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Traveling with Children

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These ideas all came from the Sonlight Main Forum. Leah in Texas did a tremendous job of organizing them and polishing them up; Thanks, Leah!

From TraceyLynn:

We made tents in the car with sheets strung up from the back of the car seats (okay, this one is difficult with shoulder straps that attach to the ceiling, but use a beach towel and let the kids cover themselves up in the car seat). The "tent" never covered the windows so it wasn't a safety hazard, it was just fun to duck under something.

We rotated seat positions every stop; easier to do if the car seats can be changed around with little hassle. It was worth it on the long trips so that everybody got to sit near a window at some point, and they all got to sit next to somebody different. A real life-saver, that one!

Bigger kids get a chance to sit up front. ("They" say they have to be 12, but our 11 year old daughter is already 5'4" so she gets a turn along with our 13 year old daughter.) That also gives Mom/Dad a chance to sit in the back with the kids. One little one was content as long as she could sit and put her arm through Mommy's arm next to her.

Invest in some travel games like Connect Four, Guess Who?, playing cards, Uno, Mad-Libs, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Yahtzee (the only battery-powered game we have and everybody loves it. We just get tired of the noise, but you can turn the sound off.). Toys R Us usually has a whole wall of travel-sized games.

Klutz has a book of travel games that include a fancy way of playing some traditional games like license plate bingo. Your library has some books on games that can be played with pencil and paper, or just voices.

Our family has a game called "I'm thinking of an animal." Even the youngest ones can play it. The person who is it says, "I'm thinking of an animal that has hair." Or some other clue. One person makes a guess ("a horse?"). The "it" person says, "No, a horse has hair but that's not the animal I'm thinking of. My animal has hair and a very long nose." You can see the pattern. You repeat the clues each time giving an additional clue for each person's turn. The winner gets to think of an animal, or you can just take turns thinking of an animal. This sounds kinds simplistic, but we've played it for years now and they'll keep at it for an hour or more.

Another stupid but fun family game is "That's My House." We also do it with horses, barns, etc. As you drive along you spot a house you like and yell out, "THAT'S MY HOUSE!" Then it's someone else's turn. This is a great game for driving through historic-looking towns with lots of interesting houses. It's like the catalog game on the road!

Story tapes are an absolute necessity. I wouldn't think of driving without them. I also invested in five sets of Walkman-type sets with headphones (one for each child). At a designated time of day, everyone gets to listen privately for an hour. Then we stop no matter where you are in the story/music you're listening to. I bought ours at Costco, and they were about $25 each. Even our three-year-old can handle this with ease.

We let everyone take a turn choosing the story/music tape for the car tape player. So if you really hate Glad's a cappella music, which everyone in my family does except me, you know that Mom's turn will be over soon and someone else can choose.

I vote for colored pencils with little individual pencil sharpeners over crayons. You don't have to worry about crayons melting in the winter, but in addition my kids like the Dover coloring books best and pencils are needed for those smaller spaces. I hate markers because they get all over each other and the car. You can get a battery operated pencil sharpener for a few dollars, maybe $5. Take extra batteries!! Our three-year-old still likes crayons so I give him one box of biggies. He usually scribbles, draws on his hands and arms, which doesn't really do much, breaks them in half then throws the pieces around. That's good for a half hour!

Colorforms are the best thing to happen to a kid with a window seat. They stick perfectly on a car window and look very cool from the outside, too.

Zany Brainy sells a toy that's like Colorforms but it's a magnetic board and the pieces are magnets. We bought one that had castle blocks and a queen, king, dragon, etc. It was like building with wooden blocks but you just held it in your lap. When we got to our vacation house the kids played with it on the refrigerator. Every time someone walked by they moved a little piece, a parapet, an arch, or something. I don't know what these are called but I've seen them at "specialty" toy stores. They come in ballet sets, dinosaurs, farm animals, and brightly colored shapes of different sizes.

Don't forget Betty Lukens felt books. Put the pieces in a shoe box or get a piece of cardboard about 24" x 36" and fold it in half to make a folder for the pieces. Glue a piece of Velcro to one open side, and the opposite piece of Velcro to the other side so it closes, sort of like a diary with a lock on it.

Sometimes we give our kids a roll of dimes and tell them that each time they are contentious they have to forfeit a dime. If they insult someone or hit someone they have to give that person one of their dimes. Any money they have left at the end of the trip (or day) can be spent on a souvenir or a piece of junk food. To make the dimes idea manageable, buy large mini-M&M holders, the kind with the hinged top that snaps shut tightly. Either empty out the candy and eat it all yourself (to fortify yourself for the trip ahead) or give it to the kids and let them eat it all) then you have a perfect container for all those dimes.

