iPad and Kid’s Travel
Dear Ms. Smartphone: Over the holidays my mother, my son, and I plan to fly to Texas and then take the train back home. We have a difference of opinion about things to keep a four-year old busy with during the trip. My mother wants to pack a bag of toys and games, but I find it easier to put games and shows on his iPad. What is the current thinking on iPads and kids’s travel? Kerri, Mill Valley
Dear Kerri: I’m going to wager that you will end up doing both for this long trip- putting games and stories on his iPad, and also packing the bag with toys and games. You can never predict what you will succumb to as a parent until you are in the thick of it!
The iPad and kid’s travel solution cuts down on your luggage but presents other issues, particularly after Covid. During the lockdown the amount of screen time for children increased enormously- by 50 percent or more. Many pediatricians and educators now advocate that we now need to begin a “Great Withdrawal.” You mentioned that your son has his own iPad. You would not be alone if you depended on it during Covid to keep him busy, manage stress levels, and get some quiet or work time for yourself. But that was then, and this is now, and this is a family holiday.
Trains and Planes:
I see fundamental differences between the first leg of your trip – on the airplane- and the second one, on the train. On the airplane you will be tightly squeezed in with other passengers and he won’t be able to do the four year old thing- like wiggle and stamp. In deference to those seated nearby, you might need to keep a four year old quiet and entertained. It’s a good idea to check what options the airline provides but if they are limited, perhaps you will download his favorites to the iPad. Keeping him busy on this leg of the trip is not a game-changer. But when you get home try to keep the iPad from becoming a “reward” for good behavior. Else, clever children learn how to act up to produce that trigger/cue/response that rewards them with the screen.
The return trip on the train offers special opportunities, particularly if you are wanting to reset his screentime. This is an opportunity to look out the window together, trace the local geography you are covering on a (printed) map, and talk with fellow passengers. Train travel is special. CondeNast magazine points out that it is the one mode of transportation where children are not strapped into seats and can freely wander about. Yes, it would be easier and less work to depend on the iPad but all of you would miss this family occasion to do things together. When you need a quiet moment or break, you have that bag of toys and games to rely on, or you can promise to add some new treats if he waits until the next stop.
For a four year old learning how to play a card game with a parent and grandparent- say GoFish– is going to be more memorable on a train tray swaying back and forth, than on a play-alone touchscreen. Likewise, reading a story in context, say Thomas the Tank Engine, is going to be more engaging than an audio book.
But the other issue I see is bigger- and often swept under the carpet. It’s vital that young children (and older ones) cultivate a discipline to contain boredom. Our digital culture with its intense stimulation of tablets and interactive media is “always on.” It may interfere with a child’s ability to manage downtime. Boredom should be anything but boring. It is a time for a child to learn how to use their own interior resources to work through it. This then acts as the fertile ground to develop their powers of observation, cultivate patience and foster an active imagination. Nicholas Kardarkas, PhD writes in Glow Kids that this is the most developmental and neurosynaptically important skill they can learn.
On your train trip there will be a natural downtime. You do not need to manage it with either the iPad or the bag of toys. The key is that neither you nor your mother fill it in either. Parents should not program all of their children’s time. Learning to handle the boring bits is a vital skill that kids need to develop on their own. Happy travels!