If you're like most American families, your child spends at least some time every day strapped into a carseat in the backseat of the car. Walking and biking to school has declined over the last forty years, with only about 13% of American children walking to school compared to over 70% a generation ago. And while more hectic adult schedules and farther distances from home to school may require that time in the car, we don't have to give up everything we value about children's development during the commute. Think about the interior of your car as another, important environment to prepare and maybe you can make your drive to and from school a little less stressful.
1. Buckle up: Plan for the time your child needs to climb into the car independently, climb into the carseat independently and settle in before you buckle them. If you're driving a distance and the weather is different outside of the car, let your child remove their coat before buckling in. Bulky coats can limit what little movement your child has in a carseat and lead to more emotional rides. Let the process of getting in to the carseat be paced and patient to allow your child to do as much of it independently as possible.
2. Make it manageable: While you may want your child to have something in their hands in the backseat of the car, they probably don't need to have the entire contents of a toy chest. Instead, have two or three choices that are small enough to be manageable by your child but large enough not to slip between cracks or under seats. If you name toys as being "car-friendly" or not, you can also let children know when they will be able to use playthings that may be more troublesome in the backseat." Oh! Look! Your figurine is so small. I'll keep it in the front seat with me so it doesn't get lost in the car and as soon as we get out of the car at Grandma's you may have it again."
3. Keep it tidy: If your car is strewn with debris, your children will understand that it is not a place they need to care for. Invest in a backseat organizer and help your child to build the habit of putting away their car things before they leave the car. Take a moment before you leave the car to tidy up again.
4. Take advantage of the equipment available to you. You might offer books on tape while you're driving, or better yet, audiobooks that have accompanying real books to read along with while you're listening. If you're feeling really creative, ask other adults or older siblings to record some of your little one's favorite books to listen to in the car. If you prepare the recordings yourself, you can include a cue when it's time to turn the page so your pre-reader can still follow along. While your car may be overflowing with screens and technology, avoid using them to distract your child and, instead, draw their attention to the sounds and sights that are unique to your car experience.
5. Talk. You and your (infant, toddler, early childhood, elementary, middle school, adult) child share a space and each other's company when you're in the car. Don't let this opportunity go. Ask open ended questions and listen quietly through your child's response. Notice things you're passing together. Draw attention to the routes to and from school. Turn off the radio. Put away your phone alerts and use this as a time to pay attention to your child.
And, whenever possible, get out of the car. Pick one or two days a week when you park a little farther from school so you can walk together for the last two blocks. Determine which of your daily errands are in walking distance of your house and make an outing of your visit to the pharmacy or laundromat. Research suggests that children who walk in their neighborhoods have better spatial reasoning and stronger logic skills than children who drive to school. Walking with your child in your own community gives them a chance to see and engage with their neighbors in an authentic way, to learn about their communities and identify their role within them. Walking together gives children the chance to lay down roots in a community- to notice houses being painted or which dogs are in which yards each day, to see the early signs of spring and say hello to a neighbor who is at home during the day. If you're frustrated by how fast things are going these days, and how hectic everything seems to be all the time, make the time to slow down the in-betweens, the commutes and travel time, to walk and talk and notice together with your child.