Thursday, 2 July 2020

Travel Tips for Parents: A Professor's Guide to Staying Sane with Kids on Long Trips by Noah Charney | Guest Post

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“Are we there yet?”

No, we’re not there yet. We just started. And you can only sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” so many time or listen to the same CD on repeat, before madness sets in. Fortunately, there are all sorts of tricks for managing longer trips with young children—or indeed any sort of activity that requires sitting for a long time and waiting. 

A Professor’s Tricks
I’m a father of two daughters, age 5 and 7, but I’m also a professor. The techniques I use to both teach my kids and keep them entertained (ideally doing both at the same time) are borrowed from my approach in the university classroom. I go into far more detail in my limited-edition book, Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, but here are a handful you can try at home.


There are a few keys to this approach. The first is to divide up your time into roughly 15-minute intervals. 15 minutes is a chunk of time that a child can grasp. It’s about half of an episode of Scooby-Doo, for instance. It’s digestible. It doesn’t feel forever. So take your drive or your wait and think of it as a big cake that you’ll look at in terms of 15-minute slices. That drive to Aunt Gertrude’s house takes 90 minutes, so that’s 6 15-minute slices. Your kids, if they’re anything like mine, may fall asleep for half of that, so you’ve got 3 “slices” to cover in terms of entertainment. A favorite album might be 45 minutes of music, and that’s three slices handled (provided you can survive listening to that album again). I’m leaving aside screen-related solutions, like letting the kids watch a DVD or play video games during the drive. My kids would get nauseous anyway, and I want to feel like I’m spending quality time with them, even if we’re “stuck” in the car together, so I don’t just want them to be set up with something passive. 


So what are the activities that we play in 15-minute bursts? We’ll turn to those in a moment, but one thing to keep in mind is to quit while you’re ahead. I’d rather stop playing a game after 15 minutes or so even if the kids are still into it, rather than let them get to the point when their enthusiasm wanes and they shift to considering the game no longer interesting. Think of it like eating ice cream. Would your kids be more likely to want to come back for more ice cream in the future if they have a single scoop and would happily eat a second one, or if you order them four scoops and they get through 2.3 and leave the rest? You can maintain the excitement of activities and games by stopping before they are categorized as no longer fun.

I Spy
The classic game requires each player to pick something they can see and say “I spy with my little eye…” and then they say what it is and others have to look around to see what they’ve seen. “I spy with my little eye…a hairless dog!” (That’s not at all weird, our dog, Hubert van Eyck, is a Peruvian Hairless…) This works best when you are not driving (things that you can “spy” go by too quickly in the car).

Name That Tune
Kids rarely have lyrics memorized but sing tunes with “dummy lyrics” that sort of half sound like what the lyrics actually are. (I do that, too, with Slovenian songs by my favorite musician, Vlado Kreslin…and in theory I speak Slovene). So you take turns singing a song (or humming it) and the others have to guess which song it is.

20 Questions
We play limitless variations of this game. We take turns picking a category of thing (animal, dinosaur, country, food, movie) and the players ask questions about it. For an animal, we might ask “Is it carnivorous?” “Does it walk on four legs?” “Can it fly?” “Is it a decapod?” (My girls love Moana). We have 20 questions or guesses—if we can’t figure out what it is after 20, then the picker wins that round. Whoever guesses is the next picker.

Name Ten
We pick a category (food, carnivorous animals, big cats, cities in Europe…whatever seems appropriate to the interests of your kids) and players take turns naming ten of them, keeping track on their fingers. For trickier topics you can play Name Five.

The Translation Game
This works best for bilingual families (my family speaks Slovenian and English) or families learning a new language. Offer up a word in one language and try to stump the other players with the translation. You can “level up” and make it trickier by going from the secondary language into the primary language (either the first language or, in our case, the language spoken by the mother), which is normally more difficult. You can “level up” further by translating phrases (like idioms for which there is no direct translation but more a thematic one).

The Theory Behind the Games
These sorts of games promote some key abilities that will benefit your kids when they become students. They are encouraged to remember the proper names for things. Learning doesn’t help much if you can’t recall exactly what something is called. Precision and memorizing proper names is a useful skill. Thinking categorically is also important. That’s why it’s useful to think of foods in groups (vegetables, fish, meat, grains) because once you categorize them you can think of them in terms of shared characteristics and they can be sorted and stored in our memory more easily and with more useful detail. All of these games are a sort of fun test, and it’s good for kids to get used to being tested. It will happen all the time in school (and in life) and thinking of tests as a fun challenge, not something scary and overly judgmental, is beneficial later on. Repetition and articulation help memorization, so each time they name ten carnivorous animals, for instance, the list is reinforced and the memory held more tightly. And kids love to show off their knowledge. It’s empowering, and this is an ideal way to make kids proud of themselves.


Noah Charney is a professor and best-selling, Pulitzer-nominated author of more than a dozen books.


This article is an excerpt from his first parenting book, Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, which is available as a limited edition on Kickstarter.

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