Embrace the Drag: Dealing with Boredom in Family Travel

This post may contain affiliate links. Please visit our Disclosure page for details.

Embrace the Brag: Dealing with Boredom in Family Travel S watching leathermaker in Jiufen, Taiwan

One of my favorite writers regarding Family Travel is Jennifer Miller of the Edventure Project, and one of my favorite pieces there is her 10 Tips for Traveling with Kids.

There are many nuggets of hard-earned wisdom in there, but one nugget in particular felt like a thump on the nose: it was simply titled “Unplug.” Children, she says, need to be able to find fun in the everyday, and the more time they have away from computers, video games and other electronics, the more likely they will be capable of dealing with boredom:

The ensuing development of the ability to self entertain, be creative and enjoy the simpler things will pay off in spades when you’re in Cambodia with a stick and a ball as the extent of the “entertainment” for your child. The other big benefit of making screen time a treat, instead of the norm, is that it works beautifully as a “Hail Mary” diversion when everything is going to hell in a hand basket at a particularly bad moment.

This made an impact on me not because I disagree — on the contrary, I think it is sound advice. No, the reason it hit me the way it did is because now I am truly aware of the conundrum I’ve placed myself in: I don’t want to overstimulate my kids, and I want them capable of enjoying whatever situation they’re thrown into.

Yet I have based a large portion of their education and entertainment options around laptops and iPads, which are frequently (and quite understandably) associated with shortening attention spans. How can I teach them patience when I’m handing them devices that drain it?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to lay down some Luddite screed about how we did things “back in MY day.” I love technology. And despite the countless opportunities for abuse, I think the internet is a full-on force for good, and our homeschooling method will keep one foot firmly in the “plugged-in” camp.

Hell, half of the raison d’etre of this trip (and this blog) is built around being plugged in. I already have them filming each other and filming themselves, and I want them to learn how to edit and produce their own content — using computers, the internet and iPads, of course.

I knew that the ebb and flow of digital appropriateness would be part of our story, but starting out, I just didn’t realize what a central role screen time will play in our peripatetic saga. With two  three laptops, two one iPhone and two iPads sitting around, quick-fix entertainment devices litter our apartment, and sometimes the temptation for our kids to plug in can be too strong to resist.

I’ve read Hanna Rosin’s Touch Screen Generation and dozens of other articles and studies that argue for and against iPad use with kids, and I made my decision: the pros outweigh the cons. But now that we’re permanently away from “home” and constantly together, in an apartment for long periods of time, I understand how much more I need to think about what’s happening when the screens are on, and what the kids are doing when they’re off.

The main force that drives my kids to Little Wings and videos of Christiano Ronaldo is garden-variety boredom for sure, but it’s more than that. Sue Shellenbarger writes that what looks like boredom can also be a product of stress or frustration, and I’m fairly convinced that this is often the issue for my son.

While his sister can sit and draw or play the keyboard for hours, the boy seems to believe soccer and LCD screens are the only valid forms of passing the time. Less than a minute after we walk in the door from lunch or dinner, and he asks — or begs — for iPad time or an iTunes movie rental. The frequent “no” he gets from us often ushers in a mist of anger and tension that takes an hour to dissipate. Our transition to a life of travel has no doubt been stressful for him, and I believe he uses the screen time as a salve on the wound of unfamiliarity.

This story will have a happy ending, however. We have already found ways to divert his attention more constructively, and will be implementing even more as we continue to build the kids’ homeschooling curriculum. Since exercise and games hit the right buttons with both of them, we have added more family game time into our routine.

In addition to the usual evening rounds of Go Fish, Uno and Babanuki (the Japanese version of Old Maid), we’ve taught the kids how to play backgammon and will continue to add games to our repertoire (What games work for you? Add them to the comments below or contact me please!). Another game that I’m pleasantly surprised they love is one I simply call “the alphabet game.” You play by taking turns maintaining a conversation, where each new sentence starts with the next letter of the alphabet. For example:

Alright let’s start!”

But are you ready to play?”

Can’t you see that I’m ready?”

Don’t answer a question with another question.”

Everybody does that!”