Let them chew gum but go easy on the salty foods and even the drinks. No sense stopping every 30 minutes for someone else to go.

Make them ALL go whenever you stop. Make them all TRY, and they usually will go.

Take a roll of toilet paper. and a little bottle of hand sanitizer.

Give them fancy slipper socks, the kind with non-slip tread on the bottom, to wear in the car. This only works if you don't mind them having to put on their shoes every time you stop. But, it keeps them from accidentally hurting each other every time they wiggle around in their seats. I've had enough of "He's kicking me with his big shoes!!"

A new one for us is the Bible-themed packets of questions like the Brain Quest packets. You can get them for each age group and give them a prize for each correctly answered question, like a nickel, or a piece of candy corn. Don't make it too competitive or you'll have one "winner" and a bunch of sore "losers" in the car.

All in all, my kids are usually satisfied the longest with a story tape and a coloring book.

Also, keep a toothbrush for each person, toothpaste, and dental floss in a Ziploc bag in the glove compartment. You can brush at every stop without unpacking your regular bags. That's what we call "travel toothbrushes!" They actually stay in the car at all times. You can even brush at the side of the road with a bottle of water to rinse if you don't think it's too gross to spit in the grass by the road.

I almost forgot the most important organizing tip! Each child gets his/her own backpack to fill with whatever is desired. One daughter usually puts a couple dolls in it. Sometimes they take stuff I'd never think of, and sometimes they don't play with it, but they have to put everything back in it before they start using something else, and the backpacks have to go under the seats when we get out of the car. It keeps everything out of sight. Of course you can't put them under the seats of some cars.

I hope this is helpful to you. Sometimes we learn the most amazing things just being stuck in the car with our kids where we have to listen to them.

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From Michelle in OR

What I have discovered is that whatever they choose to take in the back seat with them must fit into a snap-lidded tote that goes on the seat in between them. Anything that comes out of the tote needs to go back in the tote to help keep the car clean. Some of these things are stored in this tote year round on a shelf in a garage and are only taken out for car trips.

Things that have been considered "boring" in our family are the typical paper, crayons, Etch-a-Sketch, and felt board items. Your kids may be different, but my kids hardly look twice at them.

Some things that have been worth a second look are some of the following:

  1. There are a number of great books put out by Klutz that are great for car trips:
    • Kidstravel : A Backseat Survival Guide/Includes Book, Pad, and Pouch With Game Pieces
    • Glove Compartment Scavenger Hunt (Klutz Guides)
    • Glove Compartment Science
    • Glove Compartment Games (Klutz Guides)
    • Spotters Guide to the Coolest Cars on the Road
    • The Amazing Backseat Booka-Ma-Thing : Thousands of Miles Worth of Hands-On Games and Activities
    • The Most Incredible, Outrageous, Packed-To-The-Gills Bulging-At-The-Seams Sticker Book You've Ever Seen
    • A Super-Sneaky, Double-Crossing, Up, Down, Round & Round Maze Book

  2. A very unique idea I got from a friend of mine was to pre-dampen cotton swabs with water and put them in a baggie. The kids then had clip-boards that they used to hold the paint-with-water pictures. There was no fuss, no muss, and no sticky mess.

  3. My kids have always been ones to want to look at books in the car, stacks and stacks of books. When it gets dark out, there are always books on tape or CD.

  4. Toy stores usually sell the Milton Bradley travel games like Guess Who (our favorite when my kids were younger), Monopoly Junior, and Trouble which have been a hit with our kids. The only electronic game we own is Yahtzee which everyone seems to like.

  5. For younger children, Lauri sells a Primer Pack which includes an alphabet puzzle, lacing shapes with cords, 4 fit-a-space puzzles and Loctagons (foam octagon construction pieces) all in its own tote.

  6. I pack a small container of play dough and some play dough gadgets in a plastic container that we take into restaurants with us for them to play with while waiting for their meals.

  7. Depending on how creative your child is, they may love a collection of colorful pipe cleaners to twist into shapes or Wikki Stix (wax coated strings for making shapes).

  8. DK (Dorling Kindersley) sells a number of different sticker books which use their signature photo pictures as the stickers. I had picked up a Barbie one before our most recent plane trip for my 5 year-old daughter. She loved it. DK makes them in a large number of topic areas including ones for movie titles (like Toy Story or Monsters Inc.), dinosaurs, sharks, dogs, horses and many, many more. I have seen some titles available at Book Closeouts very inexpensively, though they can be readily found at most book stores.

