With all of our cross country traveling, we do spend more time driving than the average person (and more money on gas) but its actually less than most people think. Our goal isn’t to travel as fast a possible across the 50 states. You can’t see anything that way. We love to take it slow and often we will only move 150-300 miles per week. That’s it. Anymore than 3 hours in the truck and we all start to go a little stir crazy. In fact, we often will drive only 1-2 hours to our next destination. A 4, 5, or even 6 hour day is rare and only if we are out in the middle of nowhere and there simply is no place to stop. That said, we have developed a sort of a system to help keep everyone happy and so far, it works great.
Here are our 5 tips for helping to entertain young children while driving in the car:
1. Take it as Slow as Possible. I realize that a typical family wants to usually get to their destination. They have limited vacation time, and don’t want to spend it driving wherever it is they are going. Just get there and THEN enjoy yourself. However, the journey can be just as fun. Plan your budget to take two days driving instead of just one and get a hotel with a pool. Find a National Park, a Historical Marker, or something else of interest along your route. Excellent tools for this include RoadTrippers and Google Field Trip. It helps break up the monotony of being in the car all day long. You need to stop for bathrooms and gas anyway, so take an extra 30 minutes and pair your stop with something interesting to look at. Everyone will get back in the car feeling refreshed.
2. Have Lunch at a Park. A lot of our driving happens between 10am – 1pm, especially on days when we do have to drive a bit longer than we’d like. We always find a public park to stop at for lunch and the kids love it. They get to run around and play while I’m fixing lunch, we eat, play just a little bit longer and then jump in the car and go. You could also grab a Little Caeser’s Pizza and have a picnic in the grass on a blanket. The easiest way to find a local park is to pull up Google Maps on your smart phone, scan ahead to whatever city you’ll be in and look for green spaces on the map. You can also do a Google search for “public park” but I feel like scanning does the job quite nicely.
3. Don’t jump to Electronics. We don’t let our kids watch movies or play tablets the moment they get in the car. Most days they have to play with toys, read (they don’t really get car sick), color, or just look out the window for a good hour before we turn the electronics on. Too much staring at a screen makes everyone cranky. When kids are bored it is amazing what their little brains can come up with to entertain themselves. Even Cara (3.5 years old) will happily play with her planes and cars for a good hour all by herself. Get her siblings involved and sometimes we can stretch that even longer. Don’t automatically assume that your kids have to be watching a movie or playing Plants vs. Zombies to not whine. They also only get to watch ONE movie, or have an allotted time (an hour) playing games. Then they get turned back off and its back to playing.
4. Listen to Audio Books. We listen to audio books ONLY in the car. Best. Decision. Ever. If we don’t drive anywhere significant for 4 or 5 days, the kids will BEG to get in the car and go. Somewhere. Anywhere. Just so they can listen. Rachel and Andrew LOVE them. I think Cara tolerates them. She’s gotten really good at playing quietly while we are listening since otherwise everyone is “shhhshing” her so we can hear. Our favorites so far are the Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the Enchanted Forest Series. Most of them I’ve been able to borrow and download through our library’s Overdrive system, but we are willing to purchase them as well since our kids love them so much. With some of the Percy Jackson books, Amazon will discount the purchase of the audio book (through Audible) with the purchase of the Kindle Version. The trick is to find the well narrated ones. We tried a few others (Charlotte’s Web, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever) but the rendering wasn’t as compelling and the kids quickly lost interest. Other series on our list are Percy Jackson Heroes of Olympus, The Red Pyramid Series, and Peter and the Starcatchers (read by Jim Dale who also narrates Harry Potter). We’ve also heard the audio versions of the Ranger’s Apprentice are really fun as well.
5. Warn them about timing. We’ve found that we can minimize the whining when we warn the kids in advance, particularly when listening to an audio book or playing with electronics. We warn them about 15 minutes or so before it is time to be done. We also warn them when it’s going to be a longer drive that day, a bit before bathroom stops, or when we are going to stop to see something interesting. Having a warning and a preview seems to help them enjoy the stops better, and everybody is happier.
We don’t drive long periods at at time, but overall we do spend quite a bit of time in the car. How do you handle road trips with your kids? Any tips for us?