This gets them thinking in English (something I’m trying to do already), and also helps them with English spelling, as well (ie. “Ice” starts with an I, not an “Ah” sound, like would be the case in the Japanese phonetic system). We’ve bent the rules a bit for letters X and Z — those letters just have to be in the word somewhere, not necessarily at the beginning — but they enjoy the game so much that we’ve even added the ending “Now I know my ABC’s, next time…” part into the game:

Now the game is finished”

I don’t think so…we’re still playing, right?”

Know what? I think we are!”

Our boy already has soccer and ping pong lessons — explained here — but as competition and strenuous exercise seem to be what he loves most (must’ve got it from his mother), I’ve told him to be my personal trainer. I take breaks from the laptop and we do sit-ups, push-ups and lower back extensions together.

He barks out phrases of abuse and encouragement — mostly what he’s heard in movies (“Feel the PAIN!”) — and I puff and strain to finish another set without popping a blood vessel in my forehead. Between gasps for air, I shout back things like “YES SIR!” and “OK, COACH!” Then afterwards, he shows me up (not a hard thing to do) by doing 20 more reps of each exercise than I do. He loves beating his old man.

We’ve also added cooking activities (part of the plan anyway), and both M and S really get into that, but all of these steps are approaching only part of the problem, but not its core: dealing with boredom, learning patience and learning to entertain yourself when others can’t — or won’t. This will be vital to life, and something I hope guides him towards success.

After all, kids need to be bored sometimes. It’s important. That’s when you discover interests you didn’t even know you had. That’s when creativity can strike. It’s when you really read, and when you build a tolerance for under-stimulation that will keep you from strangling someone while waiting in traffic or the security line at the airport. It’s when you start to see things that you’d overlooked or ignored a thousand times before — little details that you’d never noticed before. You have to pull yourself away from the screen sometimes for these things to happen.
I’m not exactly sure how I’ll implement this yet, but boredom is definitely going into the curriculum.


  1. Hi Jason, found you via a comment in a Families on the move Facebook group and thought I would check you guys out. Love this one. We play a homophone game, wrote a post on it some time ago. We also do many card games with “real cards” (Spoons, war, solitaire etc. ). What we find the most interesting with the kids (9&11) is to watch them play black jack. They are not only using math, but estimating odds, counting cards (shh don’t tell) and having fun too. Since arriving in Spain 15 months ago, they have really done well with getting creative and have much more time to play outside too. Thanks for this, now we have more games to add to the mix.

    • Thanks so much for this, Heidi. The Families on the Move group has meant so much to me over the past 6 months. Yes, we need all the games we can get. Both kids got iPod touches for Christmas, and I’m incorporating them into our homeschooling in a number of ways, but I don’t want apps and games to become our default entertainment. I need to teach the kids Blackjack now. They’ve really taken to backgammon recently (we have a small, magnetic travel set). I hope to reconnect with you again sometime…would love to hear more about your time in Spain! I’ll read more on your blog. It’s likely to be one of our long-term destinations within the next two years. Thank you so much for contacting me, Heidi, and I apologize for my ridiculously late reply. Keep in touch!

  2. You might want to consider some other board games. The board games everyone knows (and that have been mentioned) are, IMO, too mainstream, too adult, and/or too played out, but games like “Castle Panic,” “Small World,” “Dominion,” and “Pandemic” are lesser known games that really work on strategy and problem solving. Visit http://www.boardgamegeek.com for game info and reviews.

    • Thank you Luke! (and apologies for the late reply…my fault…somehow I missed it. very sorry). I will look into these games. My kids love this, and me too. Right before we left Taiwan, we ran across the board game cafe: one drink (approx USD $3) got you three hours there, and they had walls and walls of games. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go — my son and I have severe cat allergies, and this cafe was crawling with them. Thanks again for the link!

  3. We Roadschool, so we use mostly online resources for the children’s schooling needs, too. Even though I think that technology has given us so many positives. I also feel that everything should be in moderation 😉
    I mean that is why we travel, right? To experience the world around us! BTW, Thanks for sharing! The Alphabet game is a cute idea. Going to have to give it a try with my kids. We like to play Scrabble, but I think this will be fun to play too 🙂

    • HI Wendy. Thanks for getting in touch. And agreed: moderation is the key. We will be introducing Scrabble at some point (and Boggle), but I need to get the kids’ English reading & spelling up to a certain point first. Then scrabble will fortify their abilities. The beauty of the alphabet game is that you don’t need anything to play — no board, no pieces — and you can play while walking, hiking, etc. If you have any more game suggestions, I’m listening!