My family and I really enjoy car trips – from San Francisco to LA, Fort Lauderdale to Savannah, Georgia. I just mention car trip and the kids run to their rooms to ready their backpacks. You can say I passed on my wandering gypsy genes to them.
A family road trip truly is a unique experience. I love that the kids can bring whatever they want and we can stop at interesting locations along the way. And if you’re prepared, the trip can be a great teaching moment in history and geography. From my experience, the kids can spend 7 hours on average without going insane inside a tin box… with one or two breaks in between.
Here are my tips on how to travel with kids by car:
LET THEM PACK ON THEIR OWN
Get a kid-sized backpack and let them fill it up with whatever treasures they want to bring along. While I pack the essentials, they bring along toy cars, books, crayons, mini notepads, balls, puzzles, a stuffed animal and their trapito for nighttime. I don’t interfere with their process, I just let them decide on their own. Letting them make good choices is a learning lesson; it will also make the trip more entertaining. But encourage them to pack light since they’ll be carrying their own backpacks throughout the trip.
CREATE A KID’S LIBRARY INSIDE THE CAR
I’m not a fan of playing DVDs during the trip. I’d rather create a more interactive experience. If I put a bunch of books in the backseat pockets, my kids can and will read them. Visit your local library a day or two ahead of the trip and allow them to checkout their own books. You might also find books at your final destination, so there’s no need to overpack. Kids want to learn about their destination, so engage them with fun facts or geography 101 (Google ’em!)
PREPARE A TOUR OF YOUR DESTINATION
Go online to print maps or brochures of your destination; or request brochures to be mailed to your home. Create a binder for each child to hold all of the fun visitor guides. Include a marker, a pencil and some paper and have them schedule activities. Let them pick their favorite places to visit by creating their own unique tour. This can be a great lesson on time management. Help them decide what’s best to do on each day considering the time, distance, location and duration of your visit. My kids will usually bring along their customized maps to every place we visit. They love being part of the decision-making process and vacation planning.
PLAN A FEW INTERESTING STOPS
Choose where to take your bio-breaks or food stops in advance. Avoid the typical fast food chains and look for quirky local spots to experience local customs and culture. It always amazes me how driving a couple of hours will change the scenery completely (and open my mind). Ideally, find a place that offers traditional homemade food or snacks. We usually improvise and stop somewhere that catches our attention. But avoid spending over 20 minutes at these stops. It’s key to keep everyone moving!
Another option is to pack your own healthy picnic, which the kids can help prepare, and take a break at the many rest stops along the way. The kids can stretch their legs, run and play for a while. Bring a soccer ball and have a picnic where you can.
GIVE THE KIDS A CAMERA
If you’re so inclined, grab a couple of disposable cameras (or let them use an old digital camera). Have them document the trip along the way. They can also collect treasures such as rocks, leaves, seeds, shells or whatever reminds them of each place they visited. Have a composition notebook handy for them to take notes, glue and color objects, or write notes. They can create their own journals and later share their experiences with their friends and teachers in school. Once you develop or print the photos, add them to their journals for a more visual experience.
UPLOAD EDUCATIONAL APPS ON A TABLET
Do this as a last resort, especially if the trip is over 3 hours long. I usually let them bring their Tablets or iPads, but with the caveat that usage can only last 2 hours. If you have no choice, then download a couple of fun, educational apps in advance.
My Favorite Tablet/iPad Apps For Kids Ages 4 to 8:
GOOGLE EARTH: Kids can explore maps of places we’re about to visit. We can even plan our trips ahead of time.
THE MAGIC SCHOOLBUS: Ms. Frizzle and her students embark on an aquatic journey in this interactive storybook, which features science facts, pictures, games and videos.
STACK THE STATES: As the kids learn state shapes, capitals, and abbreviations, they can build a stack of cartoonish states to reach the finish line and pass to the next level, eventually creating a full map of the United States.
STATE BINGO AND ROAD TRIP USA: Super fun geography lessons while kids buckle up and ride with Pep the car to discover different U.S. destinations. They can play a game of classic State Bingo and look for clues on a beautifully illustrated US map.
MINDSNACKS: Another impressive app to help children build their essential vocabulary. The app splits the learning into lessons, each with up to 20 words and phrases taught through colorful mini-games.
SCOOTPAD: Their curriculum is 100% aligned to the Common Core Standards. My kids use ScootPad at school, and it’s a great tool for practicing math and reading skills.
ENDLESS ALPHABET: A joyful collection of words and monsters to explain them. Sorted alphabetically, each word gets children to drag its letters into place, after which they’ll see a characterful animation for its definition.
MINECRAFT: It’s not educational per se, but it’s my kids’ favorite app. It involves a lot of imagination and creative skills to build their own virtual world. It’s hours of entertainment!
GREEN EGGS AND HAM by DR. SEUSS: This classic ebook highlights words as the narrator reads… something the kids will love when they interact with objects featured on each page. Touching the objects brings up their associated words.