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Ideas for Traveling With Kids: The Best Car Activities, No Electricity Required

By Melissa Summers

arewethereyet.jpgIn about 15 minutes we are going “Up North”. Everyone in Michigan refers to going anywhere north of where you are as going “Up North”. However, there’s up north and there is Up North. We are going to the upper peninsula, so far into the upper peninsula it may as well be Canada, without the mounties and the ham posing as bacon.
My children do not sleep in the car and never have. They are awake the entire time no matter how long the trip. Once on a road trip our daughter had a little sniffle, she sneezed at least once, so we gave her a dose of allergy medicine which sometimes makes people drowsy and might urge them to take a small nap. Her small sniffle was effectively wiped out, however she talked for five consecutive hours barely pausing to take a breath.
Sometime after that trip we incorporated the portable tv/vcr combo into our trips. Five years and a second child later we’ve added a hand held video game system and a portable dvd player to our travel gear.
I know people scoff at the electronic entertainment for kids on trips and I understand why. However, I also have at least one child who is a horrible, horrible travel companion and when traveling with her eventually you’re going to require a lot of alcohol or the ability to leave your body in order to arrive at your destination. Ironically, leaving your body while driving will mostly likely cause you to crash and drinking while driving is also a really bad idea.
I believe in electronic enhancement during travel with kids, but I also believe in more creative ways to kill time in the car. I’m focusing mainly on games which require no supplies because, well, yesterday my basement filled with 2 inches of water, today I spent 2 hours at the doctor with my son and his ear infection, I haven’t packed for our trip to my sister’s wedding where I’m the matron of honor and my daughter is the flower girl and I entertained another family for dinner tonight. I don’t have time to collect a lot of gear is what I’m trying to say.
license%20plates.JPGI always loved license plate games growing up, in the old days when we didn’t wear seat belts, watch tv in cars and open containers of alcohol were not illegal in cars. Family Fun suggests creating phrases out of the letters on the plates. So, for example, maybe you see a plate which reads “RLD 352” this could be “Really Long Drive 352”. They also suggest having each child pick a license plate and add the numbers, the plate which adds up closest to 21 wins.
alphabet%20letters.JPGI love this game called “Eating The Alphabet“. The first player says “I’m so hungry I could eat [item which starts with A]”. The second player repeats the last item and adds another item they’d like to eat which begins with B. And so on, until you’re eating x-rays and all the members of ZZ Top.
This site, Moms Minivan, has several travel ideas up for grabs. I’m a little ashamed to say it never occurred to me to read aloud together on our trips. We’ve got a couple chapter books ready to go, I’m not convinced my 6 year old’s interest will be held but I’m certain my 8 year old will be engaged and since she’s the difficult traveler in our family that sounds perfect.
I can’t wait to try out “Fortunately/Unfortunately” with my kids. This is a shared story telling game involving a bounce between good luck and not as good luck. Here’s the example from Family Fun site, “A boy went to the store,” one player might begin. “Fortunately, he brought three dollars in his pocket to buy bread and milk.” The second player takes over: “Unfortunately, the money was soaking wet when he got there because it was raining.” I have a feeling my optimistic son and husband will have the fortunately’s covered and my pessimistic daughter and I will have no problem with the unfortunately’s.
Maybe you’re more organized and prepared to bring some items on your trip to entertain the kids.
magnadoodle.jpgThe travel Magna Doodle is getting a lot of attention on our product rating site. I have to agree with most reviewers, we’ve always loved the Magna Doodle because it’s not messy, is small enough to keep in the car all the time and works quite well for tic tac toe or even better, “Finish The Doodle”. To play finish the doodle, one person closes his eyes and makes a squiggle on the Magna Doodle. The other person then creates some drawing out of the doodle.
lacingcards.jpg Madallie is a children’s travel store full of great items to keep your kids unplugged and entertained while travelling. Lacing cards are great fun for small children and easily contained to a car seat. You can make your own travel bingo game, but the question is, “Will you, really?” My answer is no, here’s one you can buy.
I’d love to hear how you keep your kids entertained while traveling. I have my blackberry in the car and it will probably work for at least part of the way up north. I mean, I’m pretty sure the internet doesn’t reach that far but until we cross the bridge to the upper peninsula I can probably still get email. Please feel free to share your best distracting activities for the car.

Melissa Summers
About the Author

Melissa Summers

Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.


Melissa Summers was a regular contributor writing Melissa’s Buzz Off.

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  • On our summer road trip I printed out the words to American Pie and whenever anyone complained I played the song and made everyone sing a long. My family hated it, but I got a perverse pleasure from it AND now we know most of the words 🙂
    We also bought a version Uno from a series of games called “Cargo”. The cards are round and in a container that fits in your cupholder, so you can play without spilling cards all over. it was a huge hit.
    Have a great trip!

  • A variation on the alphabet game that our 6 kids like to play on car trips is to find the letters on billboards and signs, in order, and come up with a related item that begins with that letter.
    For example: Kid 1 spots letter “A” on a McDonald’s sign and says “Apple Pie”, Kid 2 spots letter “B” on a Burger King sign and says “Buns”. Any kind of sign works and the letter doesn’t have to be in the name of the company just on the sign. For example, a Meineke sign might have “B” for “Brakes”.

  • Reading sounds good in theory (I’ve never had a problem with it), but many people find that reading in the car can give them a headache (or worse–car sick, anyone?).
    Fortunately there are books on tape (although perhaps you’re lucky enough to have a newer car that doesn’t have a tape player?) There probably are books on CD, too. I say “probably” because while I like the idea, we’ve never used it; I’ve just heard of many other who have.

