-up energy or irritability on a long car trip. (And if it’s miles before your next stop, here are some ideas for road-trip boredom busters and in-the-car conversation starters to help.)
How to plan a nature break your family will love
Ready to reap the benefits of a road-trip nature break? These tips will help you get more out of your pit stops.
Plan for a break. Look at the route options for your drive and keep an eye out for conservation areas, cool waterfalls, or local green spaces along the way. “Road trips are as much about the journey as they are the destination,” AAA spokesperson Ellen Edmonds says. “Plan a route that includes stops where you’ll look forward to taking breaks.”
Give kids control. One reason road travel can be so stressful for children is because they’re pretty much powerless as backseat passengers. So let them lead the nature breaks by having them plan some of the stops along your route. “Getting kids involved will help them engage and be connected to the trip,” Bhargava says.
Explore mindfully. Have an idea about how you’ll take your break depending on what kind of nature you land in. “It may offer some different kinds of animals and plants than you would normally see,” Nisbet says. “Or you might just be using it as an opportunity to get away from the noise and the pollution that is usually part of highway travel.”
(Here’s another idea: Try forest bathing.)
And explore with stuff in mind. Spontaneous breaks are great, but having an activity planned can help children reset and refocus. For instance, a scavenger hunt list for natural items (for instance: find an acorn, take a photo of a pretty insect) can keep kids interested and engaged on your nature breaks. And consider keeping a football or Frisbee in the trunk for a quick game.
“One thing that I did with my own kids was get them nature 'tools': binoculars, a compass, and a hiking stick,” Bhargava says. “They had a lot of fun finding the magnetic north and finding their way back to the car after looking at the maps on the trails we hiked.”
Check out the scenic route. Choosing the road less taken can offer up some natural places to explore that won’t necessarily show up on a map, like scenic overlooks or hidden ponds. Edmonds also suggests off-the-beaten-path nature adventures like apple-picking orchards, pumpkin patches, and corn mazes.
Engage in citizen science. While kids are de-stressing in nature, they can also sharpen their STEM skills and help researchers at the same time. This article offers advice on getting your child started in volunteer science; you can also check out apps like eBird or iNaturalist.
Meet up. Not every family will feel safe venturing off into unknown woods all by themselves. But nature breaks don’t have to out in the middle of nowhere. “It’s about finding a place that people feel comfortable in,” Nisbet says.
(This article is all about why city trees can be good for kids’ brains.)
So if a bunch of you are traveling to a single destination, think about meeting up to take breaks together along the way, even if it’s just in a city park. And organizations like Hike It Baby can help you join groups in new-to-you areas.
“When we're in nature, we tend to be more generous and kind,” Nisbet says. “It’s an opportunity for kids to socialize and connect with other people–not just with the environment—in a setting where our mood is already being boosted.”
Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.