By Lynn Dewing
My two children attend a private school 45 minutes from home. If we drive this twice a day, five days a week, how many hours do we spend commuting in a typical month? Move to the top of the class if you guessed about 30 – a work-week worth of time when you add stops for groceries etc.
This used to be downtime. At best all three of us would zone out into personal reveries or be distracted by ice cream. Sometimes I would look for the letters of the alphabet in street signs with my daughter while her brother built something with Lego. But they did not enjoy the same games and neither could read in the back seat of a car without feeling sick. At worst, boredom led to bickering and eventually to shouts or tears. You’ve probably been there.
I hit upon a way to avoid the en-route zone-out by using my imagination. Now we have fun during this enforced time in close quarters. With their minds engaged, they forget their bodies are tied down with seat belts.
It started with Yap-Yap. He’s a young coyote who shared his frustration one day on our way home from school. It seems he squeaks when he tries to howl and is dreadfully worried that he will embarrass himself at the big full moon event in front of all of his relatives. He goes off alone during playtime in the afternoon and finds marmot holes in which to practice. Of course there are hazards involved…
When we got home and they didn’t want to get out of the car I knew I was on to something. And I felt enlivened also. Storytelling, in one form or another, has become a regular feature of our trips. Yap-Yap did eventually learn to howl, but by then he was in other predicaments with his new buddy, Max the Marmot.
Another favorite is the ongoing story of Shar, a Bedouin boy who tames a wild horse which came to him while he was alone in the desert. Later he is given a mysterious jeweled dagger by his grandfather and he learns how to throw it.
Progressive stories seem to appeal particularly to my daughter, who is 8 ½, and she will suggest episodes, but does not want to tell the story. Somehow that would take away from the magic we are creating by treating the characters as if they were real. “What happened to Shar’s Granpa when he was at the market and the raiders were hiding at the oasis Mom? You remember? Did his camel need to stop for water there?”
My two are very different from each other. Celeste wants involvement with other people or some stimulation most of the time. “B-o-o-o-oring!” is a common phrase of hers, along with “When will we get there?”
Brooke, on the other hand, is perfectly happy to insert his thumb, gaze out the window and daydream. He watches for trains and planes and is thrilled when we stop at the end of the runway on the way home so that a 737 can go over our heads.
Sometimes it is their turn to tell a story. When it is Brooke’s turn Celeste often needs reminding about respect, but then she will help him out with suggestions when he gets stuck. Or we will take turns adding to a story. “There once was a young giraffe in a zoo named Twinkle-Toes, who grew so tall that he couldn’t stand up in his house. Your turn.”
Of course the story has gone so far before it returns to me that I cannot get to his custom-designed knee-pads and how he discovers that he can slide on them. In fact chances are that he has already died by then and the story has ended amid gales of laughter, caused in part by knowing they are frustrating my intentions.
A sure delight for Brooke and any friends his age, is to put them in the story. “Tell me a story about me and Carly Mom.” ( Carly is the golden retriever in the family.)
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“How about hiding Dad’s baseball glove.”
“Yeh. Tell that one.”
I love the influence the storytelling has had on their imaginations. When we went for a walk up the road in the dark last week Brooke decided to try howling to the coyotes to see if Yap-Yap would answer him. Immediately there was a choral response which sounded quite close. I was surprised, but he stopped still with enormous eyes, insisted we turn around and held me very tightly all the way home.