Commuting daily on Seattle’s busy freeways with my son creates a set of challenges that my parents could never have anticipated on our occasional Sunday drives. As boring as it was to spend hours in the car staring out the window, at least I only had to do it every now and then. My son, on the other hand, commutes for at least an hour a day, along roads with no scenery to speak of, past the same sights we’ve been looking at since he was 2. How do we survive this mind-numbing experience with our collective sanity intact?
I’ve developed commuting survival strategies. Some of them, of course, involve handheld electronics. But many of the tricks we’ve worked out to keep him from kicking the passenger seat are surprisingly low-tech.
Keep everything in reach
I keep the area around my son’s seat set-up so that everything he needs is within reach. When he was a toddler, I used plastic teething links to tether his toys to his car seat. I clipped a few stuffed animals to one side, and a soft book to the other. That way, he always had something he could haul up and gnaw on/read/snuggle. I also utilized a big basket placed beside his car seat. As soon as he was old enough to understand putting things away, I taught him to put the books he read or the toys he played with back into the basket.
Box or bag up art supplies
Another trick to keeping him entertained involves pencil cases and plastic zip-top baggies. Into these cases or bags, I put pens, crayons or colored pencils. Because everything goes back into the box or bag, we have been able to keep whole sets together. Access to every color is important to a budding Van Gogh and keeps him interested longer. Every few months, I acquire a set of exciting new coloring implements and weed out the supply. Big pads of paper keep him creating, but he also likes notebooks for writing stories.
Pick out toys that come in their own box
Playmobil has a whole lineup of boxed sets, with themes like knights or police officers or horse riders. These are surprisingly inexpensive, usually around $10, and the plastic boxes have dividers to help young pirates or fairy princesses stay organized. Magnet picture kits, like those from Mudpuppy, are also great fun: a tin contains magnetic card scenes on which kids arrange magnetic accessories. My son also loved his Matchbox aircraft carrier, which allowed him to store several planes inside. Any toy that encourages him to store its parts wins with me!
Buy big books that keep ’em coming back
A book that might hold my child’s interest for only a few minutes at home can become a much-loved favorite in the car. We like to head to the local used book store and look for coffee-table books on topics my son is interested in. The text may be over his head, but the pictures aren’t. He has a book on antique steam trains that still gets pulled out of the basket after five years of riding shotgun. He has also enjoyed coffee table books on animals and history, even one on the building of the Queen Mary! As he’s gotten older, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! series has thousands of short entries to read once the pictures have all been perused. Other popular book ideas at our household: comic book compendiums; mythologies; joke books; and those enormous wish-books that Lego puts out with every Star Wars kit ever produced.
Stick it to ’em
Sticker books can be life savers in the car. We particularly like the ones with big, blank backgrounds on which to create epic battle scenes, and a dress-your-own-medieval-knight book held sway for several weeks. Lego now puts out dozens of sticker books, and they’re cheaper than buying every kit in the Harry Potter series. It can take months for my son to destroy each incarnation of Voldemort. Sticker books are widely available, but I have found a great selection at my local Fred Meyer, making them easy to pick up when I stop for groceries.
Workbooks work (really!)
When my son was in pre-K and kindergarten, he loved the books with letters to trace, and as he’s gotten older, he enjoys solving simple math problems. I pick these books up at the local grocery store, or take a trip over to my local educational supply store (in Seattle, it's Math and Stuff) to get them. Books of mazes are available for every age group, and sudoku and word puzzle books are great educational time-killers.
Make your own fun
My son loves craft projects, plenty of which are portable. Knitting, crocheting, even lanyard-braiding can be time-consuming and productive activities for boys and girls. Spool knitters are fun for younger kids, and don’t forget that classic: the potholder loom! The Klutz series of books feature fun crafts for all ages, many of which are car-friendly. For those I didn’t know how to do myself, local yarn shops and fabric stores offer lessons that our whole family enjoy together.
Forget ridiculously overdubbed kid’s music CDs; I introduced my son to my favorite classics. We like to sing together with Elton John, the Beatles and Queen. I created a playlist just for our commute. I deliberately picked songs we could really belt out at full-volume. This is also a boon for long car rides with the rest of my extended family. Everyone loves singing along with Freddie on “Bohemian Rhapsody."
However much I rail against my commute, riding with my son has led to many opportunities for one of the simplest activities in the car: conversation. My son and I have had fantastic discussions about books he’s reading, subjects he’s learning in school, or controversial topics he doesn’t understand during our commutes. When all else fails, we turn off the radio and just chat.