  • Michelle

    Margie, I can affirm that books on tape are also available on CD, and they are good for road trips. My parents listened to them all the time on our frequent drives across vast prairies where no decent radio station would be found.
    We also listened to recordings of old radio dramas from the 30s and 40s, which were great fun to listen to as they had sound effects and different actors and (usually) engaging plots. I really enjoyed those.

  • Angela

    THE QUIET GAME. Seriously, I was the oldest of four and my Mom invented this game where she’d suddenly announce (random!) “One, two, three banana!” And we’d all be quiet and the last one to keep it up won a prize. Like a dollar. We were cheaply bought. Nowadays, it’s mostly books or “eye spy” with my nine year old.

  • Maria

    Heh, I live in the UP, on the Keweenaw peninsula, 2 hrs NW of Marquette. Marquette is where we go for civilized things, like Target and large home improvement stores.
    You could play “The Minister’s Cat”: everyone thinks of adjectives beginning with A, then B, etc. The Minister’s Cat is an annoyed cat, for example. The one with the most obscure adjective wins.
    When my sister and I were kids, and we drove from Maryland to Florida, we’d play “Bury your cows.” This only works with 2 kids, though, since one kid gets one side of the highway and the other kid the other. When you pass a farm, estimate the # of cows in the field. If you pass a cemetary, you have to bury all your cows. The one with the most cows at the end of the game wins.
    I like the quiet game, too. My dad encouraged us to play “Mushroom”, where we had to be quiet AND still. Whoever moved or talked first lost.

  • I like the idea of car bingo, but I never made one or bought one, and I wasn’t sure if my kids were old enough to get the idea… anyway, what I did once was write a simple list of things (for everyone) to look out as we drove. i.e. big red barn, wooden fence, children playing, dead skunk, railroad tracks, bird on a wire etc. Suprisingly enough, the kids were occupied with this for ages. Personally, I was amazed at how long it took for us to find that damn bird on that damn wire.

  • Sumo

    Our road trip activities were just the traditional alphabet game (looking for a-z on license plates, sings, etc.) and, for me, reading. Ditto Margie’s caution about many (if not most) people getting carsick when trying to read, though I never had that problem. My mom would get cheap little things together for us to play with on the trip, like the little thing filled with iron filings where you used a magnet to draw hair on the bald dude, or get the little ball through the maze. You know, cheap crap that even as a kid you wouldn’t normally touch, but it was great stuff when trapped in a car. She would dole it out every hour or two to make the suspense last (hopefully) the whole trip. Oh, and later we liked the Mad Libs (though it wasn’t as great with your parents, because you couldn’t use words like “boobs”). I know, times have changed. We don’t have kids, so I can’t imagine what would not pass as lame these days.

  • Sumo

    I forgot to add that books are definitely on CD, and I suspect that books on “tape” will soon be a thing of the past. My sister has a tape player in her car and asked for a music cassette. Couldn’t find a new one. I called a used record store and they told me that not only are music cassettes not produced, most used music stores don’t even carry them (though he did say Half Price Books has them). Currently, I believe audio books are about the only thing still available on tape, so if that’s your thing, stock up now.

  • elsimom

    We used to play hangman. The inability to see the word written out makes it a little bit harder (for example, onion confused the heck out of my dad one time, even though he won, he was like “What the heck is Oh knee ohn?”).
    We also “collected” license plates. On longer family trips we tried to get all 50 states. Others must do the same thing, because many were the times when we heard “Ooh! South Dakota! We don’t have South Dakota yet!”
    Oh the stories of car trips . . .it’s bringing back memories . . .like the time my frazzled mother declared 10 minutes of silence, and then didn’t tell my dad he missed his turn . .. . that didn’t go so well. Heehee.
    Of the time the crayons I dropped melted all over my aunts rear end because of the hot vinyl seat.
    Okay . . .I’ll stop.

  • Jenny

    When my boyfriend and I go downstate (we live in Marquette) with his kids I have found that they like to complain A LOT… so I have found that if I give them each a roll of quarters, and every time they complain or say something negative they have to give me a quarter. And whatever they have left at the end of the trip they get to keep… At first I got all the money back but they are starting to learn. I also pack pipe cleaners from the craft store, you can bend them and make great animal or flowers. We also play a game were we divide the can and you count the animals on your side of the car… and who ever finds the most animals wins! Good luck with your drive!

  • On our recent roadtrip we listened to Little House in the Big Woods and James & the Giant Peach on CD. Both were huge hits – my 5-y-o daughter was mostly captivated. As much as I love love love Laura I must say James – read by Jeremy Irons – was my hands down fave. I would listen to it myself commuting to work.

  • Melanie

    We listen to books on cd. The library has a pretty good collection to check out (and we can request them from other libraries in our county library system). The only “downside” is that now that is what we do ALL THE TIME when the kids are in the car….

  • Amy

    When we drive on long trips with my boyfriend’s children, we play this alphabet game. You scan road signs, license plates, billboards…anything with letters or words. You start with A and move along as you see words containing the next letter. First person to reach Z wins. It keeps the kids busy and even though I can’t read in the car without getting sick, I find I can even play this game.
    Melissa, I’m originally from Detroit and moved about an hour and a half northwest of Marquette, so I make the 9.5 hour drive many times a year to visit family. I feel your pain; that’s a long drive with two young children (and Michigan law frowning upon open alcohol containers in the car, ha).