Monday, November 15, 2010

How to Entertain Children While Traveling (Without a Movie)

They say the joy is in the journey, but if you've ever been in the car, with a lot of children, on a long road trip, it may not always feel that way.  With careful planning and a well-stocked list, it can be one of the best parts of a vacation.

We have traveled thousands of miles with our five children.  Though I don't condemn the practice, we do not have a DVD player in our car so we've had to learn of a lot of tricks to keep kids happy on the road.  Since many of you will be traveling for the upcoming holidays, I thought I would share my list of tried and true tips.  Most of these I have picked up from other sources or remembered from my childhood and some we have invented.

There are so many great ideas out there and some people are so dang creative.  I have found, however, that on long drives there is nothing more annoying than a cute little traveling kit to keep intact.  Some of these have  many small pieces and must be kept organized.  If I have five of these, they are bound to get mixed up and then I have to spend the next 100 miles sorting and re-organizing, searching between car seats and under benches, and making sure that the purple parts go to this child and pink parts go to that child.  Humph.  Once the children are older and they can hold things on their laps reliably well, maybe we'll re-visit the crafted traveling kits.  So, for now, I'm not going to waste your time with one more mess.  A few carefully selected toys, books and notebooks is plenty for each child if you are prepared with your own kit of things to do.

First, the obvious ones:

  • Audio Books.  Most libraries have two week to one month check-out times for books-on-tape so if your vacation will be shorter than that, don't hesitate to cash in on your tax supported libraries.  If your family has never done audio books, start with something familiar.  The best reader ever is Jim Dale (all of the Harry Potter books and Peter Pan are both great) and a reader makes or breaks the book.  You may love a story, but if the reader is lousy, forget it.  James and the Giant Peach read by Jeremy Irons is a fabulous, as is the Hatchet series read by Peter Coyote.  Since listening can be a learned skill, don't be afraid to start with audio books that have picture books to go with them.  
  • Singing.  You know that many of our children are growing up without knowing She's Coming 'Round the Mountain, This Old Man (he played one, he played knick-knack on my thumb), Yankee DoodleJohnny Verbeck, and even This is the Song That Never Ends.  Generations of tradition are being lost by the invention of movies in the car, Game Boys, texting and MP3 players.  I am a music lover and I can even be annoyed by some of these songs, but it is fun to sing together in the car.  Learn rounds (Row, Row, Row Your Boat), repeat songs (Oh, You Can't Get to Heaven) and, as they get better, harmonize.
  • Memory games like I'm Going to Grandma's House and with Me I'm Taking.  Each player then picks something they are taking in alphabetical order after repeating what was said ahead of them.  The first player says, "an apple," the second may say, "an apple and a baboon."  The third says, "an apple, a baboon, and a Christmas Tree."  You can vary this game by going to the grocery store and only choosing food words, going to the zoo and using only animal words or going to the lab and using only scientific words.

Now comes a straight list.  If you don't know how to play these, Google them.
  • I Spy
  • Find the alphabet, in order, on signs you pass
  • Count cars by color or model (truck, van, semi)
  • Find all Fifty States' license plates
  • Twenty Questions
  • Cat's Cradle (harder than you might think--practice ahead of time so you don't have to squeeze into the back seat to help)
  • Cootie Catcher
  • Battleship, dots, tic-tac-toe
  • Rock, Paper, Scissors
  • Name That Tune (try it with TV theme songs)

Here are some random others:

  • Pass out sheets of aluminum foil and let the children make sculptures.  Give them some ideas to start like dolls (or action figures), clothes for the dolls, swords for the action figures, miniature housewares, full-size housewares (a bowl for their snack), animals, crowns or masks.  Foil is cheap, can be recycled when you are done, and doesn't spill.
  • Before the trip, make scavenger hunt lists (with or without points, depending on the competitive nature of your family).  If your little ones can't read, draw simple pictures of things you know you'll pass (silo, white horse, corn field, a ski rack, Canadian Geese, a brick house, blue Christmas lights, and so on.
  • Maps, maps, maps.  Even the youngest passenger likes to know where they are--especially in relation to that day's destination.  Since we frequently travel from the bottom of one state to the top of it, I took my big road atlas to the copy store and had them make color copies of our route.  I then laminated the map and gave each child a dry-erase marker.  They can easily see where we are, where we would stop for lunch, and that we are, in fact, making progress.  Also, the blank, white back can be used as a make-shift white board.
  • Geography.  Start with any place in the world--Kansas, for example.  The next person has to think of a place that begins with the last letter of "Kansas," such as "South Africa."  Whoever goes next needs a place that begins with an A.  You may not use the same place twice in a game--and it has to be a real place.
  • Ask theoretical questions.  What would you do with a million dollars?  What super-power do you wish you had?  If you were an animal, which would you be?  Let's say the British won the Revolutionary War.  How is your life different?  Would you rather be the tallest person alive or the shortest?  Why?
  • Fortunately, Unfortunately.  This is a FAVORITE of the imaginative set.  The games goes this way.  Someone, usually me, says, "Unfortunately, there is a tiger in the van."  The person right next to me then says an opposite with, "Fortunately, it is a stuffed tiger."  Then, "Unfortunately, he was placed in the car by aliens are we are all slowly being gassed for abduction."  
  • Find a Lyric.  Look at the signs and sing an existing lyric to match. For example:  Ice on Road; Ice, Ice, Baby . . .,  No Left Turn; Turn around!  Every now and then I get a little bit lonely, One Way; One way, or another, I'm gonna getcha, I'm gonna getcha, getcha, getcha, getcha!  Rest Area Next Right; When I'm lying next to you . . . 
  • Stories one word/sentence at a time.  Take turns creating a story together.  
  • Electric Toothbrushes.  This is not a game, but these have saved us many times.  Plus, with all the junk we tend to eat on vacation, a wiggly toothbrush is fun and healthy.  (Hold on the toothpaste until you're near a sink!)
  • Rhythm repeat.  Clap out a rhythm and have the children repeat.  Get more and more complicated.  Don't do this if you are the driver.  Thank you.
I hope this list has given you a few new ideas or reminded you of some great ones about which you had forgotten.  Have a wonderful and safe trip.

Yours truly,
The MotherShip


  1. Ooh, good post! And very timely-- I think we'll try the fortunately/unfortunately game on our upcoming drive.

  2. After recently hearing that the new Honda Odyssey van has a SPLIT SCREEN TV, Hubs and I were discussing our satisfaction in NOT having a TV/DVD in our van. We like talking to each other and the kiddos. Great suggestions, thanks!!!

  3. We always sing The Wheels on the Bus and make up random verses and the driver plays along by honking, rolling down windows, turning on the wipers, etc. It's super fun for the younger kids to have the car be involved in the song. We also love to sing "Horsey, Horsey on our way" as a round. The alphabet game is a favorite also, we let the little kids find the letters in any position in a word, but the big kids have to find a word that starts with the letter we're on, with a couple exceptions.