Are you planning a family road trip and need some ideas about how to mange the kids in the car? Keep everyone having fun, and sane, with these family road trip tips!
We’ve spent a LOT of hours in the car on the road with many small children. I don’t think we are experts in many things – but we might qualify as experts on sitting in the car with our kids.
We’ve had lots of short trips, of course – trips to The Farm and the beach and whatnot. (And by short I mean less than six hours.) But we’ve also logged in miles and miles and hours and hours on loads of long trips as well. I mean – my parents and two of my brothers lived in Wyoming. That’s a painfully long way away no matter what highway you take. We have made the Virginia to Wyoming trek more than once – and one time with five young kids while I was pregnant. We’ve driven to Florida loads of times. Giant drives to the New England area. Last winter’s trip to upstate New York. Multiple trips to Ohio and of course our giant adventure of last summer to the Little House on the Prairie sites.
The road can be a challenge for sure. But, and I know this will sound unbelievable, I love road trips with our kids. Seriously. I love being in the car with our whole family. It’s like this fragmented section of time where everyone I care most about in this world is ensconced in one rectangular space and we have absolutely nowhere else to go and nothing else to do except be together. Look at the same signs. Play the same games. Hear the same music. Create the same memories. And every road trip is so fleeting. Our family dynamic will change every year and every road trip. I like the tight space and the forced togetherness.
I think I’ve proven that our family has been on a few road trips together. And now I will commence sharing a bit of our Road Trip Tricks of the Trade. (It seems like a good season – this holiday time – to share road trip ideas. Also, my friend Joanna asked me to.) In absolutely no particular order …..
My best road trip tips
Muffin liners rock
Muffin liners come in a billion cute colors so they feel like a little party already. And the more often you can send the message to your kids that being tightly strapped into their car seats for the next eighteen hours will be fun, the better. We use muffin liners to pass out all of the snacks. They’re great for portion control and they are easy to crumple up and toss when you’re done.
They’ll hold snacks like cheddar crackers, homemade granola and trail mix, grapes, or whatever you are snacking on. (And, by the way, snacks are vital to the success of road trips. Hungry kids – and hungry adults – are notoriously bad company. Pack loads of snacks – you will not regret it.) Other good snack ideas – carrots, cucumbers, tiny tomatoes, peanut butter crackers, bananas, apples, fruit leather, popcorn.
Plan a scavenger hunt
Make up stuff that would be funny to your family – a personalized list – such as: a purple punch bug, three kids in a car, dogs on a billboard, a car that exactly matches ours. Decide a reward. We assigned points to each item on the list and at 100 points we earned a gas station treat. It’s a stop you already have to make at some point so it’s not adding an extra stop.
We let the kids pick (almost) anything they wanted and they thought it was like winning the lottery! $6 and little weird dye for the win! (If the weird dye and gas station munchies isn’t your style, your reward can be snacks from home or ice cream at a your-family-approved restaurant – just any prize that your family would deem valuable.)
You can print the scavenger hunt any way you’d like – one per child if you have readers or one for the whole family and your reader or adult passenger can read out the items to be on the search for.
A new spin on a classic game
License Plate Game. It’s a Road Trip classic. But one of the really fun parts of being a parent is that what is a classic to you – is a new game to your kids. You can handle this one any way you like. I love to print out a blank US map for each child because it looks cute and it’s more time-consuming. (Plus – it’s secretly educational.)
Also – even non-readers can shade in the state with minimal assistance. Since the day that this game was introduced to me on a Road Trip with my own family in the far back reaches of my own childhood, I have always dreamed of a day in which I would locate every single state on one road trip. (I even like to draw an outline of our route on the map so the kids can see where we are going.)
Audiobooks work wonders
This has been our Road Trip salvation. I love the car. I love being in the car with my kids. But sometimes – after many long hours – someone is leaning too far on their brother’s seat space and someone is chewing too loudly and someone doesn’t want to play the license plate game any longer and someone is not sharing the pillow and you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes you just need some relative calm. Audiobooks to the rescue.
