Time in the Car: Making it Productive

By: Kelli Ellenbaum, MS, CCC-SLP

Parents often find themselves spending a lot of time in the car. Whether this includes running errands, driving kids to school or appointments, or transporting children to activities, a parent’s vehicle be the vessel that contains many things. It can be a place of meals/snacks, a daily recap conversations, some ongoing learning, a therapy session, a homework study hall, or even a place for mini concerts. Here are a few ways to use this time to your advantage and help your child learn and grow!

For toddlers through preschool age, their worlds are ever-expanding. Once they are able to see the world in front of them, they can see the same things out the window that their parents can see. Language enrichment opportunities are everywhere!

  • I spy with my little eye: This game affords the opportunity to connect vocabulary words with what is seen. The game can be expanded to include teaching the function of objects, describing words that detail what an object looks like, or determining the groups with which the object belongs. For example, “I spy with my little eye a TRAIN. A train is a vehicle. It has many cars. It is long. It can go fast or slow. This train is green. What do trains say?”
  • Early math skills can be introduced. Counting objects such as trees or stop signs can help kids with rote tasks and understanding early concepts. The same can be applied to labeling the shapes of objects.
  • Letter development through sight. Finding different letters on signs and making it into a turn-taking game can be very beneficial in teaching children what symbols are letters and what symbols are pictures.
  • Exposure to music can help kids to further develop their brain and provide an opportunity to learn social skills. Some of these skills can include dancing, taking turns singing, pairing physical actions with song, and following directions.
  • Teaching sensory awareness in the car can be taught in a variety of ways. Parents can talk about temperature (heat vs AC) and how that feels when the car fan is turned on. Going through the car wash can teach kids about unexpected noise and visual input in an environment where their parent can old their hand. Discussion about feelings (as they related to emotions) during that experience (ex loud and scary) can help children have a word for their feeling.
  • Dressing skills such as teaching kids how to put on their coats, shoes, and socks during transitions in and out of the car pop up more frequently than we would like!
    Physical development can also be targeted when children practice using their muscles to climb in and out of the vehicle. This provides both muscle building and coordination development.
  • For kids of elementary age, the same games and activities can take place by increasing the level of difficulty with which they are delivered. For example:

  • I spy can be expanded to follow an alphabetical rule where kids have to find objects in the environment that follow the sequence of the alphabet.
  • Math can be addressed with discussions of speed limits, mile markers, distance to destination, or anything to help kids answer their own questions (such as “are we there yet?”).
  • Skill building in the areas of memory and attention to details can be addressed with games such as “Going on a camping trip.”
  • This age group is well versed in questions related to “what if” and “why.” Use this opportunity to answer their questions (even when you’ve answered 50 of them already). It is a great way to prepare your child for situations they will encounter as they grow. When you get repeated questions; turn the question around and see if they can recall your answer.
  • 20 Questions is a great game that teaches children how to take a different perspective, use categories and details, follow specific rules (ex. must be a yes/no question), and learn the basics of honesty and sportsmanship.
  • Once kids move on to middle school, the games and skill building become less motivating. However, these times offer opportunities to engage in higher level conversations and emotional development. Often, in our busy lives, the car may be one of the only places we get the undivided attention or our teens. Use this time to:

  • Ask your teen about current events and what their developing perspectives are on world matters.
  • Check in with your teen about their emotional state or the functions of their peer groups.
  • Tackle problem solving skills as they relate to academics or social interactions.
  • Help your teen become more responsible of their own schedules.
  • Teach the rules of the road and other important driving skills and laws.
  • Have your teen give you directions to a destination and see if their navigation skills are developing.