When people set off on longer travels with kids, they often wonder how to keep their little ones happily occupied in the car or plane in order to preserve their own sanity. I love to travel and I’m happy to have great travel buddies in my 4 kids. One summer we all 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. The next summer I solo 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 top 10 must-haves for travels with littles:
#1 The Clipboard
I prepare a clipboard for each of the older kids with some classic free printable activity sheets, such as:
- road trip bingo
- license plate game
- road trip alphabet game
- personalized word search
- custom crossword puzzle
- krazydad mazes
- a printed map of our route so they can see or mark our progress
- blank paper for games, sketching, journaling or doodling
#2 The Book Stash
Before road trips, 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 2,759 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. I have a couple of fast bookworms so these come out on the road trip and not a day before. From board books to the latest teen must-read, I get most of them used (ebay or garage sales are helpful too). I also hoard any kids’ magazines or catalogs (such as the coveted LEGO catalog or Reptiles magazine) for a few weeks before our departure. I may even order a couple of back issues of specialty magazines, like Brick Journal. I save a few in my own bags to tuck into their backpacks for some new surprises on the return journey. Gotta keep it fresh!
#3 The Camera
The kids are welcome to use my small digital point-and-shoot 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 can keep young kids occupied for ages. And occasionally you do get a great shot to keep! Now that mine are a bit older and my two eldest have their own cell phones, they also record their own silly videos or snapshots of each other to pass the time.
#4 The Audio Stories
I load the iPad and my phone with free audio stories from www.storynory.com. My kids all enjoy these, and so do I. From Greek myths to classic fairy tales, Lewis Carroll to Charles Dickens, as well as original stories, all beautifully told, this is a great way to pass the miles! Some of our favorites are the fun and quirky Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling, like How the Whale Got His Throat and How the Camel Got His Hump.
#5 The Backpack
Each kid gets to pack his or her own small backpack for in the car. They might bring small toys or puzzles, some allowance money for souvenirs, books, a doll, binoculars 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 sometimes buy some cheap plastic dollar store items like light-up character spinners or gadgets (no annoying sounds!!) for the littlest ones. (Hey, there’s a time and a place for these things. This is it!)
#6 The Photo Book
I prepare a small photo album. You know, one of those cheap $1 flip-through albums you can find. Again, I know I can put 6,000 photos on a device and maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I truly think there’s something different about a physical book, especially for young ones. 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 something red?
#7 The Food
Obviously we need food! We’ve used various 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. This eliminates the “Can I have a….?” every 10 minutes. 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 mostly get the same things. I include snacks they don’t usually eat, for the novelty and because road trips are special treats. I also 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…
#8 The Little Things
We create fun things to do when we cross 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, propped him on the dashboard or center console, 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.
#9 The Music
Of course, music is essential. I have a few playlists of favorite songs we all like to rock out or sing along to. Sometimes, when younger ones are sleeping, that calls for gentler music. Sometimes each kid will get to play DJ and choose songs for us. Sometimes we just listen to whatever I, as the driver, want to hear. Because that’s just how it has to be sometimes.
#10 The Electronics
It’s my last resort, but you bet I’ll use it. I load our iPad with a few new apps – some games that I like to think have some sort of educational merit, however much of a reach that might be. And the older kids have their decidedly non-educational games which nevertheless keep them busy for extended stretches. We have a DVD player in the car that we use for road trips only so it’s a treat to have movie time on the road. I was pleased that 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. (I suspect that was a fluke as it hasn’t happened again yet!)
So far, these strategies have worked to keep us all not just sane but truly happy travelers. We want to do more than survive our road trips, we want to thrive on them! I hope annual road trips with my family will be a tradition for many years to come and I hope our kids will have happy memories of these adventures too.
Happy and safe travels to you! If you have any tips, please share them in the comments below!