Back-to-School Ready

How Your Next Family Road Trip Can Get Your Kid Back-to-School Ready

By Allison Ellis


How do radio towers get made?” “What do deer eat?” “What’s inside bugs that leaves those gooey streaks on our windshield?”


Even though rapid-fire questions from my 9-year-old son can drive me car-crazy, I love it when the iPad’s off and his own gears start turning. So as our family prepares to embark on a loop of the Olympic Peninsula, I’ve been thinking … not so much about steel lattice or insect anatomy, but about summer brain drain. Is it possible to enjoy a summer road trip and still get the kids back-to-school ready?


“Kids lose a lot over summer,” says Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor of psychology and neuroscience. The good news is, studies show that kids who travel—regardless of where they go—perform better in reading, math, and general knowledge skills. Plus, there’s that thing called family bonding. Turns out it’s totally possible for kids to keep up their school skills and have fun. Here’s how.


The Evergreen State

Want your kid to be more open to new ideas at school? Take them new places!

The connection between travel and confident, curious kids is well documented. To keep brains school-ready, Cooper recommends reading up on local histories or finding subject matter your kids will be learning in school. Since my kids will be studying Native American cultures in the fall, guess who’ll be visiting coastal Indian reservations on our road trip? And to avoid eye rolls caused by “this is actually educational” backlash, I’ll also encourage their creativity and open-mindedness by letting them choose destinations of their own.

Have fun with geography and math (really!) through mapping activities.

“If our car is going 35 miles an hour and somebody cuts us off in traffic, how long does it take for Dad to get really mad?” Seriously, all kinds of fun math and mapping games can be done on the road. Let your kids help navigate by using a map scale to measure distances or looking up fun state and country facts with this interactive map for kids. Monika March of Blaine, Washington, a mom of two tweens who “road schools” most of the year, even lets her kids try to figure out public transit systems. “Sometimes you end up going the wrong direction,” she says. “But that’s how kids learn.”

Yep—science experiments can be done in the car!

Let’s assume that at some point in your journey, plenty of half-empty water bottles are rolling around in the backseat. Here’s your opportunity to teach the kids about sound, vibrations, and pitch by forming a bottle band. Or if you don’t mind a little stickiness (can you even avoid it?), check out this candy experiment that’s all about solutions and colors. Whatever you do, science teachers agree that any activity that (safely) sparks imagination scores school-readiness points.

Candy Experiment!

Put it in water and observe.

Practice observation skills through photography.

It’s a rare road trip when I don’t find dozens of images on my phone of speeding cars, cloud formations, or even close-ups of my 9-year-old’s teeth. Hey, like we said, observation skills. Build on those skills with these photo tips for kids or suggestions from professional photographers. Organizing and editing those photos in a moderated photography community for kids like My Shot also helps develop important detail-oriented skills, useful in everything from creative writing to science to art.

Like photography?

Show off your pics on My Shot!

Sharpen those logic skills with some friendly debates or, well, you know, just talking.

Logic skills are crucial for kids to make sense of what they’re learning in school—or at least to come up with a better response than “Be quiet!” to an annoying sibling in the car. Practice some meaningful back-and-forth exchanges by discussing audio books from the road. The March family discussed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while driving up the Mississippi River. (Do the same thing with movies or videos.) You can even check out some weird and wild stories (with parental guidance) and debate which is the weirdest, which is the wildest, and why. Looking out the window works too. During a road trip in Europe a few years ago, our family got into a lengthy conversation about car design and automotive engineering. The result was a school presentation from our then 11-year-old daughter entitled “Strange Cars I Saw in Switzerland and Germany.”


Hey—anything to get those wheels turning on the road back to school.

Allison Ellis is a Seattle-based freelance writer and mother of two travelers, ages 9 and 13 who never, ever bicker in the backseat of the car. You can read more of her work at