Article at a Glance
The family road trip can be a grand adventure, but it can also easily turn into a nightmare for bored children and desperate parents. To ease the potential pain of long hours, today’s family vehicles are often equipped with behind-the-seat screens for playing movies and television shows. Phones and tablets provide additional screen-based entertainment to keep the back seat pacified. Screen time can be a tempting proposition to pass time on the open road, but many parents find that it leaves children hunched over, closed off, and peering into pixels—instead of appreciating the scenery and the opportunity for the family to be together. While many parents do strive to create enriching experiences for children on long trips, putting together enough activities and games to keep children engaged for hours can be hard work.
Audiobooks can be a huge help to families hoping to make road trips a little more fun. One of the main advantages of an audiobook is sheer length. Even short novellas may have narration lasting over 4 hours—longer than almost any movie. Full-length children’s novels can even last for multiple trips, and children won’t mind coming back to them if the narration is strong and the stories are good. In fact, you might have a mutiny on your hands if you don’t allow children to finish a story they’ve become immersed in.
Audiobooks present another advantage over other forms of in-vehicle entertainment, and it’s one that parents will appreciate: drivers can actually participate. Listening to audiobooks requires no more active involvement than listening to music, and this hands-free, ears-only activity allows everyone in the car to travel to a new world together. The front seat can sometimes feel miles away from the back, especially if kids are plugged in and zoned out, but a whole-family activity can bridge that gap.
Best of all, no one gets carsick from audiobooks.
Listening to an audiobook doesn’t have to be a passive experience, either. Since most audiobooks are broken into chapters, families can pause between sections and have discussions over what they’ve just heard. Everyone receives a text differently, so children and adults may find themselves in a lively debate over what’s going to happen, or who the most likeable character is. Everyone can hone their critical thinking skills and enjoy engaging in an enriching discussion before hopping into the next chapter.
While listening to audiobooks can be great fun, they aren’t just a source of entertainment. They may help enhance cognition in young children, too. A 2015 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explores the impact of listening to stories on the brains of pre-literate children 3-5 years old. While the study specifically measures the neurological effects of children being read to by their parents, the mental work that children do when listening to an audiobook should be very similar. The areas of the brain activated by listening to stories—those associated with mental imagery and narrative comprehension—should be at play when listening to an audiobook, as well. The study notes the multiple benefits of “dialogic reading, in which the child actively participates,” making active engagement with an audiobook text even more important. The strong association between a good reading environment at home and the activation of key literacy-associated sections of the brain bodes well for incorporating audiobooks into family life.
In addition to providing potential benefits to younger children, audiobooks present a host of valuable opportunities for children with difficulty reading to engage with literature:
All children, regardless of reading level or ability, should enjoy the added dimension of emotion, tone, and accent found in good narration. Differences in dialect, which are hard to perceive when read, come to life in an audiobook. The voices in our heads may not have good English accents, for example, but the best audiobooks usually do.
The spoken word also allows audiobooks to be enjoyed across a wider age range, as well. Young readers may be more likely to stumble when seeing an unknown word on the page, but rich, effective narration will help them stay engaged in the story and assimilate the new vocabulary. Spoken language simply provides more context clues than written language. Children who are naturally quick readers can also benefit from being slowed down by narration, unlocking a fuller appreciation of stories they might zoom through otherwise.
Part I of the 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education explores the literacy gap that exists between boys and girls in America and around the world, noting that boys don’t just perform poorly on literacy tests relative to girls—they also report a lower enjoyment of reading than girls. The report also notes a greater prevalence of childhood reading impairments in boys. Since this phenomenon is persistent and international, it may be biological or developmental in nature.
Forcing boys who don’t enjoy reading or have difficulty reading to pick up a book in their spare time is a losing battle, and might ultimately make them frustrated and less likely to engage with literature in the future. While the report doesn’t claim that enjoyment of reading and reading performance are related, it’s worth noting that many countries that increased boys’ enjoyment of reading also saw higher literacy scores among boys. An especially vibrant audiobook may be able to inspire literary enjoyment in some boys where written texts have failed.
The only potential downside to audiobooks is price. They can be prohibitively expensive to buy, but most libraries provide access to audiobooks through the internet or on physical CDs. The Provo Library provides all card holders access to RB Digital Audiobooks, an extensive repository of narrated literature with a range of children’s fiction and nonfiction available. Provo’s children’s booklist sorts texts by genre and gives valuable details about top children’s titles in the print collection. Not all of the booklist titles are available as audiobooks, but many are. Cross-reference the two resources to find a title that’s perfect for your family’s next road trip, and take a trip to imagination.
Having trouble deciding what title to pick? Here are a few ideas to get your search narrowed down: