Learn more about EdNews Parent expert Karen A. Sorensen.

Q. We are going on a big road trip to California this summer. I fear my two kids will drive us nuts in the car. Do you have tips on how technology could help us?

A. Summer vacation road trips are a wonderful family tradition. Families share tighter space, unique bonding experiences and more forced togetherness than they normally do. In addition to spontaneous punching matches, high-volume melt-downs and other predictable road-trip pleasures, the question, “Are we there yet?” is always one on which you can count … often a mere five minutes after leaving the house.

Children often have a hard time conceptualizing time, distance and location because they have a limited frame of reference to judge these concepts.

Let smartphones be your guide

A mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet, can help your child learn these concepts by creating an interactive and visual reference for time, distance and location.  Mobile devices can turn “Are we there yet?” into a positive experience by allowing your kids to plan and navigate your trip using your smartphone or tablet.

The first step is likely one you’ve already taken: the “pass-back” effect. The “pass-back” is where a parent or adult passes their own device to a child.  Parents use the “pass-back” effect 85 percent of the time during car travel, according to a 2010 report from the Sesame Workshops Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s article, “Learning: Is there an app for that?”

All you’ll need is a little advance planning to take this hand-off a step further.  That is, you’ll need to make sure your child has the resources and skills he or she needs to be a navigator before you hit the road.

Check out these travel apps

Following are some apps to get you started. All of these apps are available in the iTunes (for Apple devices) and Google Play (for Android devices) stores, unless otherwise indicated:

  • Mapquest4 Mobile – GPS navigation (Free)
  • Weather Channel – local weather forecasts (Free)
  • GrubHub – pickup and delivery restaurants in 300 cities (Free)
  • Diners, Drive-ins and Dives ($2.99)
  • GasBuddy.com – GPS gas station finder (Free)
  • Where’s My Car? – Can’t remember where you parked? Use this app (iTunes only, 99 cents)
  • Find My Car – Find lost (or stolen – hopefully not!) car (Android, Free)
  • Parker – Find perfect parking space (Free)
  • Layer  – Augmented reality app with links to content organized by category with historical sites, local attractions and more (ages 12+, Free)
  • iWrecked – Full-featured auto accident assistant (Free)

Prompt your kids with questions

Your next step is to look at this as a pilot and co-pilot experience with you and your child. Pre-plan your trip with your child so he or she knows key destination details.  Spend some time before taking off to download apps with your child, ensure he or she knows how to use them, and set up a digital trip notebook. It is important that your child knows how the technology works before starting to reduce frustration on the road.

You are now prepared for the first moment you hear “Are we there yet?” to turn the tables and start asking questions. Your response to this question should be, “I don’t know, but here is the phone/tablet. Why don’t you look it up?” From here, your questions might include:

  • Can you look up our current location and see where we are?
  • How many miles per hour are we going?
  • What is the weather going to be like in the next hour, two hours, etc.?
  • Where can we get the cheapest gas and how far away is it?

As your kids start to generate responses to these questions, have them put that data in their trip notebook. As your trip continues, you can reference earlier data points and encourage them to make various comparisons between weather, gas prices and more.

Let your kids give you directions

Even better, your kids can be your go-to navigators for restaurants, parking, local attractions and more. Apps like GrubHub and Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives enable your kids to help find places to eat along your route.  In town, they can use the Parker app to help you find the ideal parking spot.  The Layer app will enable them to find historical locations, restaurants and other attractions in a vast array of cities.

Many older cities have their own augmented reality (AR) apps, such as PhillyHistoryAR (Android, free), which provides a block-by-block look at what Philly looked like 100 years ago. Many museums and historical landmarks have created AR apps as well.

Well, you might be thinking, this is all very fun but is it really a good learning experience? The answer is, “yes.” In addition to building their understanding of the relationships between distances, time, and location, your kids are exercising core skills in non-fiction reading, geography, history, math, technology and science. These activities are building 21st century communications, critical thinking, curiosity and spatial reasoning skills.

With a little help from some mobile apps, you will turn your road trip into a real-world, project-based learning experience that is fun for you and the family. Have a safe and enjoyable trip!