Road tripping with young children can seem daunting, but I actually rather enjoy it. We love to watch the country change outside our windows. We love to play games and eat snacks. And most of all, we love how car traveling is so much less stressful than air travel.
We set out from New York City to our new/old Denver home, with plenty of stops in between. And while this is not our first road trip with children, it will be the longest. I don’t like a lot of clutter in the car, but I also don’t want my girls to spend the ride with an iPad in front of their faces. So here’s 9 of our tried-and-true ideas for a cross-country trip.
- Create your own reward system. A road trip is a good exercise in learning patience. In an effort to help my two toddlers manage their restlessness, and to preserve the specialness of the activities I provide, I only hand out activities, snacks, or prizes at specific times. I’ve heard some moms do this once an hour or after so many miles; we set personal markers: “After you’ve played on your own for 30 minutes…” or ““When Daddy stops to put gas in the car…” This gives them something tangible to look forward to without making me responsible for the time in between. It works like a rewards system and gives us some structure in what otherwise could be a free-for-all.
- Pack your bag! My girls think that packing their own backpacks for the car is the greatest. It used to drive me nuts. But then I realized that their taking ownership made their decisions important later on. Perhaps I don’t find the pony with no hair left to be exciting road trip entertainment, but they chose it and so it was interesting once we hit the road. Ordinarily, they can’t wait to dive into their backpacks, and so whatever they bring entertains for at least the first hour (which can sometimes be the trickiest before interstate hypnosis sets in).
- The secret of the book basket. A few weeks before a trip, I will collect some of the girls’ favorite books into a medium wire basket and set them up high on a shelf. The basket easily wedges in between their carseats, where they can reach for a book at will. They’re pretty good about enjoying the same books over and over anyway; but having them out of sight and out of mind for a short time before the trip garners even more excitement for reading in the car.
- Skip the coloring books! It’s all about printables. I used to buy a brand new coloring book before any trip. Until once, when I couldn’t make it to Target in time, I printed off some coloring pages a la Google images in a pinch. I bought two clipboards at the dollar store (because I think those carseat desks are cumbersome) and I can keep loose coloring pages in a folder up front with me and distribute at will.
- There’s nothing like new crayons. You remember what it was like to open up a brand new carton of Crayolas? Something about the newness and the smell makes an average everyday activity a lot more interesting. To help contain, I immediately ditch the cardboard boxes and load the crayons into these cute tins.
- Two-for-one: String candy necklaces. My youngest can get carsick now and then, so sometimes she needs to take a break from words, images, and paper. Plus, we all know one of the most tempting road trip pastimes is snacking, but with kids you’ve got to do it in moderation. Before we take a trip, I’ll cut a length of yarn, tie a loop at one end, wrap the other in masking tape, and toss it into a bag with a handful or two of fruit loops. It takes time to thread your own necklace, especially when you have chunky toddler hands; and once the task is done, the kids think it’s great fun to eat their work. (Especially exciting when Mom doesn’t normally let you have sugary cereals.)
- Stretch your definition of storytelling. Maybe it’s being a writer, but I firmly believe my kids should be able to entertain themselves on imagination alone. Of course, littles need help sometimes, and so in our car we make storytelling go a long way. Sometimes, the girls will read books on their own. Other times, we will listen to audiobooks. Sometimes the girls will use finger puppets to act out the story. I also like to encourage them to tell their own stories. They love to make silly things up, but these sets also make for the cutest prompts.
- Create a scavenger hunt. Shortly after becoming a mother of two, my oldest got incredibly sick in the middle of winter. In an effort to beat our Cabin Fever, I doodled a few things on to a piece of paper: a house, a tree, a cloud, a dog, a taxi. Then we went out for errands. “When you see these things, point it out to your baby sister and then scribble over it with a crayon to mark it out.” Now these car scavenger hunts make for great road trip activities. I think about where we’re going to be driving through and try to plan accordingly. It really involves my girls in the drive and helps draw their attention to the cities and various landscapes we’re exploring. (If you’re not much of a doodler, look online for pre-made cards like these!
- Don’t feel guilty about the iPad, sometimes. This is not to say that our girls don’t watch movies on road trips too. In fact, I’ve just downloaded their new favorites (Home and Inside Out) for our upcoming journey. But with other things to do, and hopefully some calculated attempts at drawing their eyes to the world around them, the movies are a treat instead of a norm (and therefore a good chance for mommy and daddy to steal a few quieter moments to chat and rest)!