We spent 15 hours in the car starting at our house and driving until we reached my brother’s home, with many rest and gas stops in between. The temperatures we encountered ranged from 28 (Vail Pass) to 105 degrees (Las Vegas). One child vomited from car sickness. It could have easily been 2 boys plus one mama; so that’s not too bad, all things considered. My husband only had to make 4 really important business calls – this could have ranged from 0 to most of the trip – and only had to get off of the phone once due to a screaming toddler, who was declaring very loudly and repeatedly that he needed to pee when there was no highway exit in sight. Taken as a whole, I think it was a pretty successful drive.
How did we make it through 15 hours of driving without any serious mishaps or meltdowns? First, I think some of it comes from practice. My boys have been loaded into the car and driven across the country from an early age (the youngest was about 7 weeks, driving from Colorado to Michigan). I think on some level, they just accept that this is something that we do periodically.
I think a lot of our success, however, comes from the fact that one adult is always sitting in the back with the boys and helping to entertain the youngest one while the other person drives. Since my husband likes to drive and I do not, I generally take on the role of backseat entertainment director and he typically drives the car.
So how do I provide screen-free road trip entertainment for my boy(s) while we’re driving? One of the things we do is lots of singing. Lots and lots and lots. We sing acapella, and we sing with ipod accompaniment. We sing every song we can think of, and we sing the same songs over and over again. My toddler currently loves to sing Old MacDonald (acapella), and my 6-year-old does fantastic versions of the folk classic Big Rock Candy Mountain as well as Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. While the adults in the car may get a little bored while singing or hearing the same song 25 times in a row, my kids love it. So we all join in, and make it a family sing-along.
Both of my boys do a lot of drawing and coloring in the car. The 6-year-old draws his own pictures on drawing paper or works on coloring elaborate designs in coloring books using his tin of colored pencils. My toddler draws using his crayons. They’ll both work at these projects for extended periods of time. It makes for a nice period of quiet in the midst of our car rides.
My 6-year-old also worked on some homeschooling skills as we drove. This time, he worked on practicing his lettering and spelling new words. While writing on your lap in a moving vehicle is not exactly the same as writing on a table at home, it’s helped him to size his letters more consistently, and he had fun doing it. He wants to be able to add Bananas and Watermelon to our grocery shopping list, so this provided him with a big motivation to learn how to spell and write those words. He knows that we buy whatever is on the list. 😉
We spend a lot of time looking out the windows and finding various items of interest: windmills, trucks, birds, cows, trains, and so on.
We eat all of our meals and snacks in the car while traveling, which also takes some time. We pack a cooler full of good food that’s fairly easy to eat while driving or riding, and we eat as we cover the miles. It not only provides us with another thing to do in the car, but – importantly – it allows us to spend our time outside of the car moving our bodies. When we’re on road trips, we don’t stop to eat in restaurants (which would still require us to sit), we stop to use the restroom, fill the car with gas, and to move.
My boys love hearing stories, and we spend hours a day reading at home. If I didn’t get car sick, this would be a fantastic way to pass time in the car. Unfortunately, I can’t focus on a book for very long without getting sick, so I read picture books to my toddler that I’ve basically memorized. This way, I can recite the words as he looks at the pictures. For my 6-year-old, we load up an MP3 player with books on tape. This keeps him entertained and he can listen to his favorite parts of the book over and over again if he chooses. On this trip he was re-listening to AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner [the unabridged original versions] for probably, without exaggeration, the hundredth time. He could probably entertain us all by reciting long passages from the book; perhaps I’ll ask him to tell us the story as we drive home.
In case you’re worrying that you’re family is alone in things not always going smoothly on road trips, know that we also have period episodes of games such as Torment Your Brother by Putting Your Limbs in his Carseat. While these episodes typically don’t last very long (Thankfully! While I can handle hours of the same song with smiles and grace, I don’t like hearing my boys squabble with each other, especially when we’re all in a small, confined space.), they do happen. I play referee and soon they’re back to singing or looking out the window or howling like coyotes (Yes, my boys spend a lot of time in the car howling with each other. My 6-year-old tells me that they’re the Coyote Brothers).
My final suggestion for having a great road trip with kids is to approach everything with patience and a sense of humor. Finding the humor or the joy in a moment makes everything easier. I can smile through an hour of howling if I think of it as brotherly bonding instead of looking at it as loud and something that makes it difficult for me to think my own thoughts, let alone chat with my sweetie. When I think of our trip in terms of a family adventure, it feels exciting and fun. Even the challenges remind us of ways to improve things for next time (for example, we always need to carry some extra towels with us – cleaning up after someone gets car sick with only a few cloth napkins and some handkerchiefs leaves a lot to be desired).