Almost Fearless

Beautiful Boredom: Going Tech-Free on Road Trips

It’s good to let your kids know that boredom isn’t always a feeling that needs to be “cured.” In fact, research shows that allowing kids to get bored for extended periods of times boosts creativity and problem solving skills. There is no better place for this than the backseat of a car, with nothing but nothing to do.

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Our car rides are long. With a 6-year-old, 4-year-old, and 2-year-old they are especially so. We will road trip into the desert for hours to find a fishing spot or traverse across the state line from Reno, Nevada through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to reach the northern California coast. What’s more is that we will do so without gameboys or iPads or any other technological devices to numb the hours. Being on the road is part of the experience, and it’s one I refuse to let my kids escape.

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Setting off on a road trip sans electronic devices means music will be the center of entertainment for much of the trip. We often choose playlists the kids haven’t heard before, so we don’t end up listening to Crazy Train on a loop for two hours straight (true story). We’ll play some classic car games – I Spy, 20 Questions, and the license plate game can keep kids entertained for impressively long periods of time. But after a while, once the gimmicks lose their interest, it’s a whole lot of looking out the window.

As we drove along the endless straight desert roads to a fishing hole in, quite literally, the middle of nowhere a few weeks ago, after a bout of questioning “how long until we get there,” we began staring out the window together looking for wild horses. They’re easy to miss if you’re not looking for them, blending in like rocks against the sagebrush to the passing eye. Just when I would think my daughter had stopped playing, falling into another trance of boredom, she would excitedly start counting out a small herd, asking me to add them to our tally. There were 31 in total on the way there, 27 coming home – her favorite being a brown and white pinto standing out in a herd of eight chestnuts.

My son and I studied the varying rock formations, the changes in color and texture, the shifts from long plains of dirt and sagebrush to towering cliffs of reddish-brown rock. I urge them to notice the sparse patches of wildflowers, the unusual spurts of green across the usually dead landscape, signs of a heavy winter and late spring. We look at the clouds. Find the river by searching for lines of cottonwood trees curving through the otherwise limited growth. We are yet to see a desert bighorn sheep, but perhaps someday we will.

It’s easy to miss the beauty of the desert. It looks, at a passing glance, to be empty, dead, brown, dull. If you only looked up every now and again, you would think there isn’t much to see. I don’t want my kids to miss the small wonders these trips provide – the opportunity to watch the world change before their eyes.

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And when the landscape cannot hold their rapt attention, I still don’t want them to miss out on the experience of boredom. I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable every time they are left alone with their own thoughts, searching frantically for a device to save them from themselves every time there is a lull. I want them to learn how to work through the discomfort, to make it through to the other side where boundless creativity lives.

Because it’s also easy to miss the beauty of a quiet mind – of the thoughts that can only unfurl in the midst of boredom. Car rides are a time of becoming, a time to figure out who you are and who you want to be and what you really think of the world and your relationship to it. It’s a time when you can let your mind wander over topics unexplored, or solve the nagging problems that have had little time for resolve. It’s a time to dream and create and realize the boundlessness of your own mind. Car rides, in their endless boredom, are magic in ways that are only fully realized in hindsight.

There’s not much time to be quiet anymore – little reprieve from motion and noise and mind-boggling action. Yet there is ample opportunity to reflect while watching sagebrush turn to red rock turn to swooping valleys. My kids are not yet so fond of the journey as then destination, but I hope that someday, both will shine in their memories.

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Gemma Hartley

Gemma Hartley is a full-time freelance writer living in Reno, NV. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, CNBC, Glamour, Women's Health, Redbook Magazine and more.

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