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by Robin and Ed
“That drive was 7 hours? Really? That only felt like one! We were having so much fun.”~ our daughter, age 8
No word of a lie, these words were spoken.
This was said on the very last day of our 17-day road trip. By this point, we had spent over 51 hours in the car driving out to the East Coast and back (with stops along the way, of course!).
We learned a thing or two about how to pass the time well – especially easy and fun road trip activities for kids…
Family Trip Survival Guide:
Road Trip Activities for Kids
1) Preparing for the Road Trip
After you assemble your activities, don’t let the kids have access to everything all at once. Like Christmas morning, all the fun will overwhelm them and they will burn through each activity way too quickly.
We held back a special activity for each of the longest days (pulled out conveniently when needed i.e. grumpy times).
This takes discipline and the ability to hide some of the fun materials out of sight until required, but it’s so worth it.
2) Road Trip Activities for Kids: Self-Serve Entertainment
Robin concocted this one and the kids faces lit up when they buckled in on day 1 of the drive: their own special activity bags hanging behind the parent seats for easy-kid access.
- Blank notebooks for drawing and writing
- Small wipe-boards with an eraser and colourful wipe-board markers
- (Note: If you are at all sensitive about harsh smells, check these before you leave. The coloured markers were fine, but the black ones that came with our dollar store boards made everyone nauseous. Not the best way to start a long drive.)
- Pencils and markers
- A package of colourful pipe cleaners
Also, next to them, we packed their backpacks filled with books, stickers and other fun stuff. We scored ours from our favourite book deals site: Book Outlet.
- A good sticker book can amuse for hours. Look especially for the ones that are re-positionable.
- An age-appropriate reader or two, just be sure to watch for queasy tummies, which happens to our daughter (and Robin) when reading in the car.
- We are big “Where’s Waldo” fans – we’ve loved this Where’s Waldo Ultimate Travel Collection for years. (There’s an App, too!)
- Madlibs are a hilarious way to pass the time, and learn grammar together.
An extra tip: These bags also made great places for the kids to tuck their valuables when stopped for pee breaks (e.g. Nintendo DSs). Out of sight, out of thieves minds. Speaking of Pee Breaks…
3) Managing Road Trip Pee Breaks
If you are planning a stop, encourage the kids to drink up about 20 minutes before your planned break. This should keep them hydrated, but ready to go on your planned stop. (Rather than 15 minutes later – which is sooo frustrating.)
Our 6-year old son learned on this trip that he needed to give us way more heads up than “about to burst” when he needed a stop. After the first couple near accidents, we coached him regularly to “check in with himself to see if he needed to go”. He is bad at getting distracted with what he is doing and ignoring his body until the last possible second. So, if you’ve got a kid like this, ask often!
We were able to expand his threshold for waiting from 1 minute to 10 minutes by the end of the trip – which we call a victory. It still required an emergency stop outside of a toll booth in Batavia NY where he just couldn’t hold it.
By the way: is it illegal for a small boy to pee on his own parents van? Because we had to do that – right next to a New York State Trooper.
4) Road Trip License Plate Game
Robin chose this game to pass the time and learn more about geography together. It ended up getting all of us interested in watching the vehicles rolling past and we played right up until we got home. We saw 36 US states and 8 provinces.
Best get on the whole list: A Hawaii plate! Our van went wild with that score (after we explained why that was such a big deal – Hawaii being an island and all.)
Visit Printable Paper to use the same one we did.
5) Handheld Devices
Technology does make long trips a whole lot easier. We collected the following for our trip: Nintendo DSi, hand-me-down iPod Touch, our second-hand iPad and a borrowed iPad.
Best bang for your buck? Likely the iPod touch with cheap ($.99) games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope that you can buy once and transfer to multiple devices (including the iPad). The iPod also held some backup movies, audiobooks and music.
The kids do like the Nintendo DSi and the built-in software for sound recording, taking pictures and creating animations got more workout than all their other purchased games combined.
Ed was all proud that he actually remembered to plug the portable DVD player adapter into the back power jack in our van before we left the house. It was basically unnecessary, as the kids pretty much ignored the DVD player, other than 1 movie on the first day and a few sporadic TV show episodes once and awhile. Nice for the variety, but not a lifesaver.
It has been great in the past, but they just weren’t into it this time.
7) Road Trip Activities for Kids: Audio Books
This was our first family trip where we used audio books. We now highly recommended them. There were long stretches of our drive were we all sat listening quietly and letting the miles slip by unnoticed.
We gave two audio book sources a try – both free.
- First our local library, which came through with some Harry Potter and Percy Jackson – both time limited (like any library loan), so it came with some pressure to finish.
- We also signed up for a free trial at Audible which came with a credit for 2 books.
- A classic series from Ed’s Childhood “Bunnicula” proved the right pace.
- We got some nature stories from Smithsonian, but we didn’t realize we needed the accompanied picture books to truly enjoy them. (It’s a bit frustrating to hear the “turn the page tone” when you haven’t got the pages to turn. We’ll double check this next time.)
8) Easier Listening
Our FM transmitter hack:
If you don’t have an FM transmitter for your current MP3 Player, you may be able to hack it.
Ed bought ours 5 years ago for $10 (right after Apple stopped making iPods that fit it). He cut a couple bits of plastic out of the side holder with a hacksaw. It has fit every iPod model made since then. There are many cheaper models out there – don’t get suckered by the $90 Monster or Dre. Beats or whatever model.
And while we are talking audio: don’t forget the Fade button on your car speakers. When the kids were occupied in the back, we’d listen to grown-up music up front. Or Fade the kids music to the back and have a real conversation up front.
It’s great to have music you can all agree on. We’ve posted our list before. If you are looking for travel music, you could do worse than reading our Cool Kids’ Music, because Parents have Ears too post…
9) Measuring Milestones of the Road Trip
We had this activity planned for our trip but didn’t actually need it. (Robin still has all the close pins rolling around in her purse.) It’s a fun idea to measure the milestones of your journey together. It might be helpful for your trip, visit The Dating Divas to download this and other printables.
10) Road Trip Alternate Transportation
If possible, let a ferry take you part of the way. This was a great way to break up the drive. We didn’t need to drive constantly, we were able to stretch our legs, eat some ice cream and breathe some non-recirculated air.
Not always possible for all road trips, but if you have the option, take it.
11) Co-operative Games
I know many of you will have competitive kids who can compete and have winners and losers and no one will cry and/or get furious. It must be nice. You should enjoy that.
We, on the other hand, have learned co-operative games work better. For this, I Spy Road Game we play it co-cooperatively: Let’s see how quickly we can find all the things on these cards. Time yourselves.
If you have a competitive game you plan on using, invent a co-op version and keep it stored in your memory for when all hell breaks loose. Even the most rational kid gets testy after several hours on lockdown.
12) Road Trip Activities for Kids: Sculpting
The kids had the most fun making sculptures. Play-dough or clay would be disastrous in the car, so we opted for two lesser known ideas:
a) Pipe Cleaner Sculptures:
b) Road Trip Aluminum Foil Sculptures and Fashions:
As malleable as play dough without the mess. Robin tore off and handed back sheets as needed (to avoid kids cutting themselves). We found scotch tape came in handy for the more complicated creations.
13) Car Trip Activity: Window Markers:
These Window Markers were the hands down favorite activity on the trip.
As we publish this post, we are heading to visit Ed’s folks. A five-hour drive. Not intimidating in the slightest anymore.
UPDATE: This year we’ve pulled together a collection of Free Road Trip Printables – games and activities to make the drive more fun! Check them out here: