Road Trip Ideas: For Connecting (and Surviving) as a Family

Remember road trips from your childhood? No videos, no hand-held computers or gaming devices, no cell phones. How did our parents do it? WHY did our parents do it? I actually have very fond memories of road trips with my family from the good ol’ days in the 80’s, counting down the miles in our silver and maroon Astro mini-van! We listened to a lot of fun music together – tapes! I remember my brother and I memorizing the soundtrack of “Back to the Future” and “An American Tale”. We also learned the favorite music of our parents: Michael Feinstein singing old standards, other vocal jazz artists, and musicals like “Oklahoma”, “Big River”, and “Peter Pan” – these are great for kids because they tell a story, too! And it was on these road trips that I fell in love with THE VOICE of Babs. Barbara Streisand’s “Broadway Album” is second nature to me. At around age 9-11, I learned to mimic every note and inflection, every breath and styling as I sat in the back of the van watching myself in the reflective glass, dreaming of being a singer someday, of feeling the kind of grown-up emotions that she sang about.

We also played games: password, 20 questions, Taboo, and as we got older, Botticelli. My brother and I grew a lot smarter and learned A LOT of verbal skills on these trips. (Dad used to be an English teacher.) My mom also read aloud chapter books to us. I remember being introduced to social/ historical issues like slavery in “Huck Finn“, and on a lighter note, enjoying comedies like Judy Blume’s “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and “SuperFudge“. And when we were pre-pubescent, Jake and I suffered through (with attentive curiosity) “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” together, meant to teach us about what would soon be happening to my body – yikes! (We were a captive audience, though I’m sure Jake wanted Dad to slow down so he open his door and jump out of the uncomfortably small space where words like “period” and “menstruation” were being discussed.) But I remember one particular trip when we were all equally enjoying a book, Madeline L’Engel’s magical “Many Waters“, and upon finishing our trip we had not yet quite finished the book, so Dad drove around the block several times as Mom read the final chapters. None of us were ready for it to end!

I want these kind of memories for my children and my family, in spite of the digital entertainment available. I want them to be used to doing a little of everything – the singing, the listening, the chatting, the reading, the games and fun – not just the videos (which we do use for road trips, and are extremely thankful for!) Here are a few ideas and tips from our family’s last long road trip (spring break drive from Dallas to Chicago), and tomorrow we leave for a shorter road trip to New Braunfels. Safe and happy travels!

