Five ways gadgets encourage school-age kids to participate in a road trip — instead of tuning out

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“When I was young, if I got bored on a road trip, I read a book.”

“When I was young, I had to listen to whatever music my parents played on the radio.”

“When I was young, we entertained ourselves on car trips by playing games, singing songs, and telling jokes.”

Sound familiar? I can’t be the only one who sounds hopelessly crotchety when fielding my kids’ road trip complaints. I know, I know — times and technology and kids’ entertainment preferences have changed dramatically since we were young. The fact is I love how wireless Internet has changed how we travel. I love being able to look up local eateries and attractions, and to make reservations online, and to sack out in a hotel with a movie on Netflix Streaming.

What I don’t love is how tech and gadgets tend to isolate us in our own personal entertainment bubbles. There have been times, on road trips, where all four of us were plugged into our own respective devices (the driver’s device was plugged into the car stereo). Not a crime for short periods, but left unchecked we lose a precious opportunity to connect and to build memories together.

Banning gadgets is impractical (and hypocritical, as I generally have my laptop along). Instead, here are some ways the family can still get their gadget fix while remaining engaged with each other.

One could argue that reading a book can be as isolating as playing with an electronic gadget. And one would be right. But no one would argue that kids should read less. One of the beauties of the road trip are the long stretches of uninterrupted time with relatively little to do (same reason I love long plane flights). Giving kids the opportunity to experience three or four hours of contiguous reading is a gift.

I’m still partial to paper books, but I can see the appeal of the Kindle (or iPad, or other electronic book reader) for travel. You’ve got your whole library along for the ride! It’s light and easy to handle! It’s fun to use! If you’re thinking of getting a Kindle for the family to share or for your kids to use, get it before your next road trip.

Listening to music
It’s the classic way kids have always tuned out on road trip. But I maintain that listening to music stimulates the mind in a way that compliments the real world…and not by drowning it out. Armed with an iPod or other music player (no iPod video!), one can stare out the window while listening to a personal soundtrack. I remember doing as much when I was a kid with my little cassette player, and my imagination would take flight.

Learning about geography
Here’s where a gadget really shines on a road trip. With a GPS device (or GPS-enabled smartphone), kids can interact with maps in real time. More than once, our kids have pointed out stuff on the GPS that was interesting enough to cause us to detour and explore. They become active participants in how the trip plays out…you don’t get more engaged than that.

Playing multiplayer games
Some electronic gaming actually brings people together. I recently wrote about a new crop of multiplayer games for the iPad that in many ways emulate the experience of playing a traditional board game. Nice thing on a road trip…no pieces to drop on the floor. I’m a fan of magnetic travel versions of regular board games, but if you’re already bringing your iPad, these are worth a look.

Researching your destination
Another way to involve the kids in the trip is to let them research where you’re going. Get out the laptop or smartphone and get on Yelp to find tonight’s dinner (or anything else), check out official tourism sites, even “preview” a place on YouTube. The more kids can find what they find interesting about your destination, the more enthusiastic they’ll be about the adventure.

Dodge CaravanAny other ideas? I’d love to hear how your family uses technology to enrich your travel while on the road.

This post is part of a series sponsored by Dodge Caravan.


  1. PDXMama says

    Car-sickness is always a car-reading side-effect for me so that’s out but we love listening to audiobooks all together! There are plenty of chapter books that we all enjoy (Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Dianna Wynne Jones, Bruce Coville) because they are so well performed. We check out a stack from the library and if one is a dud, we put the next one in. It makes it easier to get the kids back in the car after a stop if we can say “Let’s find out what happens next…”

  2. jessica says

    I can’t wait till our girls are older and I can read chapter books to them as we travel. Pick a book that is suspenseful and yes, the kids won’t whine about leaving the stop. You could alternate between reading and listening to it on audio to give the reader a break, or do all audio if carsickness is a problem like PDXMama stated. Maybe even come up with a list of questions to get everyone talking about the book.
    One of my all time favorite read alouds is Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit, you could even get the movie(there is an old version that I like, but the new one is okay too) to watch on the go too.

  3. Katie says

    I love listening to audiobooks as we travel! My kids are still too little to really enjoy audiobooks (my oldest is two), but my husband and I have really bonded while listening to audiobooks many times in the past. It’s a great way to sponsor discussions, or to share your favorite book. I’m planning a road trip in a couple weeks and one thing I am especially looking forward to is listening to some audiobooks together as a family.

  4. says

    My mom and I used to drive 12 hours to my college and back. We would rent up to 18 audiobooks from the library (mom’s, dad’s and my card) so we could have variety.

    I love telling my students (I am 34, they are 6-8) about what I did on car trips when I was their age (in the stone age before iPods and GameBoys). I taught myself to sing the alphabet backwards, which is surprisingly helpful. We played the alphabet game using license plates and billboards. I did math trying to figure out how far it was to the next exit. My mom read to us.

    We have vowed no cars with preinstalled DVD players. We watch too much TV as it is. If it is a very long trip or we will be traveling after dark, we will take a portable DVD player.

  5. says

    Great information, Asha! On the topic of music in the car, I think it’s a great time to “educate” children on different genres of music. Most kids hate the idea of listening to anything other than their favorite style, but introducing them to classical, folk, and jazz music can lend itself to some good conversations, too.

  6. says

    We just did a long car trip with an almost 3yo. She spent some time playing games on the iPhone and then found her way to the camera on the phone and took some really great pictures out the window. Slightly wonky pictures, but great to see the trip from her perspective and it kept her entertained for a while!

  7. says

    Pick a book with general appeal and make your next road-trip the occasion to start reading aloud! We always did that on road-trips, and I loved it — when I was a little older, I could even take some turns. Good for the attention span and reading, without the isolation — plus, if it’s a good book, they’ll be begging for the next dull highway! :)

  8. Addie says

    Listening to books is the way we like to go, but we usually listen to them via text-to-speech on the Kindle. This way we can be a bit spontaneous if we want and no matter how long the trip we never run out of books. Plus we only need to pack one device.

  9. says

    We recently drove 6 hours from the Northern Sierras to Las Vegas through really and truly the middle of no where. We didn’t even have cell reception for the better part of the 1st three hours. But when we did, we use my iPhone to look up information about things we had passed (like the history of Goldfinger, Nevada) or were about to go by (hello, area 51 was JuST over there!). We learned about Manzanar earlier in the trip on the way to the sierras and learned about why Mt Whitney has several different listed heights. Wikipedia and the mapping functions were great entertainment.

  10. Beth says

    We recently drove from Atlanta to Roanoke to Pittsburgh to Niagara Falls to Utica to Hershey to Roanoke and back to Atlanta. No DVDs and no mp3 players.

    We tried to have 4-5 hour driving days with activities at each destination. Activities were things like going to caverns, walking nature trails, Carnegie Science Center, visiting friends, and Hershey Park. While in the car, we did a little geocaching ( to break up the day mostly focusing on historic and earth caches. My 6 year old brought some Highlights to read (we would not mind losing as opposed to books) and we shared the radio, sometimes listening to her music, sometimes ours. We talked and played car games (like “I am going on a picnic and I’m bringing A/B/C”). After 12 days on vacation, we were happy to be home and all have our space, but we all enjoyed the ride.