Have we found the ultimate distraction game?
Going on a long car journey can be tough for young children or anyone with high anxiety, however one of my twins has recently started finding even short journeys a bit of a challenge, especially if we hit any sort of traffic jam.
His anxiety means he needs to focus on completing the car journey as quickly as possible so he can get to the next thing, and he experiences it as a long transition towards or away from an activity rather than an activity in its own right - he's very much about outcomes, rather than processes. This means that traffic jams are especially hard. He's now old enough and imaginative enough to know that when traffic starts to slow down this means his discomfort is going to be prolonged too, and the anticipation of a delay - which is pretty likely on the motorway - is ever-present for him.
I do get it: it's pretty horrid to have those worries and the accompanying bodily sensations. It does make for some quite jittery journeys for us all as we struggle to help him stay regulated and to cope with sitting still, waiting, and trying to be patient. His dysregulation then affects his brother, who resorts to loud screeching and silly behaviour, and that then usually results in both of them thumping each other! We have had to stop a lot on recent journeys to help them both calm down, and have sometimes only been able to continue our journey if a grown-up sits between them to be a physical presence for co-regulation.
Like most parents, we've tried all the usual tactics to distract him, however toys to fidget with often turn into missiles that get hurled into the front of the car when his frustration and anxiety get too much, or become weapons with which to bash his brother; crunchy foods are helpful, but only on short journeys; screen time numbs him down but can then mean he needs more processing time at the end of the journey, which can manifest as demand avoidance at best, aggression at worst! All of these solutions don't help him sit with the journey, they distract him from what is happening, and actually the thing we need most to work on is how to be 'in the moment' rather than worrying about what comes next.
We then came across the Mini Cheddar game.
It's a very simple game for car journeys, though we've also been using it on our walk to school too, and features the iconic Mini car. As a big fan of 'The Italian Job' (thanks Mum!), I really love these little cars.
It works like this:
If you spot a Mini, then that's 10 points.
If you spot a yellow car (not a van or lorry), then that's 5 points.
If you spot a yellow Mini, that's a Mini Cheddar and earns 25 points.
You can play the game open-ended and see what the score is by the time you finish your journey (our current record for a 35 mile journey is 350 points), or you can set a target e.g. can we get to 100 before we arrive at school? Today, we reached 70 thanks to a Mini in the staff car park.
While it's a simple game, it has a lot of content to it: you need to be able to recognise a Mini and scour the roads and driveways for them; you need to spot yellow cars and intentionally exclude yellow vehicles that aren't cars - not easy when you're desperate to reach a target; you need to keep adding on your score, which means holding on to what your current score is first, and then adding on differing amounts; and, everyone needs to see the car too - you can't pretend you've seen something, your 'spot' needs to be validated by others for it to count.
The beauty of this game is that it's very distracting indeed. For my sons, it turns their attention during car journeys towards observation - they are looking out at the world, turning their attention to what is happening around them rather than focusing on their thoughts and feelings about being stuck in a car on the way to something; they find the anticipation of beating a top score or hitting a target an easier form of anxiety to cope with - they are experiencing progress through the journey as their score changes and, even in a traffic jam, there are Minis to spot; they enjoy the maths challenge too, and can both hold onto their current score and add on in 5s, 10s, and 25s. It's also very fortunate that one of my twins' favourite colour happens to be yellow.
It may be that it's just working for now because of the novelty, so I'm thinking about ways we can extend and flex the game to increase the difficulty, or to add a different challenge. It may be that it's the simplicity that is the most helpful thing, but until we experiment it's hard to say.
However, it's having a great impact for us...and it's fun too! So, if you're off out and about, why not try your own game of Mini Cheddar: can you beat our score of 350 in one journey?
Ready, steady, go! And try not to blow the bloody doors off, eh?