How many times have you planned a family outing and ten minutes after pulling out of the garage heard a little voice from the back seat say, "Are we almost there yet?"
Driving trips are part of summertime fun for many families. Unfortunately, vacations that require many hours of driving, or even day trips to local destinations, often end up causing frustration for both children and parents. Long days seem shorter when they are broken into smaller segments with each one having something interesting to look forward to.
The following suggestions indicate ways to break up driving time and make your trip the fun it’s intended to be.
Time in the car is tedious for most children. Bored children whine, complain, bicker, and generally make their parents wish they’d never undertaken the trip. If you’ve planned a drive of more than an hour, build in time for stretch stops. Stopping once an hour on long drives is a good rule of thumb. This means that on a four-hour trip, you’ll be adding an extra 40-45 minutes onto the intended destination time. The extra time is well worth the effort. Stretch stops relieve physical tension and assist with circulation. When children leave the car, they feel as if they’ve arrived somewhere. Their interest is rekindled when they get back into the car.
On interstate highways, rest areas come at relatively regular intervals. Many have picnic tables, walking paths, and grassy areas. Pack a bag or box with a ball, a Frisbee, and a jump rope. Use stretch breaks for 10 minutes of play. Ask your children to use the bathroom whether they think they need to or not. Encourage them to drink water. If rest areas aren’t available, pull into a vacant parking lot for a stretch, or stop on a residential street for a quick walk.
Bring music. Ask each member of the family to choose two or three of their favorite tapes or CD’s for the trip. Alternate who chooses the music to listen to. Instead of playing an entire tape or CD, designate a certain amount of time to be spent on a particular music selection. Have some time set aside when no music is played.
Become a treat dispenser. Before the trip, prepare a treat bag for each child. Include pieces of sugarless gum, small boxes of raisins, pieces of wrapped hard candy, fruit rolls, pretzels, and other items the children enjoy. Keep the bags with you. Randomly, but approximately every hour and at times other than stretch breaks, let the children reach into their own bag and draw out a treat. Kids really enjoy this. When my own daughters were far beyond the age where treats were necessary on driving trips, they would say, "On this trip are you going to be treat dispenser?"
Assemble a bag of favorite picture books for young children—maybe 10 or 15. Put four or five in the back seat at a time. Rotate the books so the children don’t get tired of them. Have older children pack their own book bag. Make sure they pack enough books to keep them occupied for the duration of the trip. If you don’t get car sick, have a chapter book that you can read to the children. Read for only 10 minutes or so at a time. If you’re on a traveling vacation, get a travel guide that discusses the areas through which you’ll be traveling. Read about upcoming sights.
Pack activity bags. Activity books, coloring books, blank paper, a pencil and sharpener, crayons, travel-size games, electronic games, and small dolls or stuffed animals are fun items for activity bags. Keep some of the items out of the bag and rotate them in to keep interest high. Older children can pack their own bags. Small cookie sheets with lips or edges keep materials from rolling onto the car floor while they’re being used.
Switch seating. If there are two adults traveling with the family, occasionally have one of the adults sit in the back and have a child move to the front. This changes interaction patterns as well as shifting the view. For safety reasons, children in car seats and small children must always sit in the back.
Older children like to play games requiring their attention to the environment. Count white horses or red cars or eighteen wheelers for an allotted number of minutes. Keep track of how many states are represented on license plates. Starting with the letter "A" find words on sign boards that consecutively begin with each letter of the alphabet.
Keeping driving trips fun requires thought and creativity. Gathering and packing materials for the children takes time. You might think that by using these ideas you will feel like a camp director who has little time to enjoy the trip. The opposite is true. A well-planned driving trip with activities for the children and positive participation with you means happy children who are less likely to be bored. You will not hear complaints and whining. At the end of the trip or at your destination, you will know that your foresight and planning has been well worth the effort.