Anyone who’s ever taken a long road trip with little ones knows the value of the art of distraction to help the miles fly by with precious smiles. Sure, kids can plug in to their favorite devices while away the time, but why not use car time as an opportunity to connect through engaging activities and—yes—conversation? To help you do just that, we offer the following unplugged suggestions for turning boring travel time into entertaining together time.
Fun in-car activities can be the antidote to boredom. Consider portable games that are mess-free, contain few pieces (which can get easily swallowed up by seats) and can be enjoyed over and over again. Popular choices include magnetic bingo, checkers, tic-tac-toe, hangman, matching, and memory games (check out the product line from such toymakers as Melissa & Doug and Take ‘N’ Play Anywhere). If you’re feeling creative, you can also invent your own games using a baking sheet and traditional alphabet and number magnets.
Young artists are also sure to love drawing, coloring, and even painting in the car. But perhaps you worry that your Picasso might stray off the page and scribble his masterpiece on your upholstery. Crayola has met that concern with Color Wonder mess-free coloring products. Similar to old-fashioned invisible-ink spy pens, Crayola’s specially designed markers, paint brush pens and stampers show up only on specially coated Color Wonder paper—nothing else.
Stickers are also ideal, but reusable stickers are even better. Consider reusable sticker pad sets, such as those by Melissa & Doug, that allow you to customize your own scenes using vinyl stickers on predesigned backgrounds (think everything from ocean, farm, and jungle environments to play houses, castles, and funny faces).
You can also go old-school with throwback travel games; there’s no need to revive 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall or Slug Bug (variously known as Punch Buggy or Punch Bug), but License Plate Scavenger Hunt, I’m Going on a Picnic, 20 Questions, and I Spy are solid standbys.
Be sure to budget enough time to make frequent stops throughout your journey. Children need to move around—not to mention take bathroom breaks—but a rest stop is not the only option for active play. Seek out parks, walkable downtowns, or even small amusement parks that aren’t off the beaten path. When stopping overnight, look for a hotel with an indoor pool if your children like to swim. Yes, it’s going to take longer to get where you’re going, but the time along the way will pass more smoothly.
Pack plenty of healthy snacks in single-serving disposable baggies—many experts recommend granola bars, Cheerios, string cheese, and fresh fruits and vegetables (cut into small pieces)—and bring lots of water. Avoid sugary, spicy, and greasy foods as well as foods that are common choking hazards; for children younger than age four, that includes hot dogs, nuts and seeds, chunks of cheese and meat, whole grapes, hard or sticky candy, popcorn, chunks of peanut butter, chunks of raw vegetables, and chewing gum, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
When traveling with more than one child, consider your seating arrangement (fixed or rotating) so that parents in the front seat can easily reach smaller children who may need assistance in the back. Also factor in sibling dynamics when deciding who sits next to whom, and consider sitting in the back seat for real face time with your children. Comfort can also make or break a trip, so bring your children’s favorite pillows (or neck pillows), blankets and stuffed animals; sun shades for windows; battery-operated handheld fans; and a handy change of comfortable clothes for any snack spills or…well, other mishaps.
Getting there can be half the fun, after all.