  9. Rush Hour by Binary Arts and perhaps an expansion pack or two. Rush Hour is a wonderful thinking game for ages 8 and up. It was a winner in the 2001 Dr. Toy Awards and has 5 stars on Amazon along with many rave reviews. There are different versions available, Rush Hour, Rush Hour Jr. (for ages 6 to 8), Railroad Rush Hour and Safari Rush Hour. If you purchase Rush Hour, you can purchase additional card packs which come with an additional vehicle as expansion sets. (I believe there are currently four different expansion packs available. I have seen them at our educational toy store.)

  10. Rubber Neckers and (soon-to-be-released) Rubber Neckers Jr. by Matthew Lore. This is an awesome "spotting" game which really passes the time. It actually has an ISBN number and can be purchased through bookstores (ISBN: 0811822176). WARNING! It can be dangerous for the driver if they become more involved in looking than in driving, but our family loves it. (It is not recommended that the driver play, but they most certainly get involved.) We have so much fun with this game that we find ourselves playing it even when we are not playing it, saying, "There's my analog clock and it is showing the correct time!" or "There's a license plate from a non-neighboring state!" Reading is involved in this game and it requires a watchful eye, so it doesn't work out the best for young children, though they could help on a "team".

  11. McDonald's toys in a theme that is of interest to your child. Something that has been a hit with my daughter has been the mini Barbie's from McDonald's or other small dolls. She loves to make the dolls "talk" and can pass many miles in the car making them interact. When a promotion is running at McDonald's, they will sell you the toys without purchasing a Kid's Meal. By going there various times, I was able to buy several different Barbie's and put them away for our trip. The mini Barbie's are great in the car because there are no clothes or shoes or other small pieces to get lost down the seat. McDonald's is also famous for their TY Teenie Beanies and other toys.

  12. TY (the makers of Beanie Babies) also have a new line of toys called Teenie Beanie Boppers (not to be confused with the Beanie Baby Kids) which are soft-bodied little girl and boy dolls in various styles. Again, their clothes are not removable, so there are no little pieces to get lost. I have found mine at some Hallmark and other gift stores that sell TY products. They retail for about $5.99 each.

  13. A complete luxury, but an option which seems to be growing in popularity, would be a laptop computer with DVD player or a car DVD/TV. This was a wonderful bonus for us on a couple of trips (my husband's work supplied him with a laptop computer which had a DVD player). The kids were able to pass the time in the back seat watching movies during times when they weren't tired, but it was too dark to do anything else. It also has the added benefit of keeping the kids awake longer, so they would sleep when they reached the hotel instead of waking up as soon as my husband and I were ready to go to bed! The laptop computer also opens up the option of playing games, educational, of course!

  14. My only suggestion when traveling with a baby is to have LOTS of "new" interesting toys for them which you can switch off with when they get bored of the one they have. My babies did not want the same old toy they had explored 100 times before at home. I made a small investment and watched for toys on sale that would be good for our car trip or ones that would provide a lot of interest. The Baby Whoozit by Manhattan Toys (about $9.99) is a great one.

I also have the kids pack a special stuffed animal and I take along a real pillow for each of them. I find it makes them so much more comfortable when they try to sleep. I have tried giving them a small pillow or a rolled up jacket, and they just are not as comfortable as with a regular pillow. They can then choose a couple of other favorites that will fit into the tote.

Snacks are one way to pass the time in the car. Try to reduce the number of drinks or just give water in spill-proof cups to sip on during the trip. Kids will tend to drink less when water is offered than when it is juice or other sweetened drinks, resulting in fewer bathroom stops. I also pack wet wipes for washing hands and disinfectant for when we go to bathrooms with no soap.

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From Wendy

We bought a small TV with a built in VCR for the car and you don't have to buy one of the more expensive AC/DC types with the car adapter built in. You can use a regular one, but buy a power inverter. It plugs into your car charger and then has a space for a plug (or plugs) and you can plug anything in it. We've used ours so that they can even play Nintendo.

You can get them at Target and they cost $50 to $70 or so depending on how much power you want them to supply. If you're going to be plugging in more than one thing, you definitely want a higher wattage.

Music, From Jen in FL

One of the better things we discovered was that this is an excellent time to listen to Broadway or Off-Broadway musicals on tape. We discovered this by accident one year when I played a tape of "Big River" (the musical based on Huckleberry Finn). My son closed his eyes and listened so intently I thought he had fallen asleep. He later told me "I can see the pictures with the song." Since then, we've listened to "West Side Story", "Little Shop of Horrors" and a few others. My husband bought "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Fantasia" for my birthday this year.

Of course, this works for us because I have seen the musicals in question and can narrate enough to the kids to let them know what's happening in the story.

