road-trips: how to survive traveling with young children

In honor of the arrival of summer vacation, I thought I’d do a post on a summer staple: the road trip.  (Some of this applies to plane travel, too.)

Whether you’re traveling to visit relatives or headed for a vacation hotspot, the drive is often the most dreaded portion of the trip.  While I haven’t done nearly as many road trips as I’m sure some of you have (both sets of grandparents, at least, live nearby), we have taken several trips with little ones.

I’ll break my observations into two parts: Things to Consider and Activities for Travel.

Things to Consider:

  • Kids have a limited ability to sit, even if you DO bring every toy you can fit in the car.  For my children, two hours was the maximum amount of time they could sit contentedly; at three hours we had weeping and gnashing of teeth.
  • Plan your rest stops wisely.
    • If there are long stretches of open road, you’ll need to anticipate when your little travelers will need to stop for food or a potty break; if towns are sparse, you may have to stop at an inconvenient time—but that’s better than driving a half-hour (or more!) with a little one who is not only sick of driving but also HUNGRY.
    • On a related note, little bladders are not always convenient in their timing; plan accordingly.  We took a small potty along in the car (and bags to contain smells).  This is also handy when the public restrooms you find appear not to have been cleaned since the Cold War.
    • Many rest areas now feature playground equipment –this is GREAT for a brief wiggle-break.  Unfortunately, you can’t always tell when you’ll get lucky…
    • You can eat in the car; you can’t run in the car.  Thus, we found it far more effective to let the kids run and play during our meal stops, taking their food to go.  This was handy because it not only allowed them to have the chance to run off some energy without turning our food breaks into hour-long ordeals, but it also gave them a distraction for the next portion of the car trip as they munched happily away.  For this strategy, you either have to be willing to have your car get rather messy, or you
      Homemade lap tray

      My snazzy, soft, slightly-sloppily-made lap tray, created from a thick sheet of craft foam and the leg of an old pair of jeans.

      have to plan your meals very carefully.

    • If your kids drop things, you will probably not be able to safely retrieve them.  Try your best to eliminate this source of frustration. Install a leash on your little one’s sippy cup or water bottle, make sure they have toy storage within their reach, and buy or make a lap tray to help them balance their toys.  (I made soft ones from sheets of thick 8×12 craft foam and the legs of my husband’s old, ripped jeans; they fit perfectly within the confines of the car seat.)
    • Pack carefully.  Consider what you’ll need along the way, and keep it convenient.  If you’re traveling with a baby or toddler, keep their bag of toys (and snacks) at your feet so you can dole out new treats at your discretion (rather than having them upend the whole bag on the floor in the first five minutes of the drive).
    • Snacks are an additional form of entertainment.  Keep them reasonably healthy, and you won’t even feel guilty about letting your kid have a few more than normal.  Easy-to-pack items include pretzels, dry cereal, raisins, bananas, and granola bars.  Caveat: The official rule is that kids shouldn’t eat in the car due to the danger of choking.  I choose snacks based on my child’s age, and I don’t feed a rear-facing child unless an adult is sitting in the back watching.  Please use care.

Activities for Travel (with a focus on keeping costs low)

Toddler asleep in car seat

Little Peatie dozes in the car.

Every parent of young children hopes desperately that their child spends a good portion of a long trip sleeping peacefully.  If you want that to happen, providing the proper accessories (a favorite blankie or stuffed animal, a little pillow, comfy clothes or jammies) certainly can’t hurt. Since your child isn’t likely to sleep for the entire trip unless you’re extraordinarily lucky (ours hardly slept even when we left at 2 am), you’ll need to consider other activities for passing the time.

  • First I’ll state the obvious: electronics.  Lots of folks have handheld gaming systems.  Anyone with an iPad or similar toy knows that there are hundreds of cheap or free apps for kids of all ages and interests.  I, sadly, have no nifty electronic gadgets—but for our longest trip, my Dad was kind enough to let us use his iPad and download some free apps for the kids.  Beyond that, there’s the portable DVD player that many parents laud as a lifesaver for travel.
  • Read books!  Practically everyone can enjoy a book, from the infant chewing on the fabric book to the little one learning to read for himself.  You can read aloud from the front seat or simply bring books that have lots of interesting pictures.  (Caveat: Consider whether your child is likely to eat their board books or rip pages in paper books when bored—mine were.)
  • A lap tray (mentioned above) can facilitate lots of activities:
    • Cars and trains: Your kid may not have a lot of space, but they’ve never let that stop them before, have they?  The little lip on the lap tray helps keep the cars from easily rolling to the floor and becoming a source of distress.
    • Coloring: Bring some paper and crayons along for a relatively mess-free activity—unless your kids are young enough to
      Goobie scribbles on Grandpa's iPad.

      Goobie tests out a free scribbling app on Grandpa’s iPad.

      decide that coloring the car is a good idea.  Then you may want to look into Crayola’s Color Wonder paper or stick to a MagnaDoodle.

    • Tangrams: You can make your own, as I plan to, using sheet foam or even an old cereal box.    Plenty of patterns are available online (and this is a great learning tool)!
  • Use your hands:
    • Think of old finger plays you did as a kid (or learn some new ones before you go).  Little ones can enhance their dexterity by trying to copy your movements.
    • Have your kids enhance their fine motor skills while they play.
      • Make your own crazy “dress-me” type creation with the front of an old pair of jeans (zipper and button) plus some Velcro, a snap, a large hook-and-eye, and the like.
      • Create a travel-size slot sorter from an old frosting container and some milk lids.
      • Make a lacing card by drawing a shape on the inside of an old cereal box, using a hole punch to mark every inch or so around its perimeter, and hunting up an unused shoe string to go with it.
      • Bring any toys you already have that involve manipulating pieces. (Pack them a few weeks in advance, and they’ll be more exciting!)
  • Use your car’s stereo:
    Slot sorter made from icing container and milk lids

    I made this slot sorter from an empty icing container and some milk lids.

    • Are your kids old enough to enjoy books-on-tape…er…CD?  Check out some fun ones from your local library before heading off on your trip.
    • Bring some favorite music along.  A calming CD can help facilitate nap time, while upbeat sing-alongs can distract cranky passengers—especially if you can get them doing hand motions to the music.
    • Feeling adventurous?  Try passing the time by learning the basics of a new language with your little one.  You can both giggle while trying to wrap your tongues around new sounds.
  • Look out the window:
    • There are lots of things to see on a road trip.  Point out interesting landmarks, crazy buildings, farm animals, vehicles…
    • Go through the rainbow and try to find things of each color along your route.  Give everyone a chance to find as many things of each color as possible.
    • Look for letters and numbers as you drive.  You can look for them in order, or just ask your kids to spot them at random.
    • Older kids can check out the different license plates on cars.  (My siblings and I used to keep a record of which states we saw—we even kept personal tallies of how many of each license plate we spotted.)

I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting, but this post is plenty long already, and this should be plenty to get you started.  Happy traveling!

What are your time-tested travel tips?

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One thought on “road-trips: how to survive traveling with young children

  1. Pingback: road trip tips: a survival guide for parents | butmostlymommy

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