Summer time, for many of us, means travel time! From day trips to the local beach, to weekends at Grandma’s house, to long vacations in different parts of the world, summer is an opportunity to get out there and explore.

But travel time also means being stuck in a car, train or airplane for hours on end. For families with preschool-age children, it’s hard to know what to do to pass the time in these situations.

Out come the iPad, Kindle, Android phone or another hand-held electronic device: what easier way to keep your child occupied? And if you just invest in the right educational software, so your preschooler can learn her letters while you can focus on driving or enjoy a summer book for yourself, then doing so is totally guilt-free. Right?

Well, maybe.

montessori preschool

There’s no question that electronic devices work very well in keeping preschool children occupied: videos and games do hold their attention. They do buy you quiet as you wait for a plane, or drive a car on longer trips. But are they really providing value? Are they the best use of the precious vacation time you get to spend with your preschool child—and are they optimizing your child’s vacation experience?

As Montessorians, we believe that its critical for a preschooler to view the world “out there”, the real world of people and places and objects, as a wondrous opportunity for discovery. This attitude is achieved through engagement with a caring adult who illuminates all the things to be encountered and explored.  So while we as parents may occasionally call upon select apps for help (more on good and bad choices in this blog post), our view is that we should also prioritize the value of finding ways to share experiences that are unique to the trip, or that we’re otherwise unlikely to share with our children.

By thinking ahead, we can plan for many fun (and educational) experiences, most of which don’t require us to add time to our travel. Here are just a few ideas as you prepare your preschooler’s “travel environment”:

  • Give a lesson on simplified map reading. Many Montessori preschool children have worked with maps in the classroom. While they can’t read normal maps, you can easily sketch a map on a piece of paper. Draw in a few highlights: a tunnel, a refinery along the way, a big farm, some mountains, an airport, a planned lunch stop. Ask your child to find these places for you as you drive. Label highways, and you can practice numbers.
  • Explore the world you travel through. Identify some unique features you’ll encounter, whether outside the train window or in your car. Provide your child with the language: “See that lake over there?”, “look, there’s an oil derrick”, “see this farm? They are growing oranges!” Especially on car trips, there is much to see. On one recent trip, we noticed lots of trucks loaded with tomatoes, and had an impromptu discussion about farming, the many things tomatoes are used for, and transportation.
  • People watch together. Airports are great for this: watch the people with your child. Discuss where they might be going, and why we think that. Notice people in different moods, and discuss their feelings: this child is really upset, this couple is in their arms and happy to see each other again, and so on.
  • Read together. For airplanes, bring books instead of video games. Scour the library for topics that might be related to your trip – Hello Ocean makes a great introduction to the beach, for example; About Mountains is a great springboard for discussing on a trip to go hiking. Click here for a suggested summer time reading list with ideas for common summer destinations.
  • Play anywhere games. Some can be educational: ask your child to count white cars, or to add together three raisings plus five raisins before you give them to her as a snack. For ideas on games for any situation, try Fun on the Run, a pocket-sized little book full of easy ideas that require just you, your preschooler and maybe a few things like crayons that you probably have in your purse anyway.
  • Sing songs together. Music Together, a company that organizes very popular preschool music programs, sells two CDs of wonderful sing-aloud songs, called Family Favorites. The best thing? These songs are actually fun to listen to for the adults, too! Or make up your own songs as you go along, to any familiar tune.
  • Read and memorize poems. For slightly older children, a long car ride can be a good opportunity to memorize some poems. Jack Prelutsky has a fun collection of silly rhymes. Ride a Purple Pelican is one of our favorites: it’s a great travel book, as many of the poems relate to places in the US and Canada. The Random House Book of Poetry for Children is a great collection of children’s poems from many authors, a number of which are short enough to commit to memory.
  • Bring simple arts & crafts supplies. Your Montessori child may delight in fun activities like tracing & coloring simple animal shapes (this book is a fun source of ideas), making art with stencils (my 5-year-old loves Mandalas), threading beads (just bring a little tray to keep them together in the plane), or cutting up and gluing together colorful paper mosaics. For Small Hands, a Montessori-oriented online store, has many read-made crafts supplies, a number of which can easily be done at an airport or in a plane.

montessori preschool

So back to the initial question: should you bring your iPad or other device? Our answer is yes, go right ahead. Just make sure to use it sparingly, so that it doesn’t take over the precious hours you can spend engaged with your child. This is your chance to make memories together—it’s worth the extra effort!  

(If you do want to use an electronic device, read on here for our thoughts on how to go about selecting games for your child. And don’t forget that chapter books work well on electronic devices, as do audio books!)

Heike Larson

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