Traveling With Kids: The Best Car Activities
No matter how long a car trip we are taking, my children do not sleep in the car and never have. They are awake the entire time.
We once gave my daughter a dose of allergy medicine at the start of a road trip because she had a small runny nose and also because allergy medicine sometimes makes people drowsy and might cause them to take a nap. Her sniffle was effectively wiped out — unfortunately, she talked for five consecutive hours, barely pausing to take a breath. Traveling with her means that 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 am not opposed to electronic enhancement during travel with kids (we have done the whole dvd/tv/video game thing on previous trips), but I also like to find more low-tech ways to kill — er, pass time in the car.
In about 15 minutes we are leaving to head “Up North.” Everyone in Michigan refers to going anywhere north of where you currently 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, only without the Mounties and the ham posing as bacon.
For this trip, I’m focusing mainly on games which require no supplies because, well, yesterday my basement filled with two inches of water, today I spent two hours at the doctor with my son and his ear infection, tonight I entertained another family for dinner, and I haven’t packed for our trip, which includes my sister’s wedding, where I’m the matron of honor and my daughter is the flower girl. I didn’t have time to collect a lot of gear, is what I’m trying to say.
Here’s what I’m planning to keep us busy on the road north.
Pass the Time with Family Games
1. Watch the license plates. I always loved license plate games growing up, back in the old days when seat belts were optional and open containers of alcohol were acceptable. You can give your kids a notebook and a pencil and have them track the letters of the alphabet that they see on the plates — who can find all 26 first? Or you can ask them to create a phrase using the letters on the plates. So, for example, maybe you see a plate which reads “RLD 352” — RLD might be “Really Long Drive.” Or if your kids are more into number games, have each child pick a license plate and add the numbers — 3 + 5 + 2 = 10. The plate that adds up closest to 21 wins. And if you’re driving cross country, have your kids keep a list of all the state license plates they see. On the last day, the kid who spotted the most gets a prize. (Also, good luck. Cross country is a long drive.)
2. Play with words. Word games are another fun way to pass the time. We play one we call “Eating the Alphabet” — the first player leads off by saying, “I’m so hungry I could eat [item which starts with A].” The next player repeats all the previous items, in alphabetical order, and adds another item beginning with the next letter, all the way through the end of the alphabet. (“I’m so hungry I could eat an apple and a boogie board and a cashew and a ditch digger” — and so on until eventually you’re eating X-rays and all the members of ZZ Top.) Other versions include “I’m going on a picnic and I’ve packed …” or “My mother sent me to the grocery to buy …”
3. Read out loud. We’re not big on books on tape in the car but we are big readers and we do a lot of reading together at home. So 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 this time — I’m not convinced my six-year-old’s interest will be held but I’m certain my eight-year-old will be engaged and since she’s the difficult traveler in our family that sounds perfect.
4. Tell a story. I just learned about “Fortunately/Unfortunately” and I can’t wait to try it out with my kids. This is a shared story telling game involving a bounce between good luck and not-so-good luck. One player starts: “I woke up this morning and fortunately, the sun was shining.” The next player follows: “Unfortunately, the wind was blowing so hard it swept our car away!” I have a feeling my optimistic son and husband will have the fortunatelys covered and my pessimistic daughter and I will have no problem with the unfortunatelys.
Distract the Kids with Low-Tech Toys
1. Travel-sized Magna Doodle. We’ve always loved the Magna Doodle because it’s not messy and it’s small enough to keep in the car all the time. Kids can draw pictures, play tic tac toe or hangman, or even better, 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. Hours of fun! Or at least thirty minutes. Hopefully.
2. Simple crafts. Lacing cards are great fun for small children and easily contained to a car seat. I think my daughter would love this set of pet lacing cards, since she is dying to have a dog. Lacing beads are another option, as long as your kids can be trusted not to eat or throw the beads. Coloring books or sticker books are also a good fallback, although a friend’s kid once plastered the car window with stickers when no one was paying attention, so consider yourself warned.
3. Bingo! Travel bingo is another easy way to keep your kids busy without your help. Kids mark the squares for each thing they see — traffic light, bird on power lines, car wash. You can also make your own bingo cards with landmarks for your specific trip, but let’s face it, you probably will not. Just buy a set instead. (I wish I had ordered a set of real-life travel bingo cards for myself — pee emergency! parent threatens kid! lame music choice! Definitely getting these for next time.)
I’d love to hear how you keep your kids entertained while traveling. I have my phone 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.
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Photo source: Depositphoto/maximkabbPublished August 30, 2007. Last updated August 29, 2018.