We love family vacations, and we typically drive to our destinations. That means we often drive for 6 to 10 hours in a day with our three children in tow. Like most other parents, we often rely on screens – DVDs, video games, etc – to help entertain our children. However, we also try to have screen-free (or at least limited screen time) days as well. Why? Well, I think it’s good to not rely entirely on screens for a number of reasons…
- My kids get cranky and overly-emotional if they spend too much time in front of screens. And there are few things worse than being stuck in a car all day with a cranky, overly-emotional small child.
- We want to interact occasionally with our children along the way, and well, good luck getting my kids’ attention if there is a screen on. Thus, if we want to point out pretty scenery or interesting sights along the way, we need to have the screens off.
- We can only tolerate so much when it comes to hearing cartoon character voices as background noise. For this very reason, I will never allow SpongeBob to be played in the DVD player in the family minivan. Ugh! I can’t tolerate SpongeBob’s voice for more than even a few minutes.
- I would prefer the kids to do something of substance (something creative, productive or educational) for some of the day.
Here are some entertainment ideas that have worked for us:
I often insist that my children earn their screen time during vacations by requiring them to complete worksheets. I hand them 2-5 worksheets in the morning, they complete said worksheets, and then, they get to enjoy 30 minutes (or sometimes even a full hour) of screen time. We do this first thing in the morning. If it is an exceptionally long drive day, we will do it again immediately after lunch.
Where do I find these worksheets? I often purchase inexpensive workbooks from a store or online. For children 6 and under, I can usually find a decent variety of age-appropriate workbooks at our local dollar store. For all of my kids (even the teenager), I have had good luck finding interesting workbooks at a local chain store called Five Below. I have also been known to pick up workbooks at used book sales and thrift shops.
A couple years ago, we went on a huge two-week vacation all the way to California and back. I spent two years planning the vacation which included stops along old historic route 66 and several national parks. I wanted this trip to be, both, fun and educational for our kids. Thus, I spent a lot of time finding worksheets specifically related to our vacation stops. It was (very) time-consuming to prepare but it was well worth the effort. I found worksheets by googling things like route 66 activity sheets, wild west mazes, Sequoia coloring page, etc. When selecting worksheets for each day, I tried to make them relate to that particular day’s stops or the previous day’s stops. Some of the worksheets were purely educational such as a crossword puzzle, a fill-in-the-blank fact sheet, or a matching activity. Other times, the worksheets were purely fun like a coloring page or a maze.
If I don’t have time to print worksheets or purchase workbooks ahead of time, I simply have the kids practice their penmanship or cursive by writing words related to our vacation and having the kids copy them (or trace them for very small children).
Tip: Don’t forget to bring a clipboard for each child! It is frustratingly difficult to complete worksheets without a hard surface to write on.
I load audio books from the library onto a mobile device, and we will listen to that as a family. I look for books that everyone will enjoy. We have had good luck with the Narnia book series. And occasionally, we will listen to a Junie B. Jones book.
Notebooks and Colored Pencils
No matter what ages my children are, they always (ALWAYS!) seem to enjoy new blank spiral notebooks. At the start of every vacation, I hand them each one along with some new colored pencils/pens (but never crayons because I worry the crayons might melt if left in a parked car on a hot day). They use these notebooks to write stories, draw pictures, or play pen-and-paper games (think tic-tac-toe and such). Sometimes, we pass the notebooks back and forth writing funny notes to each other. When I only had one or two kids, I would sometimes draw mazes in their notebooks upon their request. The kids loved that. Now that I have three kids, I rarely do that anymore (because I can no longer keep up with their requests).
Tip: We often pull out the blank notebooks while we listen to audio books, and that combination seems to work exceptionally well.
Before the trip, we give each of our kids a backpack. The kids pack toys and books into these bags – anything they want to bring in order to keep themselves amused during the trip. At some point, someone referred to their backpacks as “entertainment bags,” and the kids have called them that ever since.
Here’s the catch. We give the kids explicit instructions that they are responsible for carrying their own entertainment bags and for not losing any of its contents. We have used this system for over five years. So far, the kids have been very cautious with their bags, and they have not lost anything more valuable than a matchbox car and a couple of army men.
It’s fun and surprising to see what items they choose to pack – rocks, action figures, baby blankets, magazines, photos, a rabbit’s foot, amongst other things – and it’s really neat to see what sort of games they make up with these items during the trip. Such imaginations!
Tip: I always double-check that the little kids have remembered to pack a small stuffed animal (or other lovey) to sleep with.
Binoculars and/or Cameras
We have a few old, outdated digital cameras. We give one to each kid right before vacation. They pack it into their entertainment bags. Along the trip, they pull out their cameras at various times and happily snap away. We end up with a lot of goofy-faced selfies, but hey, the kids have a great time and it is harmless fun. I have found that the little kids don’t have much interest in using their cameras at stops like museums. However, my oldest loves to take pictures at every stop along the way (museums, scenery, information signs at visitor centers, and more).
If there is going to be some pretty scenery on our trip, I also like to bring a pair of affordable (and age-appropriate) binoculars for each child. It is so fun to see their amazement when they spot something of interest in the distance!
I always prepare a bag of surprises before every trip. I pick up a few affordable small toys (like action figures, small Lego sets, card games from the dollar store, etc) and pack it into a bag that I keep up front in the minivan during our travels. I try to have one surprise for each kid for each long drive day. When the kids start to get antsy during a long drive, I pull out and distribute a surprise from the bag. And voila, the kids are happily entertained again for a while!
Tip: Whenever possible, I try to get each kid matching surprises for each day. (For example, each kid gets a superhero action figure on Monday, each kid gets a small Lego set on Tuesday, each kid receives a finger puppet dinosaur on Wednesday, etc.) We have learned the hard way that when toys don’t match, there can be a lot of unnecessary drama with the kids!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that EVERYONE gets grouchy when they are hungry. Thus, we always bring snacks. Some of our favorite travel snacks include apples, juice boxes, crackers, trail mix, and breakfast bars. If you have a cooler, yogurt and cheese slices are also good snacks to have on hand.
And when all else fails, we bring out the screens. Play a movie, pass out the handheld video game systems, or pull out the smart phones and tablets. For big trips, I often bring along a new DVD movie or video game.
Tip: Our kids won’t sleep at night if they doze off too late in the evening. To keep them awake, we always pull out the screens if we are driving at dusk or at night. Afterall, what else can the kids do to stay busy (and keep awake) in the dark?!?
Need more ideas on how to keep the children entertained on a road trip? Check out our list of simple travel games.