by Gail Goldspiel

Every summer, when I was growing up, we got into a fully-packed car and embarked on a five-hour drive to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My brother and I sat in the back together, which meant my mom had to find ways to keep us occupied, especially when we were both younger than ten years old. We loved road trip games.

The Joy of Car Rides

I remember playing all kinds of unique games; we were a creative family. We raced to spy and collect similar license plate origins: who could find 10 NY state license plates? 15? Who could spot 10 red cars? 20 blue cars? I’m surprised I remember these games, but our experiences as young children are lasting. Those old car trip games instilled within me a keen knack for close observation. I notice the smallest of details, images or moments, which would go unseen otherwise.

As we enter the season of car trips and family travel, it’s worth brainstorming how we, as educators and nannies, can make the most of the travel experience. Often, we expect and anticipate young children to get antsy and frustrated in the back of a car when trapped there for hours. Even fun snacks and toys don’t always placate and relieve the tension in the way we hope.

Conversation-Focused Games

A great way to keep kids engaged is interactive, conversation-focused games. As a former museum educator, I highly encourage games that emphasize close-looking and inquiry. Here are some ideas of questions to spur curiosity in young kids, even as they sit in the back of a car for a long period of time.

  • What do you notice outside? Can you tell me what you see? Follow this by giving them a notebook and crayons and ask them to draw what they notice)
  • How many red cars can you find? Are they all the same? How are they different?
  • Can you write down some of your favorite words you see on signs? Tell me a story with those words!
  • Build a paper view-finder with your kids and show them how to gaze through it. Then ask, what do you notice with it? What do you notice without it?
  • Roll down the windows halfway and ask them to open their ears. “What do you hear outside?” Ask them to identify five different interesting sounds. Which one is their favorite? Which one do they have questions about?

These are only several ideas of activities and questions to spark close-looking, deep-noticing and curiosity. Also, there are dozens of games and launching points like these that can catapult critical thinking while also being amazingly interactive, engaging and yet, so simple.

Be in the Moment

At the end of the day, it is the moments we dwell in as young children, the details we notice, appreciate and ask questions about, that truly stay with us as adults. So if we can do anything in our quest to make a back seat car ride more meaningful, perhaps it’s just in the making of those moments where we ask children to notice, look, listen, see and question, that we’ve done even more than we can imagine. After all, those windows in the back of the car that they look through are windows into a world of infinite imagination and possibilities. So, look through the windows together, next time. What do you see?


If you are a childcare provider, the Advanced Nanny Certification program has a course on creating learning environments that teaches many ways to engage children.