The car is a blessing and a curse. Because we are blessed with a vehicle, we can get to all sorts of opportunities. We can access resources otherwise closed to us. But driving takes so much time out of our days, to and fro. The good news is it is super easy to nurture literacy in the car for toddlers or preschoolers. Even a five-minute drive can be a learning time for little ones without them even realizing it.
Earliest Literacy: Words, Colors, and Shapes
My son was obsessed with cars and trucks from a very young age. Driving from place to place gave him chance to practice his newly acquired vocabulary and recognize things in action. I even found myself excited about seeing “fire engines” or “car transporters” when I was driving alone in the car, simply because I was accustomed to pointing them out to my toddler. How many toddlers love to say “locomotive”? Learning to say difficult words provides basic literacy for kids developing vocabulary.
Of course, the most obvious literacy moments come with learning stop and go, red and green. My kids try to “blow away” the red lights so the green light will come. My oldest child, of course, knows to watch the cross light. My younger kids simply enjoy recognizing the colors of the lights and helping remind me when the light finally turns green. This is one of the bonuses of graduating out of the rear facing seats: you can see the signs and lights ahead of you!
Finally, my three-year-old son got interested in recognizing shapes everywhere we went. We’d play “I Spy” while waiting at stop signs. He learned to recognize triangles and rectangles. Of course, the octagon is a difficult shape to say, but those stop signs show up everywhere! (His favorite shape to spy one time was “funny ovals.” He meant cars!)
Letter Games: Learning the Concepts of Print
What child hasn’t played the alphabet game while driving across the country? For young preschoolers, this is quite difficult. However, sometimes it’s fun to find familiar letters on signs while waiting at stop lights or driving on slower roads.
You may suggest things like, “I see a T for Target. Can you see it too?” or “I see an M for McDonalds!” As kids become more and more familiar with the letters, they will love spotting the letters. Besides, if the child is familiar with the store, they may spot the store (or recognize the logo) before they can recognize the letters. Making connections while out and about can be fun literacy learning moments too.
My son read the first time when he was in the car. (He read me a sign while we sat at the tracks.). My oldest daughter likewise recognized the words “Go” and “Cubs” while we waited in the car as well. (We live in Chicagoland.)
Even before the kids can read the words or name the letters, when you introduce the concept of print (that is, that letters appear on the signs all around as we drive), they may express curiosity.
“Mom, what does that orange sign say?”
Literacy is not just about understanding that the black lines and squiggles represent letters: it’s recognizing that numbers are also represented. Although my preschool daughter was not ready for formal math lessons, as we drove around, she soon learned that the white rectangle signs with black writing had numbers on them. Once she learned the digits from 0-9, she and I would search for speed limit signs so I could always “obey the laws.”
“I see one!” she’d call. Then she’d tell me the two digits she recognized. I’d tell her that 2 and 5 mean 25. I could compare that with the previous number (are we going faster or slower?). She loved being my backseat speed reminder. And, I’ll confess, as annoying as it sometimes is to have a backseat driver, it is also delightful to me to hear her recognizing similarities.
“Oh, mom, here’s another but it is the same number! 25 again!”
My son, at a younger age, insisted he wanted to be a GPS voice person when he grew up. So, he’d be happy to give me directions on where to turn.
The ideas I share do not solve the problems of long drives. Kids will certainly get board with these activities. And let’s face it, no parent wants a backseat driver all the time. Sometimes I tell them that it’s time to “turn it off.” But simple and short moments of literacy like these prove to me that even a five-minute drive in the car can be an early lesson in literacy. Kids just need a little prompting to learn sometimes.