When I was growing up, my family took a lot of road trips during summer vacations. Back in the 1960s, you had to roll the windows up and down with a hand crank, seat belts were a new feature for the driver and front seat passengers (yes, passengers — bench seating allowed three across in the front), ash trays (at least in my family) were used for ashes and spent cigarettes, and regular leaded gas cost 29 cents a gallon. By the 1970s, we had air conditioning in one of our cars (still no automatic window openers), seat belts for all passengers (no air bags), full ashtrays still (cough), and two major gasoline shortages with higher gas prices to endure in 1973 and 1979. (During the 1979 energy crisis, I was old enough to drive — and spare my parents the annoyance of waiting in long lines at the gas station on our “rationing day” to fill up.)

What did restless kids do in the back seat during long road trips back in those days? When my older brother and I weren’t bickering and fighting, we talked. We listened to the radio (mostly AM stations offering either classical or country music, news programs, and opera on Sundays… ugh!) or sang the first ten or so bars of “99 Bottles of Beer.”  We’d spend hours looking for license plates from other states and wondered aloud about what life must be like where those cars were from — in Connecticut, or Virginia, or Illinois, or… Mostly though, owing to the fact that reading in the car caused me intense nausea, I mostly just looked out the window watching the scenery pass by.

What do kids do on road trips today? Everything it seems except look out the window! Jacqui Kluger from the Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education says that kids can still spend quality time with their gadgets and electronic devices in the back seat of the car during what for them is down time:

Every trip, but especially the long haul plane and car rides, involves some significant amount of time when there really isn’t much for kids, or parents, to do. Waiting at the airport, sitting in the back seat of the car, or transferring from one train to the next – these are probably the hardest parts of vacation to plan. What are the kids going to do during all this “in-between” time?

Since tablets and smartphones became synonymous with child-rearing, the options for down-time have increased exponentially. But watching YouTube videos or playing mindless jumping games for hours on end is not most parents’ goal.


Common Sense Media’s website is a good resource for parents to use to make sure that down time isn’t wasted with mindless activities. Plug in your child’s age and media type — movies, books, TV, games, apps, and websites — and parents will receive great information, including reviews, on each item. And Kluger reminds us that the old license plate game is still in style:

Before you set off for the airport or pile into the car for your upcoming family road trip, consider curating a set of apps for your children to use. And for the purists among us, there’s even a highly rated app version of the classic license plate game, where family members compete to spot license plates from different states or with different designs.


Safe travels this summer!


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