Copyright Tracy Cutchlow

4-year-old takes 12-hour road trip with no iPad. Here’s what happened

“Should WE try that?”

A friend had just come back unscathed from a road trip to Yellowstone with her 5-year-old, and we thought, “Huh.”

We decided to do it. Of course the big unknown was how G would do on the 12-hour car ride from Seattle to Yellowstone. She’d be solo in the back seat, as my attempts at borrowing somebody’s kid didn’t work out.

I recalled the late-summer trip recently, when revised screen-time guidelines came out from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Some highlights from AAP:

* No screen time under 18 months old (down from 2 years old), with an exception for video chats.

* For kids age 2-5, less than 1 hour per day (down from 2 hours) of screen time, with no screens during meals or 1 hour before bedtime.

* Developmental needs of infants and toddlers cannot be met by digital media or replace interactions with caring adults; prioritize “hands-on, unstructured, and social play” over digital. AAP asks developers to stop making apps for infants.

* Avoid media as a way to calm kids.

* Early media use has some health risks, including obesity and sleep disturbance.

* Kids will quickly and easily catch up on technology later.

For a couple reasons (what I knew about brain development from working with the author of Brain Rules for Baby, and a startling observation that the TV rendered my nephew zombie-like), my husband and I had taken the screen-time ban fairly seriously in our daughter’s first two years. As time went on, we didn’t see a compelling reason to change that too much.

Fast forward to the road trip last month. We didn’t bring any digital devices for our 4-year-old, and …

She was fine.

I’m certain that her lack of regular screen time is the reason. We broke up the 12-hour drive from Seattle over two days, plus had short bursts of driving each of six days at Yellowstone, plus took two days to get back home. Of course we made plenty of playground and run-around stops. But we were amazed that, for just about the entire time, G was content to:

  • make up stories she whispered to herself.
  • create some sort of game with colored beads on a bracelet that she found, took apart, and rearranged.
  • draw pictures with crayons on paper.
  • draw all over herself with a marker. :-/
  • pretend to be an animal and make us guess what it was — even though, we soon realized, we had no chance (“You’re a rabbit!” “No.” “Pretty sure…” “No, I’m a lak-bak!”)
  • say to us, many times, “Tell me a story about when you were a kid.” “Tell me again, the one where you dropped the breakfast sandwich.”
  • tell us her own short stories with prompts from Story Cubes.
  • direct me to make a book out of one of those stories.

Story Cubes are like dice, but with pictures instead of dots. You roll them, then make up a story with whatever nine pictures you get. I insisted that we take turns. At first G protested, claiming she couldn’t do it. “Choose two pictures,” I said. “Tell me what could happen with them.” Starting small, she gained confidence. “I’m going to pick three this time,” she announced on her next turn. Then four, then five. (Starting small is a great strategy in so many aspects of parenting.)

Stories were such a sweet way to connect during the drive. Some of the childhood memories we dredged up, my husband and I hadn’t even heard from each other.

We’ve seen the benefit of no screen time outside of road trips, too. We see it every day, really, in our daughter’s love of reading, her imagination, the way she observes her environment, and her ability to play independently for long stretches. And oh man, do I appreciate not managing constant requests for devices — or arguments and tears when time’s up.

Sure, there are plenty of reasons to lay off the screen time, which I detail in my book. It’s some of the most robust research out there. I applaud the AAP for keeping its ban through 18 months old, making thoughtful updates that address modern situations while remaining in line with current research.

But research can feel theoretical. I wanted to show you just a few practical effects.

All this is to say: If you feel drawn to try these new AAP guidelines, even though the commitment may seem onerous at times, I want to let you know that it is possible. Even peaceful. And, looking back, for my family, preferable.

I encourage you to stick with it. You won’t be sorry.

