Today’s parents are busy and so are their kids. Tight schedules mean a lot of would-be family time is taken up with car rides from one activity to another. However, there’s an upside to this phenomenon. You can take advantage of this alone time with your kids to awaken their intellectual curiosity and talk about what’s going on in their lives. The vehicle has some advantages over the dinner table: it’s private and there’s nowhere to go during the ride.

Teach Toddlers Their ABCs

Car games used to be just another way to pass the time on a long road trip. You can turn these games into an educational activity without your kids even noticing. Help young kids learn their alphabet by asking them to spot letters on signs or objects that start with a certain letter. Work through the ABCs in order.

Get kids interested in their surroundings by putting them on a kind of treasure hunt for unusual things. Karen Burkhart told PBS she has her kids look for anything out of the ordinary while driving across the border into Canada. French-language signs and Alpaca farms were some of her examples. You can also play the classic license plate game on longer trips, where kids try to spot a license from every state. Modify the game for short trips to just spot out-of-state plates.

Use Affection to Teach Geography

Parents know everything they say to their kids affects their children’s intellectual growth and development. Parenting writer Judy Koutsky developed a game with her children that, on the surface, seems like an easy way to express love and pass the time on a car ride: going back and forth as each uses a larger geographic area to express love: “I love you more than India,” is outdone by “I love you more than Africa,” which is outdone by “I love you more than the moon,” and so forth. But the game also teaches the child about the geographic size of each continent, and the planets in relation to the earth.

Get Teenagers to Talk

Parents of teens often experience silence when they ask their once talkative children how things are going. Car conversations can be ice breakers. Instead of pointed confrontational questions, like “are you having trouble in school?” try indirect questions that may feel less threatening to your teen. For example, Koutsky tried asking her kids, “If an alien were to come down and take two kids from your class, who would it be?” The combination of the creative question with the casual car environment and less eye contact may put your teen more at ease for talking.

A game of questions opens up the floor to interesting revelations. Over time, you’ll find your kids open up in surprising ways. Try out these questions to ask your teen how things are going—without actually asking how things are going.

  • What is your favorite season/food?
  • What makes you happy?
  • Who would you choose to trade places with for one day?
  • If you were a teacher, what class would you teach?
  • If your day was a movie, what movie would it be?
  • If you could give every person one quality, what would it be?
  • What picture would you put on the cover of your autobiography?
  • What is the greatest song ever written?
  • If you could invent one thing, what would it be?

If your teenager isn’t into chatting, try volunteering for carpool. When your child is talking with friends in the backseat, you may learn more about what’s going on in his or her life.

Demonstrate Life Skills

Kids are always watching parents. While driving, you can take active steps to engage them intellectually by having trivia games or brain teasers to read aloud. (Just keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the steering wheel!) But you are always teaching your kids through your behavior. Lorraine Sommerfeld writes that your moments of frustration (honking in a moment of anger) or patience (letting a pedestrian cross) teach kids how to act in certain situations. If you are trying to bond with your kid in the car, try to do it the right way so you can help them become the adults you will be proud of.

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