In the middle of vacation season, lengthy car excursions are an unavoidable part of every parent’s summer. Short of being served raw fried chicken tenders at a Dairy Queen outside of Amarillo, Texas (yes, it happened to me) few things are more disturbing on these road trips than screaming, screeching or whining children.
So you don’t harm them or yourself in a speedy quest to get to your destination, here are 20 easy ways to actually have fun on vacation and learn some cool stuff about our country along the way.
But first, a detour. To get yourself into the right mindset for a long trip with your children, it requires a carefully meted out pentathlon of events. There are plenty of gadgets, but don’t underestimate the value of low-tech classics like “Red car! Blue car!” (the first person to spot 20 on either side wins) or the greatest card game ever invented, Uno. Also remember to research playground stops on the way. You must exercise the children—because the naps afterward are worth it.
20 Road Trip Distractions
1. It took me 16 hours and three plane rides to reach my current location from my home in Spain—and I was traveling alone with a toddler. No, I did not tranquilize him. Instead, I distracted him with three different Matchbox cars, a new one for each leg of the journey. For car trips, wrap a few pocket-sized gifts in tissue paper and dole them out when you cross state lines—county lines if you’re desperate.
2. The Caldecott-honored Red Book by Barbara Lehman has been described as “a wordless mind trip for tots.” Told only in pictures, it’s about a young girl who discovers a story in a snowdrift about a boy on a tropical island who finds a red book in the sand about a girl in a city in the winter. It all sounds rather confusing and high art, but it’s a narrative that works the story-telling imagination part of the brain.
3. Since this is the age of the gadget, e-books have become much more affordable. Amazon recently dropped the price on their Kindle after Barnes & Noble cut theirs on the Nook. That leaves the iPad, which posted over $2 billion in revenue for Apple, and is in a league of its own with a $500 price tag. Some parents don’t mind. The New York Times’ blog Gadgetwise called the iPad “The Toy of the Year.”
4. Etsy is many things, for some a clearing-house of delusional feminist fantasies and for others a sample sale of stuff you never thought you’d need but, it just so happens, you can’t live without. Like this Take Me Anywhere Travel Pillow. My son would go nuts for this. It’s versatile and satisfies his developmental need to carry around his own bag and pillow.
5. I don’t know any parents who would actually make this, but the woman behind the DIY Clipping Toy, which can keep your kids occupied for hours, should be considered for a MacArthur genius grant.
6. Bluegrass Junction on XM and Sirius radio, channels 14 and 65 respectively. Why? Because as the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, puts it: "[Bluegrass is] Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It's plain music that tells a good story...bluegrass is music that matters." And kids dig it.
7. A GPS—or, better yet, a GPS-enabled smartphone—can be used to give your kids a mini-geography lesson. They can also get on Yelp, YouTube, or (for sophisticated tweens) Gridskipper and choose the next adventure for the whole car.
8. Another not-as-obscure-as-it-sounds use for the GPS is Geocaching, a kind of high-tech treasure-hunting game. The general vicinity of a “geocache” (hidden container) is pinpointed on a GPS and it is up to the game-player to find the actual item outdoors, meaning you’ll have to take a pit stop for this one. Believe it or not, there are 1,140,318 active geocaches stashed around the globe.
9. A 9" x 12" baking sheet…
10. …because it makes a really great contained playing surface for Matchbox cars, crayons, and other rollaway objects.
11. Tolerable children’s music like They Might Be Giants, Renee & Jeremy and Elizabeth Mitchell are a must. When the whole family is in need of meditative tranquility, put on Feeling Good Today from Snatam Kaur and the Kundalini Children’s Choir.
12. “When I was your age” toys like Etch A Sketch and Magna Doodle worked on you. Try it on your spawn.
13. An i-Zone instant camera churns out ever-fascinating mini photos. You can buy film with adhesive backing for them to stick in their…
14. …travel journal. Any bound notebook will do, although this one from Sukie has slots for postcards and other travel memorabilia collected along the way. It also includes tear-away postcards your kids can send to their friends.
15. Life is a highway, the world is their oyster, and friendship “our common language,” per the Little Travelers DVD series, an educational alternative to Sponge Bob.
16. Stickers. Lots and lots of stickers, particularly for toddlers since they’ll get to explore their creative range without mucking up the upholstery.
17. If you’re normally a Jaime Oliver naked food evangelist, shock them into submission with their very own pack of M&M’s, or a MoonPie if you happen to be traveling through the southeastern United States.
18. Those not willing to feed their children fake food could opt for organic “project food” involving peels and natural juices, all of which will keep them occupied for 20 minutes at a time—and you won’t have the accompanying guilt of handing them candy.
19. There are around 200,000 iPhone apps available. Here are five you should download for your kids now:
Today in History (Because who doesn’t love a little bit of trivia?) Bugs and Insects (Perhaps not for the squeamish ones.) Flash Gram (An app that quizzes kids on their grammar skills.) The Lorax (They can read this environmental plea from Dr. Seuss on their own or have it read to them.) Wobble (Because shaking your phone pictures is a fun waste of time.)
20. Failing all of the above, I’m afraid you’re going to have to rot their brains with a portable Playstation. Sorry…and good luck.
Please feel free to leave any other smart or fun distractions in the comments section below.
K. Emily Bond is a freelance writer who has worked for O, The Oprah Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Village Voice. She's also written for iVillage, The New York Observer, BUST, NewYorkMagazine.com and the Huffington Post. She is the author of the travel and mommy blog Díga(Mama) and half the brains behind My BlackBerry Moment, which she created with her husband.