Bonus download: The Trouble with 2+ Hours of TV (the research) plus 7 ways to avoid that trouble during screen time

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

9 thoughts on “4-year-old takes 12-hour road trip with no iPad. Here’s what happened

  1. We’re contemplating a 12+ hour drive to see family with our 5 and 7 yo (who do not own tablets) so this is giving me a great confidence boost that we can survive the drive without screens. Thank you!

    I am a bit concerned about the picture of your daughter (I assume) that accompanies this piece because it looks like she is not properly secured in her car seat. From what I can see, the harness straps are too low (need to be at or above shoulders) and possibly twisted. Also,the chest clip is not in the correct location (should be at armpit level). Please consider reading your car seat’s manual and/or meeting with a CPST to ensure she is safely restrained.

    1. Car seat: Thanks! I’m swapping out that photo, as it’s misleading (she wasn’t actually buckled yet) and not how we usually do things. 🙂 Trip: What’s your plan for entertainment?

      1. Books on CD, sing-alongs, frequent pit stops, potentially games like license plate bingo, I-spy, etc and good old staring out the window. My older daughter is blessed with the ability to read in a moving vehicle without getting sick and she’s really into Harry Potter at the moment, so she may just plough through more chapters than we can read to her.

  2. Same concerns about car seat as the previous commenter. 🙂

    We haven’t done any trips that long, but we do regularly drive 5 hours each way to grandma and grandpa’s house without screens. My kids are now 1, 3, and 5; we’ve been making this drive a few times a year since before the oldest was born. We listen to audiobooks, read aloud, do dry erase books and the Melissa & Doug Water Wow paint-with-water books. I tried wikki stix on this last trip, but no one was very interested. My two and three year olds tend to like sticking stickers, so I staple together some notebook paper or get blank books from Target and give them whatever stickers we have around. The one year old likes doing lift-the-flap books and I’ve made my peace with the idea that one might not survive the drive. 😉
    We also have a lot of fun playing an animal guessing game where they try to guess what animal I’m thinking of. “Is it an elephant?” “No, it’s smaller than an elephant, but it is gray like an elephant,” etc.

    1. I’m swapping out that photo so you guys don’t get the impression that her car-seat straps usually look like that. 🙂

      Laura, sounds like you’ve found lots of ways to make car trips work well!

  3. I’ve just posted a blog about new research finding children in the UK being less active and engaging less in outdoor play from the age of 7! This is to the detriment of most learning and development areas – with the exception of the ‘swipe’ finger and digits used for gaming control, obviously!
    Loved your blog.

    I brought up two children in the Middle East (where I worked as an expat teacher), with no TV, only landline phones and the ancient computers of 1990! I like to think they’ve turned out OK in spite of this 🙂

  4. I appreciate your thoughtful article!
    I am not concerned about your child’s car seat situation because you seem to take a very active interest in her wellbeing, and since it’s hard to judge a whole situation from a single photo, I don’t feel the call to make extra efforts. 😉

    In response to your article, I appreciate that you are addressing the screen time epidemic head-on. My husband and I have driven from Florida to Ohio in 24-28 hours with 3 kiddos under 3 twice. Plus return trips. Without screens. And everyone was fine! We do the crazy thing, and drive through the night to maximize on sleeping time, but when they’re awake we stop for playgrounds every 3 hours or so, with diaper changes and snack breaks dispersed throughout. We kept 3 accessible shoebox sized containers in the car: toys, books, snacks.

    A summer ago, we took a 3 week roadtrip from Florida to the Grand Canyon with a potty-training 2 year old and a nursing 7 month old. The trick is to have a good soundtrack, patience for stops, and keep a loose ETA. We all loved that trip dearly, and a full year and a half later, our then 2 year old recalls it and dreams about camping under the stars with “big mountains.” Without phones or tablets.

    It’s doable! And it’s preferable! Plus, it’s good for everyone involved 🙂

    1. Thank you for your story, Philumina! I’ve heard about that night-time trick; I might try it sometime. 🙂 Yes, the memories are just the BEST!

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