What was the soundtrack of your road trips growing up? Many of us may remember the ongoing quest for a good radio station that would come in clearly. Mile after mile, we would hold onto it, ignoring the creep of static as the car edged ever further out of the signal’s range. Finally, it became clear that it was time to hunt for a new station, or in the case of my family, maybe just play the cassette tape of the Footloose soundtrack for the umpteenth time.
The human attention span is a lot like the art of cruising for that radio station with a crystal-clear signal. When we find something with a good beat and coming through with no static - that’s worth tuning in for a while. When the signal gets weak, we revoke our attention and default to whatever is within reach, whatever is easy and accessible. As a college student, I had the opportunity to spend a summer studying in Germany. One afternoon, our bus pulled up to the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Our professor gave us a short explanation about the story of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses to the door. She then instructed us to meet at the restaurant on the corner for dinner once we had finished looking at the church. I might have taken one photo of the church door before hustling to the restaurant. I had little personal context or motivation to engage with that historical site. Years later, having taught world history, I wish I could go back and help my teenage brain tune in to the deeper experience that landmark offered. Instead, my mind met with static and my stomach took charge.
How can the lessons of radio signals and static help you engage your child in your family’s travels? Think of your child like an FM dial. Give them something powerful to attune to. Give them a metaphorical beat, loud and clear, static-free, that they can and want to hang onto. What’s the right frequency? It will be different for every child. In her fascinating foray into attention, entitled On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, author Alexandra Horowitz reminds her reader: “[American philosopher and psychologist] William James suggested that my experience will be ‘what I agree to attend to.’” You can take a child to the most celebrated landmark in the world, and they may remember only the long wait and not being allowed to touch anything. They’re lost in the static, and your efforts to bring them to a not-to-be-missed site are losing out to the cognitive equivalent of the teacher’s voice in Peanuts cartoons: the famous “wah wah” of the trombone. Give that same child a mission, however, and something to engage with, and they’re attuned to the experience on a whole different frequency.
To find your child’s frequency and create memorable travel experiences, encourage moments in the journey that are:
- Relatable to their personal experience and perspective
- Surprising or novel
- Appealing to their emotions
- Engaging multiple physical senses
- Processed deeply by getting curious
The activities in Journey Jotter Books are designed to create these kinds of moments in almost any travel situation, helping your young traveler ultimately learn to attune to them independently. And once they learn how to approach their travels on a meaningful frequency, they’ll always find something that’s worth listening to.