Also, you absolutely MUST listen to the tape/CD by yourself before you play it for the kids. Some of the songs from the popular musicals are NOT for tender ears ("Big River" has two in particular I don't play).

Tiny Toys, From Sandwich

I stocked up on stupid garage sale toys from "Free" boxes or paid 10 or 25 cents for each. I found interesting McDonald's toys (which my kids otherwise don't get), a Jacob's ladder, Polly Pockets, a desk thing where colored blobs drip down a ramp in a globe of water, little animals, etc. I had them in a Rubbermaid bin and every so often I'd break out a new one. They were novel enough to amuse for awhile and when the trip was over I just threw them out. I think I spent less than $5 total.

Play Before You Eat, From Rhoda

We always stopped and ate lunch someplace with a play area. Except we didn't give him his food until we are back on the road. We let him play while we ate. While one parent ordered, the other one took him to the playground. You might want to give your kids some crackers to stave off the meal before you stop. We would eat outside while he played. One thing that helped was that we told him that we would get back in the car if he wanted to eat. By midday he always wanted out of the car, more than he wanted food.

From Julie

I made up little lunch bags with snacks, stickers, new games, and other fun stuff. Every two hours, or whatever, I would give each child a new sack to unwrap. It gave them something to look forward to.

Now we always bring along our Sonlight books, or another book we've been wanting to read, and read it aloud. We've had times when we've gotten somewhere and not wanted to get out because we were at a very exciting part of a book!

From Maria

My experience is that shorter, more frequent breaks and keeping the children entertained somehow ends up with more fussing and whining in the long run. We bring special toys and sometimes buy a few new things, but tapes (headphones are great!) are our biggest source of entertainment. We make our breaks long and try to travel in the early morning or late evening as much a possible. It encourages sleeping in the car.

From Jenn in MO

Favorites for my sons, 5 & 7: twistable crayons; a roll of masking tape for pig noses, hats, etc.; pipe cleaners; Laffy Taffy; Pop Rocks; and glowsticks when it was too dark for anything else.

Favorites for my year-old daughter: a deck of cards, a plastic spoon and a cup, picture books, and a bag of shredded paper. That girl just LOVES shredded paper. The Wal-Mart craft section has it for a dollar a bag. It made a mess, but it was soooo worth it. Next time Iíll get some toys that light up. In the evening it was too dark for playing but too early for sleeping.

Bingo games and blank maps from . They colored in the maps as they found corresponding license plates.

A line with one clothespin for every 50 miles of driving. They took them off as we traveled. No more "how much longer" whining - they could SEE how much longer.

We started a collection of state magnets from gas stations. They're inexpensive, compact, and a good reminder of our trips.

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Mapping Ideas

From Barbara

Take a map for the children to follow your progress. It's a great learning experience. Or you can make your own AAA trip book by photocopying the part of a map that pertains to your trip. Highlight the route for the little ones and have them find towns on the route. Older children can figure out miles to go, how many hours left, and so forth, and keep busy with the road atlas. I even have a laminated map of our state. It is pre-folded and we use it constantly when we go on field trips.

You can also get ones of the U.S., but the print is very tiny for new readers, so I would go to a copy shop and photocopy a map with larger print of the state or states you drive through, or enlarge your U.S. map there. There are all kinds of games you can make up using the maps.

Also, make one of your "pit" stops the roadside tourism place for the state or county you are driving through. Let the kids collect free literature and learn about the historic places in that area. They can keep them in their backpack and use the map to locate the places in the brochure.

From zmrzlina

We have found it helpful to help the kids understand where we are on the trip. When we go on long trips, my husband makes a travel line - like a number line - that shows some cities and state lines and points of interest marked off at various intervals. He usually uses the inside of a file folder so that a large paper clip can slide up and down the trip line to show where we are.

The kicker is that at certain points along the way - state lines, major cities - there is a mark that shows the kids get a Hershey Kiss. They anxiously await each "kiss place". It helps break the trip up for them and answers the never-ending "Are we there yet?" We just show them the line. How far we've come and how much farther we have to go. It is also great for geography time. And to be perfectly honest, it helps me from going crazy too. It keeps it visual for me that we are making progress and that there IS an end to the madness!

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TV & VCR Ideas
The following were collected from several contributors. Return to the top of this page

Metal Cookie Sheet and Dry Erase Board Ideas Return to the top of this page

Game Ideas

Art & Sticker Ideas Return to the top of this page

Book Ideas

Toy Ideas

Miscellaneous Ideas Return to the top of this page

Audio Book Recommendations

Snack Ideas Return to the top of this page

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