In ‘Real World Math’, Richard makes math fun and engaging to kids, while satisfying their innate desire to understand how things work. Richard figures that if he can make math fun for kids that it will also satisfy their curiosity and point their energy in a positive direction.

Somewhere between the comforting ride in a car seat putting them down for a nap and the begging for the keys when they want to drive themselves to mall, lie the “are we there yet?” years of roughly 5 – 14.

And despite what, to our logical adult minds should be the obvious answer – that we are quite plainly still somewhere in the woods between the river and grandma’s house — the refrain goes on, usually met either by the stock Dad answer of ‘not yet, still a ways to go’ or the more effective and time-tested mom-answer of “who wants a snack?”

But, if you’re like my family and a cross-state drive is not an unusual occurrence in delivering the grandchildren to grandparents at the holidays or just for visit, you know that all the DVDs, car bingo games, coloring books, and sticky, salty snacks that seek out the nether regions of the seat belt wells in the back seat are not enough to stave off that eternal question of children trapped in the car. No, not even tales of how Mom and Dad used to have to suffer this exact same kind of torture sans an overhead DVD player or the Internet.

Ah, but what if you can involve them? Since taking a shift driving is out, you can nonetheless appoint one child as the navigator and the other child as the trip economist, with them switching up roles on the way home. Here’s what that looks like:


  • The navigator can use actual paper map if you have one, or car GPS, internet map, etc. as available.
  • If you don’t know exactly how far you have left to go in miles, have them spot for the next sign that lists the miles to your destination and/or estimate it for them.
  • If you’re on the freeway and not stuck in traffic, you’ll tend to make about 1 mile per minute, so it’s just a matter of having them convert miles left into minutes and then into hours/minutes if there’s still a ways to go.
  • One they have this down, the whole concept of “miles per hour” on the speed limit signs will let them get savvier at better estimating time when you’re off the freeway or total trip time once you’ve broken free of the holiday traffic jam.
  • They can also use a map to visually compare how far they’ve already traveled vs. how far there is to go, and can break this down into looking at how far you are between towns, (et cetera) as a way of understanding the geography of the trip.
  • You can also invite the navigator to look ahead to possible alternate routes when/if you encounter traffic jam, plot possibly new and more interesting routes to take on the way home, etc.

Trip Economist

  • In this role, you’ll want the kid performing it to keep track of mileage between stops for gas and do the division of gallons to fill tank into miles driven to estimate gas mileage.
  • Also have them keep track of any other expenses: meals, motels, snacks, car washes, etc. – they can then actually calculate the cost of “family mileage” – how much it costs per mile, all things considered, to make the trip (this works when flying as well).
  • Break out each expense category. What costs more for your family: Gas? Food? Lodging? Not only is this good math practice, but it gets kids to thinking about the overall cost of a family vacation that you’re footing, not just thinking about in the moment why they can please, please, just have this one last souvenir.
  • Do certain parts of the trip use more or less gas? Why? How does the trip home compare to the trip there? What about versus the last time you went?
  • Air, fuel, and oil filter makers claim that regularly changing these improves mileage. Tire manufacturers claim that proper inflation does the same. So too do gas stations say different grades of fuel perform better. You can pretty easily test these things as well.

Practice these roles above (and, where practical, allow them some input on alternate routes, helping with different aspects of the trip budget, and so on) and before long instead of asking “are we there yet,” they’ll be telling you how much you’re saving versus flying, or that, based on their calculations and factoring in one more snack/bathroom stop, you should be arriving at grandma’s in approximately 1 hour and 37 minutes. And if you get them to check your tire pressure and pump your gas along the way, well that’s just a bonus.