7 October 2013 08:23 AM

Staying Sane on a Road Trip With Kids

by rbavaria

Here we are at the beginning of October, and lots of families are planning fall trips to look at the foliage, to visit Grandma, or just to get away for a day or two.  Car trips can be family fun or family misery, depending on how well we’ve planned for them.  Nothing major, just a few steps to make sure everyone’s reasonably happy. 

Anything to postpone the first “Are we there yet?”

I’ve been on lots of family road trips and even more school field tripsIf you think kids in a car can be a handful, try forty of them in a bumpy yellow school bus.  Here are some inexpensive, low-tech, all-inclusive tips on keeping everyone occupied.  I’ve discovered some on my own and borrowed others from clever parents and teachers.  Ten or fifteen minutes per game seems to be a good rule of thumb.  Cut them short if they’re flagging, extend them if they’re a hit.

1. Scavenger hunt.  Kids never tire of scavenger hunts.  Before the trip, think up some interesting, somewhat challenging categories – farm vehicles, antique cars, interesting road signs (“Twenty miles ‘til Petting Goat Zoo” “Fifteen miles ‘til Petting Goat Zoo”), red convertibles, choo-choo trains.

2. ABCs.  Good for early learners.  Start with A’s, move on to B’s and keep on going to see how far you can go.  Look for road signs, cars, landmarks, and other sights that you can alphabetize or categorize.  Let them feel really smart, and do the alphabet backwards.

3. “I spy.”  “I spy with my little eye something red.”  Or green, or huge, or in the air, or on the skyline, or whatever.  To keep the game moving, limit guesses to a certain number.  I’ve found ten to be just right for kid-attention-spans.

4. License plates and maps. Map-reading is an important skill.  Combine it with the license plate game, where you try to find as many states and foreign countries as you can.  Color in a map, decorate it with stickers and original “artwork,” or let each kid have her own map and compare at the end of the trip.  Highlight the route you’re taking, figure out how long until the next rest stop, and learn north-south-east-west.  Look for funny personalized plates.  (My favorite, on the Mercedes convertible of an obvious divorcee: “Was His.”  I got more of a kick out of it than the kids, but it was worth it.)

5. Cars.  Some kids really get into this, maybe future engineers and designers.  Try to identify as many makes and models as you can.  Keep a list.  Talk about how you’re recognizing them – design differences from one year to the next, even the sound of the engines.  Foreign?  Domestic?  Gas?  Electric?  Hybrid?

6. Card games.  Simple card games can while away the time.  Some cards are specially made for car trips, magnetized on a metal tray.

7. DVDs.  Of course.  Have some favorites on hand, a new one or two, maybe even some based on a book you all have read together.

8. Rest stop games.  Let the kids help determine when and where to stop for rests.  (Use their maps to find appropriately spaced places or particularly scenic ones.)  Stretch.  Bring along a nerf ball, a Frisbee, a jump rope. 

9. Trivia.  Prepare a couple of categories of trivia.  Be ready to ask questions about favorite sports, athletes, movies, foods, even school topics.  I particularly like family trivia, which personalizes the game and helps kids learn about their relatives.  (“Grandpa’s rank in the army was master sergeant.  True or false?”  “Great grandma came from what country?”  “Where did Aunt Laura go to nursing?”  “What neighborhood did Daddy grow up in?”

10. Crafts.  No, you can’t have finger paints, scissors, and paste in the car, but you can keep everyone happily busy with coloring books, blank-page art notebooks, and – I love this idea – pipe cleaners, which can be made into just about anything.

There are others.  Songs, for instance, have saved my sanity, even though I’m left mentally singing “You Are My Sunshine” for days afterwards.  Your family will create its own favorites.

I’ve found it’s helpful to involve the kids well before the trip.  Ask for their help finding the best routes, rest stops, figuring out travel time (teach them “ETD” and “ETA” so they’ll feel grown up).  Have a few ideas in your mind for trivia games and interesting conversation topics.  Most of all, set your mind – and theirs – that this is going to be family fun.  Relax.  Bon voyage.


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