This winter my husband, Steve, and I took our two daughters to the Grand Canyon, an eight-hour haul from our home in Santa Fe. Our road-trip game has evolved over the years. When they were infants, they napped to Baby Mozart on the CD player for hours on end (and no stopping for gas, or else they woke up). As toddlers they passed the time watching Little Einsteins episodes or giving monkeys perms on Toca Hair Salon on the Kindle. But ever since they learned to read, we’ve deliberately gone screen-free in the car. Now, at ages eight and ten, they pack their own art supplies and books, play car bingo, do homework, or—best of all—daydream out the window.
On this latest trip, we upped our game and finally joined the 21st century by cuing up some podcasts. The girls are mature enough now to listen to 45-minute shows with substance and heft that also interest Steve and me (or that at least won’t bore us into a mind-numbing delirium). The best family podcasts are the ones that we can all enjoy. Our audio diet tries to hit the big categories—art, science, humanity, adventure, mystery, and nature.
Short and Curly
Ages 4 and up
Produced by ABC News Australia, Short and Curly is an ethics podcast for kids and parents that poses moral dilemmas and probing—or in Aussie lingo, “curly”—questions and gives listeners time to discuss them together. On the way home from the Grand Canyon, we listened to a show about pugs (is it humane to breed dogs whose short snouts make it hard to breathe?) and, in a compelling mock reenactment of the Titanic, the morality of saving kids’ lives over adults’. Cohosted by award-winning science journalist Carl Smith and Australian actress and filmmaker Molly Daniels, Short and Curly addresses subjects ranging from science to sports, wildlife to technology. And at just about 20 minutes long, it’s succinct, as advertised, never preachy, and funny. Bonus: an Aussie ethics expert chimes in with helpful perspectives.
The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel
For ages 8 to 12
Winner of the 2016 Peabody Award, this serialized mystery podcast is performed by kids for kids. The namesake protagonist, an Indian American middle schooler, teams up with his friends to investigate the link between missing children and a shady billionaire. Plenty of sci-fi elements keep the mystery moving forward, ensuring that kids—and their grown-ups—will be hooked from the start. Now in season three, the audio episodes are short (15 to 25 minutes long) and fast-paced, ideal for action-obsessed listeners.
For ages 11 and up
As a young girl, I was obsessed with the television series In Search of… about eerie natural phenomena like Pompeii, Bigfoot, and the Bermuda Triangle. Kids these days are just as hooked on the weird hidden forces that shape our lives. Enter Invisibilia, NPR’s narrative storytelling podcast for grown-ups that’s chockablock with strange-but-true tales about the unseeable things that affect our behavior, beliefs, and assumptions—like the latest neuroscience research on emotions; ways in which we see reality (and in one story, bears) differently; and “I, I, Him,” about the stories we tell about ourselves to overcome difficult obstacles. Cohosted by Hanna Rosin and Alix Spiegel, of This American Life and The Atlantic, respectively, this 45-minute show is clever and compelling.
For ages 4 to 10
The younger set will groove on this read-aloud podcast, which features original stories about birds, pirates, and plucky monkeys, as well as classic fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Aesop, and the Brothers Grimm. Only 15 to 20 minutes long, the dramatic tales suit shorter attention spans or those who tend to doze off midstory for their nap (guilty).
For ages 8 and up
For older kids asking bigger questions, Krista Tippet’s On Being may just be the answer. On a recent backcountry hut trip in Colorado, we listened to Tippet’s 2015 interview with the late, great poet Mary Oliver. Some of it, including allusions to Oliver’s difficult childhood, was over their heads, but Tippet, who covers mindfulness, spirituality, science, and art, approaches her subjects with thoughtful consideration, humility, and a lot of heart. Afterward, I asked the girls and their seven-year-old friend to share something they’d learned. Oliver lived in Florida and loved nature, one of them said. She stood at her door every morning with her notebook in hand and wrote, another recalled. She collected shingles at the dump on the day she won the Pulitzer. The message of this episode, and much of On Being, is that if you pay attention, you’ll see that life is filled with ordinary, beautiful moments—many of them beautiful because they are so ordinary.