  • Use cookie sheets or magnetic trays for “lap pads” – holds stuff, and kids can arrange magnets. (A couple of years ago, I actually splurged on this picture/ word magnet set w/ 2 trays, and we make up “picture” stories on them.)
  • Pack fun “surprise” containers to hand out every so often. On our trip to Chicago, the plan was that the children would receive one every hour as a “reward” for following the car rules (inside voice, no whining or fussing, hands to yourself, and no throwing – yes, we’ve had to pull over several times for items being thrown at the driver in the midst of fussy fits – not our finest moments), but it eventually turned into every time I detected an upcoming meltdown, which sometimes occurred several times per hour. BUT they were a big hit, and didn’t cost any money! (empty play-doh containers and little bags with random stuff inside: ribbon, toy plane, crayon, cotton ball. A little purse with a little mirror, tiny comb, and stickers.)  “Here, see what you can do with this.” Ellie would often pick one favorite item to focus on from the bag/ box, while MJ tried to figure out a way to create something with all of them: pipe cleaner, mint, plastic dino, coin, and clothespin. A coin purse with coins and scratch-off cards from the store.) I know you’ve got LOTS of random stuff and cheap little toys around your house – put them to use! The back-seat was a mess by the time we got there, but it was worth it! (We did a quick clean-up at each stop.) Another tip: since our trip, I keep a couple of these stashed in my purse for restaurants.
  • Stock up with a few “new” goodies at the dollar store to add some cheep “surprises” to backpacks and travel bags. Stickers and paper, crayons and coloring books, gadgets and gizmos. my top ten table-top toy ideas for eating out work great for road trips, too, and the Wicki Stix are worth a little extra.
  • Let them lick lollipops! (I always keep a few of these in my glove box for “peace and quiet” emergencies.)
  • Stop and play outside. The welcome centers are usually good places, as you cross state lines. Though the one in Texarcana didn’t have a playground,  MJ ran in the “forest”, playing hide and seek with Daddy behind the trees. Ellie sat on a wall and played kitty “school”. We didn’t have a ball, but she enjoyed tossing an invisible yellow one to me. Then we discovered how we could use her sun hat like a swing for her little dolly. We also had fun blowing and chasing bubbles. (Keep a ball and bubbles handy for your outdoor stops.) At another rest stop in Tennessee, we took some time to run and tackle, to wrestle out under the stars, to play “Farmer, Farmer, May I Cross Your River?” over a ditch. At another town, we stopped at a pizza place for two reasons: we could do salad bar and get a few veggies, and there was a big field by it. The kids and I played a long time while Daddy ordered. We actually ended up helping a local yokel load up some sticks on a trailer. Perfect job for MJ!
  • No green space? Walk around the convenience store. After you empty your bladder and before you get back into the car, stretch a bit and take a quick walk around the store!
  • See the Sights! Know what sights would make good stops, and enjoy. Or just make note as you drive by. We made a long stop in St. Louis and had a picnic under the arch. We saw the Memphis pyramid, the fields of windmills in Illinois, and went over several big bridges crossing the Mississippi river. Watch MJ playing at our stop in St. Louis: video of arch play
  • It’s okay, Stop at McDonald’s! My kids were some of the last to know what the famous golden arches stand for (I”m still not sure that Ellie does.) But, McDonald’s is usually the only place in a town that has a play area. So, we stop for a yogurt parfait snack there. And, I discovered something cool: take a stash of those white paper ketchup cups with you. These were good for doling out small snacks from my front-seat stash: goldfish, raisins, etc. Also good for stacking on trays, coloring, placing small items under to “hide” on trays for magic tricks, creating with…don’t worry, your kids will think of something!
  • Take your favorite DVD’s that YOU can feel good about, too. And alternate movie/ interaction time. Our kids enjoy these on car trips: Planet Earth, Julia Child, Annie, Winnie the Pooh, Fantasia, Pixar shorts
  • Play some games: There are a few from this list that work great in the car, too.  Top 10 Table Games for eating out with kids. My kids loved “Who Am I?” and “Name that Tune” on our trip. I wrote down a different game on little slips of paper, put in a plastic cup, and every now and then, we pulled one out to play, just to add a little excitement to the trip.
  • Stop at Cracker Barrel!  I used to stop there to nurse E  in one of the rocking chairs on the patio while MJ ran around, or stacked up the checkers. If the kids eat their veggies, you can let them choose a fun toy from the gift shop: lots of great stuff for the car – silly putty, Mr. Moustache dude, Mars Mud (this was a big hit on our last trip!) You can restock on gum and lollipops, and even check out an audio book.
  • Take some audio books for the kids. This builds attention and pre-reading skills, helps still accomplish some reading time even if you get queazy in the car, and allows the kids to zone out and look out the windows. (Now’s a good time for the silly putty.) We have several recordings that family members have made for us (GareBear and Beffa, Uncle Jake and Aunt Sarah, and Mommy and Daddy reading favorite kid books), but we also got hooked on the “Magic Tree House” books this way a few years ago. Even at age 2, MJ was captivated by these stories read aloud by the author, and so were we! And before that, he paid attention to Dr. Seuss audio books.(I found some free downloads of Dr. Seuss books read aloud by celebs.)
  • Take  a chapter book to read aloud together. A great new one for a road trip is “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again!” (I would say this is good for kids 3 or 4 and up, older kids, too. When I’m reading to MJ I always edit a bit: for this book, I simply replaced the word “stupid” with “silly” as I usually do. That was it.) We traveled with this fun-loving family to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, to the Sphynx in Egypt, and even under the ocean!
  • Give yourself a break! – take along some ear plugs for needed Mommy “breaks” while the DVD player is on, and shut everyone out! (If you’re driving, keep your eyes open!) Load up your i-pod with interesting shows to look forward to during those quieter times with your partner or by yourself. Dustin and I think the best “escape” shows from NPR are: radio labthe storythis american lifefresh air, and think – some great shows for all kinds of interesting topics!

How do you survive road trips with your kids? How do you make connections in the car? Any tips? Please share…

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  1. […] road trip: Take  a chapter book to read aloud together. (See more of my ideas in my post, Road Trip Ideas for Connecting and Surviving). I would say this is good for kids 3 or 4 and up, older kids, too. When I’m reading to MJ I […]