Despite an unexpected exploded tire in the fifteenth hour of our recent 16-hour trip, driving cross-country with three children under the age of nine was actually a fun and memorable day. When I told people that I had planned to drive 900 miles by myself with our three kids, the reactions were mixed. “Are you crazy?” and “Don’t you think you should take someone with you?” My answers were simple, “Most definitely” and “I don’t think I need anyone else in the car.” I could only refuse the help offered because our kids are seasoned car travelers, and both they and I know what to expect for those long hours trapped in a small space.
Since 2000, and the arrival of our oldest, the majority of our travel has happened in the car. We regularly travel long distances when we drive, and each of our road trips has been at least 8 hours long. As unique as each trip has been, there have been some activities that have consistently helped the drive go more smoothly, and during our over 30 road trips, we have found a number of things that work for us.
Each year we have accumulated new items for the individualized car bags for each kid. They are bags that sit in our closet waiting for the next road trip, and we go through them before each trip to make sure that the activities that are in them are still appropriate. The car bags are unique to the interests of each kid, and we replenish and sharpen pencils, replace dead batteries and add at least one new item for the trip. This most recent trip the 9 yr-old boy bag included: Harry Potter book, a pad of blank paper, pens, crosswords, Sudoku, cd player (he has had a handheld game in the past, but not this last time). The 6-yr-old girl bag included: paper and pens, coloring books, math pages, flashcards, cd player, Junie B. Jones book, and sticker puzzles: http://www.kimmyshop.com/ProductInfo.aspx?productid=3003235. And the 3-yr-old girl bag included: crayons, paper, doll with Velcro clothes, and a Leap pad with books and cartridges http://travelwithkids.about.com/od/familytravelgear/tp/leapster.htm.
I, too, have a car bag that sits within arm’s length so that I can reach it when there is a lull in the peace. I saved scholastic books through the school year, and I had two books for each kid. There were three packs of gum, a Hannah Montana cd, two new movies, a disposable camera for my oldest, and extra princess sticker books for the girls. I have done the timed release of “surprise bag” gifts, and I’ve also only brought out a surprise when I can tell that the kids need something to spice up the ride. Both methods work well, and they look forward to my reach into that bag.
THERE MUST BE MOVIES…
It is not possible, these days, to imagine a long day in the car without the presence of a DVD player. I personally don’t subscribe to the “DVD player for each rider” scenario, but we do have one dvd player for the car. It is attached to an effective pair of speakers so they can listen together. It might be a bit old-fashioned, but I don’t want our road trips to become these individualized experiences that happen behind the head phones donned by each kid. One DVD player bonds them, forces cooperation and because I have a personal preference for the family time that happens in the car, for the movies, it is an experience better shared. As soon as we pulled out of the drive, I told the kids what times the movies would be showing. I have them spaced at intervals that leave 2-3 hours between showings. They look forward to the set time, and they can be occupied during the wait with the other activities we have in the car. This most recent trip I employed a payment method so that each kid could “buy” his/her ticket to the movie. Every person was expected to “pay” a compliment to every other person in the car in order for the movie to start. My three-year old liked the shirts of her siblings, but young kids get a discount at a regular theatre too.
SCHEDULED SLEEP TIME
There have been a number of road trips where my kids just doze off as we’re driving and I can kick out several hours without the distraction of energized kids. Lately, it works best for our kids when they know what time they are going to be expected to close their eyes for a while. It curbs the fights about whether someone gets to stay up while the others are sleeping.
KEEPING THE PEACE
Pick a popsicle stick…Often, the fights my kids feel compelled to win, are the fights about injustice. They fight over who chooses what game, or what movie, or what music to listen to, and the discussions can be the most contentious arguments in our car. Prior to our departure (brave parents can do this on the road) each kid picked out a popsicle flavor that was a unique color, and the stick that remained became the “choosing stick” for that kid. The sticks are in a brown paper bag, and I draw a stick when the kids cannot make decisions on their own. The sticks work well for other occasions, outside the car too.
Singing only… To curb the arguing, encourage the kids to sing everything that they have to say to each other. If you have to sing, it is hard to whine or sound angry, and it can often lead to uncontrollable fits of laughter.
5- minute exercise at rest stop: jumping jacks, short sprints, leg wiggles
Audio books: We listened to Peter Pan on a recent road trip, and the oldest was totally into it, but the younger kids used the listening time to do some things on their own. There are so many wonderful audio books that are appropriate for the entire family, and it kills a lot of time.
Car games: There are a number of games, and travel websites with ideas of how to pass the time with some bonding activities.
Next word begins with…last letter of word given i.e. Kid one says, “banana” kid two has to come up with a word that starts with “a” Advanced version for older kids: geographic locations example “Indiana” and the second person says, “Atlanta”
20 questions…either with or without the question ball.
Car bingo: You can create the items to find depending on what you might pass while on the road: cow, semi-truck, telephone pole, stop sign, the letter “a”, bird, silo, bridge, police car, tow truck, train, and you can make it specific for the places that you know you’ll pass
There are prefab magnetic games you can buy: http://www.familytravelgear.com/page/FTG/PROD/SMPT-game-0561-car-road-bingo
Dance breaks: When a good song comes on suggest a 5 minute dance party where everyone has to dance in their seat. As the kids get older they have started to know exactly which songs to which they would like to dance.
GIVE UP ON EXPECTATIONS: As well-planned and organized you think your road trip may be, allow yourself permission to let go when expectations are disappointed. The one thing that can be completely predictable is the fact that there will be surprises along the way. Every trip is different, and the unexpected is what makes a road trip memorable. Don’t get too caught up in being rigid with your kids and enjoy the journey!