Sunday, March 6, 2011


Click! Whew….. You finally got your squirming toddler and your newborn baby strapped into their car seats. So now what?  Is a ride just transportation, or is it something more?  Is taking your children places in the car just an annoying chore?  Or is it a rich opportunity to build your relationship with your children, and to enjoy watching them grow and develop? 

I remember driving my mom crazy in the car, but it was different then.  When I was little, it was still the dark ages before car seats.  My brother and I made car trips into an athletic activity: we joyfully climbed back and forth over the seats, did handstands, stretched out in the back window, hung out the window as far as we could until Mom made us stop,  rolled around on the floor and held wrestling tournaments on the way to Grandma's house. I actually think I remember experimenting with crawling up onto the dashboard and begging my mom to let me make the trip to the store stretched out up there. As I recall, this elicited one of Mom's signature Exasperated Sighs.  Needless to say, our kids today cannot engage in such active play in the car, so how can we help them deal with spending so much time sitting still? What is happening in the brains of our infants, toddlers, and preschoolers when they are driving around with us? 

If you took a minute to add up how many hours your child will spend in the car before his or her sixth birthday, you would be surprised.  We put a lot of miles on our kids in their early years, even when we’re just hauling them around the neighborhood. It makes me wonder: are family vehicles just a place for kids to vegetate until we get there?  Or is it more like a fascinating preschool classroom, well-equipped with everything needed to deliver a broad and deep curriculum, geared toward assisting growing brains?

Let’s think about some of the learning that happens in the car, whether on long road trips or on our everyday commute.

-LOOKING. When you’re a toddler or a young preschooler, everything in the world is fascinating, and your brain is primed and ready to use every piece of data it can absorb. All of the interesting things children see out the window as they ride in a car offer many learning opportunities. Observation skills are sharpened, and curiosity begins to grow. Visual stimulation enhances children’s ability to perceive colors, shapes, and familiar objects, at increasingly advanced levels as their visual perception naturally matures.

-PERCEPTION. Think about how our amazing brains manage to handle tricky phenomena such as depth perception, distance, and the ways objects look from varying points of view. All this high-level super-computing in our brain began while we were very young, and a large part of it may have been stimulated by riding in the car and seeing how things look as they come closer and go farther away.  When children have many opportunities to practice focusing their eyes on objects very close to them inside the car,  and then quickly changing their depth of field to focus on far-away objects outside of the car, they are strengthening their eyes for later reading and school tasks.

-PEOPLE AND PLACES. Observing homes and neighborhoods of various types gives children an early start in the Social Sciences.  One of the earliest Social Studies concepts taught in most classrooms is about Homes and Neighborhoods. On routine trips in the car, children see that some homes look like theirs, while others are different.  They also internalize the idea that all of us share a need for shelter. Everyone lives somewhere. This is one more way that children can slowly decentralize their thinking and gradually work toward understanding the world in a less ego-centric way.

-NAVIGATION. Places exist in geographic relation to each other. This isn’t as obvious as you might think:  children have to learn this through experience.  As families travel familiar routes in the car over and over, children internalize a sense of directionality and geographical orientation. Not everyone finds it easy to learn where North is, or which way is Left.  I know plenty of adults who can get lost right in their own neighborhoods, but at least learning that There is not Here is a good start! The geniuses who developed your favorite GPS software began their mapmaking careers as babies in strollers or back seats, gradually learning what’s-where in their own neighborhoods.

-SELF-CONTROL. Self regulation is the ability to cope with our emotions. We start working on self-regulation when we’re born, and gradually developing it is one of the central tasks of childhood. Travel offers children many opportunities to work on self-regulation, and many rewards when they manage to make progress. Learning to wait is just plain hard. But people who don’t have a chance to work on this in age-appropriate ways in early childhood may struggle with self-regulation as they get older. In the car, children can learn to cope with boredom by creating games for themselves, watching for interesting things out the window, talking to themselves or family members, creating imaginary worlds in their heads, or singing songs. Even when it’s very hard to sit still in the car seat, children find the rewards of self-regulation in the car to be very affirming and empowering.  Children develop a strong sense of self-sufficiency as they learn internal ways to avoid being overwhelmed by waiting.

-TALKING. A great deal of language and social skills can be developed in the car, as adults and children have conversations about what they see. Even infants are absorbing the sounds of language and beginning to connect them with the concrete objects that they represent.  Research shows that children whose parents talk with them a lot in their first five years have higher IQ’s, higher levels of healthy attachment and emotional development, and do better in school later on. Besides, it’s great practice for later, when your kids become teenagers.  Parents of teens will tell you that their kids are more likely to talk to them when “held prisoner” in the car, than at any other time.

-OLD AND NEW. Children’s brains crave both novelty and familiarity, for very specific reasons. Seeing brand new sights while traveling down an unfamiliar highway may give a growing brain the chance to create new neural pathways, while driving the same street to school each day allows existing neural pathways to become increasingly myelinated.  Myelination makes frequently used parts of the brain’s wiring efficient and permanent.

-TIME. The ability to perceive the passage of time, and to anticipate the future and remember the past is an important part of human functioning. In the car, children experience time passing, and gradually learn to measure it in internal and external ways.  This is true on a small scale, such as when children become familiar with how long it takes to drive to preschool, but it also happens on a much larger scale, as children observe this route throughout all seasons of the year. Seeing the trees change color and the weather change over time gives a growing brain a lot to reflect on.  Conversations between parents and children about “how long,” “how far” and “what’s next” help to deepen this learning.

All this is just a small fraction of the learning and growth that can happen during all those thousands of hours your kids will spend in the car. And amazingly, it doesn't really take a lot of work or participation on your part.  It's up to the child to figure it out, but of course when a video is flipped on the minute the car starts, kids don't learn any of those skills.  I’ll leave it up to you to compare the rich experiences described above to what kids learn when they are plugged into videos and gaming devices instead of looking out the window and entertaining themselves.  It’s tempting to use gadgets to make car trips more peaceful, because children certainly do become quiet little zombies when an electronic device is doing their thinking for them.  Brain growth can be noisy, complicated, and annoying at times. But it’s also exciting and rewarding, for both parents and children. Toddlers and preschoolers who are used to riding in the car “unplugged” are gradually growing into very smart people who will someday be great travel companions.

You can’t do anything about the price of gas or the tailgating habits of the driver behind you.  But you do have the power to make sure the hours your kids spend in the car are accomplishing something more worthwhile than the ability to recite every word of Toy Story 3. Yeah, just like at home, it can be easier to just flip on a video, but it’s not better.

Say NO to electronic entertainment in the car, and say YES to smarter and happier kids!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I never thought about how different car rides are for kids these days. I had my husband read this post too and now we both use car time as learning time a lot more.


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