Surviving the Family Road Trip: Simple Tips for Keeping Kids Entertained

road trip kids

Thank you to Loralee Leavitt, author of Road Tripping: A Parent’s Guide to Planning and Surviving the Annual Car Trip, for this guest post. 

Whenever we tell friends that we’ve just returned from a long family road trip to California, Arizona, Utah, or South Dakota, they stare at us in astonishment. “How do you do it?” they gasp. “Don’t you use a DVD player? Don’t your kids drive you crazy?” No, we don’t have a DVD player, and sometimes our kids do drive us crazy. But we’ve learned that with simple tools such as audiobooks, notepads, a terrific view, and creativity, we can turn family driving time into family fun.

We love stories. Family-friendly audiobooks like Harry Potter, the Cheshire Cheese Cat, Skulduggery Pleasant, Hoot, or Icefall keep our whole family interested. Sometimes we switch off the audiobooks and borrow ideas from other story-telling parents. For instance, one grandmother makes up stories for her granddaughter about the people and places they drive past. Another dad starts a story, asks his kids for ideas, and works them into the story as he goes. Our children especially love hearing adventure stories about the toys they’ve left behind.

Music also keeps us going. Sometimes we sing to our children’s music, and sometimes we teach them to sing along to ours. (One “They Might Be Giants” album sparked in-car discussions about the politics of the minimum wage, the geometry of triangles, the folly of fashion, and the history of Constantinople that kept us occupied for an hour.) We make up new words to familiar tunes, and challenge each other to complete rhyming lines. We also turn songs into games. How many animal sounds can you make for “Old McDonald?” How many songs can you sing about an approaching holiday?

When we drive, the outside view becomes part of the adventure. We talk about the geology and the landmarks as we pass. Sometimes we know what we’re talking about (especially if we’ve grabbed brochures at a recent stop), but sometimes we ask questions we can’t answer. Then everybody in the car gets to guess how a certain mountain was formed, or why the small round building in the distance has a tower on the roof. If we have a camera suitable for children, we pass it around and let the children compete in photography contests, such as Best Highway Sign. We practice geography by counting license plates from as many states as we can. (We have the best luck in remote national parks such as Yellowstone or Mt. Rushmore.) License plates are also useful for the ABC game, in which every person looks for the next letter in the alphabet (you can play this as a group, or as a competition). Check road signs, billboards, or license plates for the next letter in the alphabet.

Pen and paper open up whole new worlds of entertainment. With Hangman, even the driver and the younger children can guess letters, and older children can play with each other. Battleship provides a more interesting challenge for older players: draw a grid and number the sides, fill in your fleet by marking rectangles for ships, and call out squares by number to guess where your opponent’s ships lurk.

The biggest secret to keeping children happy in the car is participating. It takes work to keep the children interested and occupied, and to keep their spirits up. But joining our children’s games not only raises their spirits, it raises ours too. When else can our family listen to the same books, sing, and play games together for hours? Learning how to appreciate the time we spend together makes me look forward not just to our destinations, but our journeys.

Loralee Leavitt’s new book, Road Tripping: A Parent’s Guide to Planning and Surviving the Annual Car Trip, contains tips that she and co-author Rick Walton learned from over 100,000 miles of family road trips. Find more information at her website.

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