Learning is a lifestyle in our family… and the learning doesn’t stop even on vacation. Some of our best memories as a family involve cross-country road trips. It surprises me a little when I see people wince or shudder at the idea of traveling with their children. I’ve always looked forward to it.
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I enjoy planning travel games and activities and treats, and now that my children are older they look forward to long road trips just as much as Lyle and I do. I got a lot of great ideas from The Penny Whistle Traveling with Kids Book.
I am somewhat of a history buff, and over the years that has somehow rubbed off on my family. As we drive along, if we have time, Lyle knows I always want to pull off and read the historical markers to know what happened on this site.
Before a trip, I will scout out our route for historical places, and then research to see if it looks like there might be some interesting museums, visitor’s centers, or state parks along the way. We’ve hit a few duds, but typically these types of places aren’t very expensive (often free) so we just go on our way. Usually, though, we find the stops very interesting, educational, and yes… fun! We try to plan in time for “scenic detours” like this when have a long road trip to visit relatives or another destination. It breaks the trip up, creates memories, and is not very expensive at all.
I expect the most popular idea for traveling with kids is a portable DVD player or other device for playing movies. And that’s great for occasional use. However, my children never have done well with endless hours of screen time, so I try to plan for other activities to interest them as we drive along.
Babies and Toddlers
When the girls were very little (from about 6 months to 2 years), I took along a bag full of baby toys. A mesh laundry bag meant for washing delicates with a zipper closure works great, because you can see through it, and the zipper keeps everything from spilling out.
I collected plastic “busy” toys meant for babies at the dollar store and thrift stores. (Of course I sterilized those I bought second-hand.) As we traveled I would hand Baby one toy at a time. When she got tired of it and dropped it, I would hand her another one. I probably had 20 or 30 to cycle through. This worked really well to keep her interested in between naps and snacks.
As the kids got a little older I was able to expand the selection of activities. Preschoolers enjoy lively children’s music and recorded picture books to listen to, but they also enjoy something to do with their hands.
I usually kept some of their toys put up just for traveling so they would be “new” and fresh. I also took along things like colorful pipe cleaners to bend and twist, stickers and paper to stick them on– even a roll of scotch tape can be a lot of fun for a little one.
Look-and-find books are great to take-along because the intricate details keep kids studying the pages much longer than they would a typical picture book.
We made it a habit to stop at fast food places with playgrounds and kids’ meals along the way. Lyle and I would order our food and eat while the children played on the playground. We saved their meal for them to eat when we got back on the road. This gave them maximum time for running off some energy, and also gave them something to do (eat!) as we drove along. They were also always very interested in the toy that came with the meal. For traveling, it was worth the extra cost of a kids’ meal to get that little toy. If the restaurant had more than one to choose from I would try to get different toys for each child so they could trade off later.
School Age Kids
Once the girls reached school age, planning for trips was a lot easier. I liked to choose a special magazine and a puzzle book for each of them before we left, to give them in the car, and sometimes a fun pen or a new set of markers.
I also encouraged them to pack a tote bag with a book of their choice and things they might want to do as we travel. They take along their digital devices to listen to audio books.
On some trips they like to keep journals of where we went and what we saw. For some of our longer trips, I made up “trip journals” for the kids before we left by printing out worksheets found online about the states we would be visiting. Check out my post on How to Create a Travel Notebook for more details. These are fun for them to work on in the car as we travel through each state.
We enjoy traditional travel games looking out the car windows, too– the alphabet game, watching for different states on license plates, counting how many travel trailers we see, and so on.
A simple travel bingo game that I made up has been a huge hit. I just made a check-list of things we might see along the way– from various types of vehicles and buildings to common fast food restaurants and animals. They loved watching for things on their list. As soon as they completed one list, they would beg me to make them another one.
As our children have grown up we have discovered that we often have some of our best conversations as a family in the car. Traveling together has helped strengthen our relationship with our kids and created life-long memories.
Oh, yes. We do eventually get to where we’re going. But you know the old saying, “Getting there is half the fun!”