Growing up in the northeast, when the cold and snowy winters hit, my family would start our season routine of going skiing every Sunday. If we hadn’t been to church Saturday evening, we would go to the early Mass in our ski clothes –wooly sweaters and snow pants – then pile in the car for the 45-minute drive to the mountain, three kids squashed together in the back seat. This could have easily been a “when are we gonna be there” drive. I bet if I asked my mom she’d say it was. But what I remember about the drive was that we always played the Alphabet Game on the way.
The Alphabet Game involves staring out the car window and trying to find each letter of the alphabet, in order. In hindsight, this was probably really lame for my parents, since we drove the same route every time and knew every sign along the way by heart. There was only one place to find a J, so if you didn’t hurry up and find A-I before we passed a certain convenience store, you were screwed. Really, the license plates of passing cars were the only wild card in the game. This was waaaaaaaay before the days of portable dvd players – or dvd players, period. They still made movies on Beta. Hmm…showing my age here, just a bit.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think in-car dvd players are problematic. I’m not saying they are 100% evil. They certainly have their benefits, but it all depends on how they are used. We do have one that we bought when Zippy was 2 or 3, to help us survive the 9-hour drive to visit family out-of-state. It really is a life saver in those situations, although we don’t let him watch it the entire drive. Anyway, what I think is really unfortunate is using dvd players almost any time the kids hop in the car. You know, driving to the grocery store, coming home from school, a 15-minute drive to wherever.
There are benefits to having nothing to do in the car. Okay, there are drawbacks, too. Like when Zippy talks non-stop for an entire morning of running errands until I finally have to beg him to play the Quiet Game. Or when the boys decide to reach their hands across the gap between their car seats to play the Who Can Squeeze Harder Game. That one never ends nicely.
But there is value in kids just sitting and having to figure out how to entertain themselves. A box of books and action figures on the seat between to them, a window to stare out of, music to listen to, parents to talk to… they figure it out. Sometimes, I’ll glance in the rearview mirror and see Zippy staring off into space. I’m not sure what he’s thinking about and sometimes, if I ask, his response is, “Nothing, Mom.” But other times he’ll blurt out something random – a thought, a question, a plan. Would he take advantage of this opportunity for thinking time if he had Cars 2 flashing on the headrest in front of him? Mom, I’m not in the mood for Finn McMissile, thanks. I’d just like to think right now. Probably not.
I worry that we’re training kids to need constant entertainment, depriving them of opportunities for creativity, exploration, and just plain old thinking. They come up with so many ideas when we don’t interfere or stick something flashy in front of their eyes. I’m also a big fan of “loose parts” when it comes to toys and playthings. You know, the more loose parts something has, the more creative it encourages kids to be. Things like Legos, dress-up clothes, random plastic animals, and crayons with white paper do much more to nurture creativity and cognitive development than toys that have a predetermined function, like coloring books and battery-operated ball poppers. That’s not to say we don’t have those bells-and-whistles toys in our house – loose parts is an ideal we keep in mind when choosing playthings, but not something our family rigidly abides by. I love watching the ideas Zippy comes up with when he is playing out back by himself – recent favorites include the enormous beaver dam built out of sticks (although that did make mowing the grass problematic) and the nest he crafted in the plum tree in hopes of attracting a peregrine falcon to our yard. Although he probably wouldn’t say so, based on observation I think his favorite “toys,” in no particular order, are probably sticks, dirt, tape, and string.
I remember hearing a story on NPR a couple of years ago that talked about differences in children’s ability to self-regulate today compared to 60 years ago. (And I just actually managed to find the story in their archives! Woohoo – gotta love the internet! Here ya go: Old-Fashioned Playtime Builds Serious Skills.) Anyway, the gist of it is that the way children play has changed so dramatically over the past several decades that it has actually had a negative impact on cognitive development. One study of self-regulation found that 5-year-olds in 2001 performed on the level of 3-year-olds from the 1940s! “Private speech” (talking to ourselves about what we are going to do and how) occurs a lot during imaginative play and helps us develop self-control, planning, and so forth. Anytime we give kids something to do – like a dvd to watch – or when we tell them what or how to play, we are interfering with this. So, back to the dvd players…it seems to me like a disservice to the kids, as convenient as it can be for us as parents. Just as loose parts help kids play more creatively, I imagine that downtime in the car helps kids learn to relax, think, and just “be.”
We have a system that works for us. Bee is still rear-facing so he spends a lot of time watching out the window in hopes of spotting a cow. We have the portable dvd player tucked away, and we pull it out when we have a long trip. Once in a while I let Zippy watch it on a shorter trip (2 hours), but only one way and then the rest of the trip he has to find something else to do. On long trips, we use the dvd player strategically and in moderation. For instance, we might drive a couple of hours in the morning, stop for lunch, and then let him watch a video to veg out before dozing off for a nap. After nap he self-entertains until we arrive at our destination. Or, we might let him watch a movie first (if he is really eager for it), and after our lunch-stop he chooses something quiet to do like look at books…or stare out the window, lost in 5-year-old thoughts. I don’t use my cell phone in the car, so if he wants to talk, I’m available and we talk. Sure, he badgers us with “When are we gonna be there’s,” but pretty soon I’ll be able to introduce Zippy to the Alphabet Game. I’d better starting figuring out where all the J’s and Q’s are in town.