When people set off on longer travels with the kids, they often wonder how to keep their little ones occupied in the car or plane. I love to travel and I’m happy to have great travel buddies in my 4 kids. Last summer we spent a month in Europe visiting family and road tripping through England, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Wales with kids ages 11, 9, 7 and just 2. So not only did we have trans-Atlantic flights, we had an overnight ferry crossing and thousands of road miles too. This summer I road tripped with my 4 kids for more than 3000 miles from Florida to Iowa and back and it was awesome! As the only adult on that trip, it required some advance planning because I wouldn’t be able to do things for them while I was driving, and I think they all liked the responsibility of helping out.
Here are my own top 10 must-haves for travels with littles:
I make a clipboard for each of the older kids with some classic activity sheets, such as:
- road trip bingo
- license plate game
- a printed map of where we’re going
- personalized word search and crossword puzzle
- a maze or dot to dot
- blank paper for games or doodling
The Book Stash
I go to the Goodwill bookstore and stock up on used books I know they like including fun comic book classics like FoxTrot and Calvin & Hobbes. I know I can fit 6,000 books on my iPad or Kindle but I think paper books are important for kids. I have 4 kids in the car and I sure am not going to supply each one with a device, for starters, but the space factor is one I’m happy to sacrifice for books. These come out on the road trip and not before. From board books to the latest pre-teen must-read, I get it used (ebay or garage sale too).
I also hoard any kids’ magazines or catalogs (such as the coveted Lego catalog) for a few weeks before our departure. I may even order a couple of back issues of specialty magazines, like Brick Journal or Reptiles. I save a few to tuck into their backpacks as some new surprises on the return journey. Gotta keep it fresh!
The kids are welcome to use my small digital camera. The beauty of this is that it’s really easy to delete 257 pictures of the inside of my car, my kid’s lap, or the vehicles we pass, and it keeps kids occupied for ages. And occasionally you get a great shot to keep!
The Audio Stories
I load the iPod and my phone with audio stories from www.storynory.com. My kids all enjoy these, and so do I. From Greek myths to fairy tales, Lewis Carroll to Charles Dickens, as well as original stories, all beautifully told, this is a great way to pass time! Some of our favorites are the Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling.
Each kid gets to pack his or her small backpack for in the car. They may bring small toys, some allowance money for souvenirs, books, a doll or whatever they like. They also each have a few necessities within reach (tissues, trash bag etc.). They usually each have some sort of travel sized game, such as cards or Battleship. I’ll buy some cheap plastic dollar items like light-up character spinners or gadgets (no annoying sounds!!) for the toddler. (Hey, there’s a time and a place for these things. This is it!)
The Photo Book
I prepare a small photo album. You know, one of those cheap $1 flip-through albums you can find. This is great for the little ones who can’t read yet. I print photos of themselves, family, friends, and pets to stick in there and they love to look through these. It’s also easy to make games with a simple album. Can you find a picture of a dog? Can you find a picture of Daddy?
Obviously we need food! We’ve used a couple of strategies, including appointing each kid a task (drinks manager, snack manager) but what I do now is simply pack a snack bag for each kid and let them manage their own stashes for the duration of the trip. So yes, they may get 3 days worth of snacks on day one and some may go through it more quickly than others. It’s a great lesson in asset management. 🙂 They also trade, even though they get the same things. I include snacks they don’t usually eat, for the novelty and because road trips are special treats. Next time, I’ll include some cash for each so that when we stop at gas stations along the way, they can make their own choices for the next leg of the journey. (Money management lesson right there! To save or to spend…)
The Little Things
Road trips are for seeing the new surroundings. I sometimes narrate what we’re seeing, and get conversation started or at least hope that they’ll remember, in some distant part of their brain, that these road trips were really awesome.
We had fun things to do when we crossed state lines: we might take a photo or a selfie with the state sign. We might call Daddy to let him know we’re in a new state. We brought along a little mascot – a small stuffed mouse – and brought him into restaurants or to picnic tables with us, took a photo and texted/emailed it to Daddy (or grandma or whoever). Later it’s fun to click through the pictures and remember where we were for each photo.
I have a few playlists of favorite songs we all like to rock out to. Sometimes, when younger ones are sleeping, that calls for gentler music. Sometimes a kid will get to play DJ and choose songs for us. Sometimes we just listen to whatever I as the driver want to hear.
It’s my last resort, but you bet I’ll use it. I load our iPad with a few new apps – games that I like to think have some sort of educational merit, however much of a reach that might be. We have a DVD player in the car that we use for road trips only so that’s a treat. I am pleased to say no iPads or movies came out the first day of our Florida to Iowa road trip, and it took 8 hours into the second day before electronics came out.
So far, these have worked to keep us all not just sane but happy travelers. I hope annual road trips with my kids will be a tradition for many years to come and I hope they will have happy memories of these adventures too. Happy and safe travels to you!
Of course, accidents and/or illnesses do happen away from home so another thing I pack is my first aid kit for travel. Click here for more on that!