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

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

By Melissa Summers

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.


More from AlphaMom

The Sleepless Toddler Traveler
10 Secrets for a Successful Family Road Trip
The Ultimate Summer Road Trip Playlist for Families

Photo source: Depositphoto/maximkabb

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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  • sozzled

    August 30, 2007 at 9:57 am

    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!

  • virginia

    August 30, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    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”.

  • Margie

    August 30, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    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

    August 30, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    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

    August 30, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    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

    August 30, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    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.

  • andrea from the fishbowl

    August 30, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    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

    August 31, 2007 at 7:54 am

    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

    August 31, 2007 at 7:59 am

    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

    August 31, 2007 at 10:33 am

    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

    August 31, 2007 at 10:33 am

    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!

  • Lisa O

    September 1, 2007 at 1:33 am

    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

    September 3, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    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

    September 8, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    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).