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Watching Movies in the Car or Not


By Nancy Olsen-Harbich, MA

While having easy access to entertaining movies on the car DVD may be just the ticket to peaceful co-existence on very long trips, is it really necessary for children to get “plugged in” for shorter trips? One way to think about this is to consider what doesn’t happen when your children stare at a screen instead of gazing out the window, or passively listen to scripted dialogue rather than engaging in real conversations.

Conversation – The enclosure of your car provides privacy without interruptions (as long as cell phones are not ringing!) which is rare in our busy lives. Talk about what’s new at school, express admiration for your child’s developing skills, plan the birthday party, whatever! Your child will have an opportunity to practice oral language skills that promote reading literacy. You will strengthen your parent/child relationship by really paying attention to one another. The lack of eye contact sometimes makes it easier to discuss sensitive subjects too. 

Coaching –Use travel time to talk about what to expect when you reach your destination. Be clear about expectations for behavior: “We’ll have to sit quietly in the restaurant.” Try to avoid potential issues: “If you need to get up, we’ll make one trip to look around.” Use the ride home to “debrief” and talk about how to improve the experience next time. 

Games – Use car time to play word games. “How many words can we think of that start with “ssssss” sound?” Guessing games like “I spy” or “I’m thinking of an animal,” or counting common road sites such as trucks or billboards, can help pass the time enjoyably. And Kids engaged in having fun are less likely to be poking each other!

Looking at books – Keep a basket of favorite picture books near your preschooler’s car seat and you’ll delight in overhearing your child “read” aloud, sometimes imagining an entirely different story. Rotate the selection often, and keep a book light handy for reading in the evening. Instill the habit of reading in the car at an early age, and you will reap the rewards for years to come as children mature. With a book handy, your child will always have something to do. 

Listening to music or stories – Listening to audio stories and audio books require children to create the scenes in their minds. This is more challenging then just “watching” a video. Singing along with music can improve memory skills while resonating joyful feelings. Music can also soothe and restore a weary child or parent. 

Solitude and reflection – Our children’s lives “buzz” with social commitments – school, parties, play dates, and more. Looking out the car window and quietly watching the scenery go by provides a little welcome “down” time for children and their parents.

Nancy Olsen-Harbich is Program Director and a Human Development Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Family Health and Wellness Program. She can be reached at 631-727-7850 ext. 332 or at


One Response to “ Watching Movies in the Car or Not ”

  • Deborah Steedle

    Nancy –
    I really commend the advice and information you and your colleagues give on this blog. Anytime parents are reminded of the importance of “down” time, learning through play and early literacy, a commendable service has been made to our youngest citizens.

    Thank you for all your efforts.

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