Our kids adore them. Everyone is quiet and attentive and can listen for so long. It’s miraculous – the power audiobooks have. I bring more than one – because occasionally we have come across some terribly done books and if you want to think of torture – think of listening to a poorly read, boring book.
We love the public library for audiobook borrowing although we do own a handful downloaded to our iPhones. A few of our family favorites are The Five Children and It, The Princess Bride (which we actually own on audio cassette!), The BFG (really any novel by Roald Dahl makes fantastic and funny listening), Robin Hood, Elijah of Buxton, The Sign of the Beaver, The Yearling, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Homesick.
For reasons I cannot explain, I think twenty questions is our children’s favorite Road Trip game. And that’s fine with me. It requires zero preparation and can burn fifty miles in no time at all. We generally play by traditional rules. The person comes up with one item and they give the listeners one clue – “it’s an animal” or “it’s a person”. Guesses must be questions only with the answers basically being “yes” or “no”. Sometimes we make the category more specific. For example, all items must be found in Cabela’s or in a grocery store or inside your bedroom.
Print a few coloring sheets at home – especially extra detailed ones such as geometric designs. (Those designs take a long time!) Our rule is colored pencils only in the car. Crayons melt and magic markers make – well, magic marker stains all over the car seats. Don’t forget the pencil sharpener.
Who doesn’t love tiny treasures and things to look forward to? I pick up small treats – one trip it was bright orange emergency whistles for their backpacks. (I found them at REI for 43 cents each!) Whistles were actually not the wisest Road Trip purchase, just so you know. You could buy matchbox cars, miniature hard rubber animals, a deck of cards, play-doh if you’re brave, new pencils, glow sticks, tattoos, stickers. The kids receive the wrapped gifts at special moments such as crossing a state line or after two hundred miles or when the clock says 11:11.
Simple & Cheap Fun!
Pipe Cleaners. For about $3 you can buy more pipe cleaners than you’ll know what to do with. Give each child about five pipe cleaners and issue a car-wide challenge. Try to create a person. Or an animal. Or a car. You can play too. After the car/animal/person has been created – make up some details for that person. Give him a name. Or a job. Your kids will probably begin backseat games of stories and details for their own little pipe cleaner town. This same concept works with Reynold’s Wrap. Pull off a sheet for every passenger and let them create whatever suits their fancy. Cheap fun, I tell you.
Road Trip Agenda
Have a (flexible) basic plan. Break the trip up so the time will pass more quickly. Yes, I am a planner. But I literally write down a sort of agenda for our Road Trips. I estimate our start and finish time, map out the overall journey, look into where our potential lunch and snack stops might occur to make the most of any roadside coolness we might pass.
I plan the car time in theory so that no activity drags on so long that it loses its appeal. For example – the first half hour to an hour is generally spent listening to music, laughing and talking, and not being tired of the car at all yet. So I don’t plan for that time. I take advantage of the general goodwill we all feel toward to one another at the beginning of an exciting adventure.
Before all that goodwill and camaraderie fades, I might pull out – say – the pipe cleaners. We’ll play with those for about half an hour. Then the audiobook gets turned on. After about an hour of listening, we might begin twenty questions or the license plate game. Then we might all do another silly family favorite – everyone takes one turn picking any song they like. We listen and sing along and with seven or eight of us in the car – suddenly half an hour has blown by and no one has noticed. hen it’s snack time and maybe the classic alphabet car game. By now you’ve probably passed through a new state and everyone has received their little surprise gifts. You guys are all working on your scavenger hunt and you’ve listened to the audiobook a little bit longer and then suddenly – guess what – you’ve just reached your destination! Ta-da! Wasn’t that trip fun?
But seriously, a Road Trip can be loads of fun. If you decide to make it that way. (That’s probably the biggest truth – YOU get to decide. The incredible, humbling power of the parent’s attitude.) I do think a little bit of pre-planning and a couple of good ideas will take you pretty far though.
Remind yourself – your kids will literally be older at the end of the trip than they were at the beginning.
And when you strap them into their seat and you sit down into yours, you have just entered a little time machine where you get a chance to listen to your children, talk to your spouse, build up a memory bank with the people you love and redeem the day if you choose.
What’s your best tip for car travel with your kiddos?
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