8 Tricks To Keep Kids Happy on Road Trips Without Electronics
As much as I love DVD players for kids on road trips, sometimes they’re not an option. As in, you’re borrowing your folks’ 1999 car and it’s still equipped with a tape player – forget the CDs. The radio is bust – no KFOG, NPR or KQED. You dont have a portable DVD player. You’re just gonna have to think out of the box – or old-fashioned like your gramps in the 1950s. I recently drove 400 miles with my girls with no electronics at all. That’s a lot of miles. I freaked out that I’d be tempted to tape my kids’ mouths shut or to rope them like cattle to prevent backseat fights but things went surprisingly smoothly. We arrived at destination without so much as 10 minutes of bickering. Here’s the winning combo that did the trick.
1. Water Bottles
The golden rule of a road trip is to stay hydrated, especially if you know you won’t be able to stop for a while and the sun is high. I always always fill one or two quart-size water bottles before the trip and put one in the back – for my girls – and one in the front – for me. When they’re thirsty, they help themselves. When they were younger, they each had a tall sippy cup filled with water at the ready. No juices allowed in the car – water dries harmlessly, lemonade is sticky.
I should’ve written “Junk food” but I couldn’t. On long road trips when I know the girls will have to
sit through endure 5 hours of I-5 or 4 hours of Sierra roads, I let them pick one special food at the store before the trip and I pick two or three other foods. The girls end up selecting candy (these days gum qualifies as road trip “food”) and I buy chocolate bars, crackers or cookies.
I also pack fruit that won’t get squished during the trip – plump raisins, crisp apples, firm pluots, yummy tangerines – anything that can keep the girls hydrated outside of the water bottle. I make it a rule that the worst sugar offenders must be spaced out over so many miles. It keeps the sugar high in check and as the candy loot gets chewed away, we know we’re making progress on the road.
This can be an issue when the car doesn’t have a CD/MP3/radio option but fortunately all these years, we’ve spent a lot of time singing with my girls either at bedtime or during music classes. School is also a great resource for songs or rhymes. Here comes the music talent show! We take turns singing. It’s as simple as that. Everybody gets their stage time. I love hearing my girls’ voices when they sing, it’s always a bit different from when they speak. When we’re out of songs, we play a music quiz.
The music quiz is fairly simple as you don’t even have to know the lyrics. One person hums the first bars of a song and the others have to guess what it is. It could be the Star Wars or Indiana Jones theme song, a Willy Wonka tune or The Black Eyed Peas. Just as long as the chords are distinctive enough, the music quiz is a winner. Kids love playing guessing games.
Ah, my girls’ favorite because all they need to do is sit back and enjoy the show. I tell a story, a story they already know or a made-up story, but I add tons of extra details or characters so that the story takes a loooong time to tell. In the made-up stories my girls love hearing over and over again are The Shepherd and the Banshee, Escape from Turtle Rock and my childhood antics with my brothers in New Caledonia.
Don’t ever forget that your own childhood memories are fascinating story-telling material for your kids. Especially the times when you got in trouble for walking on the neighbor’s roof, stealing fruit from the neighbor’s backyard or melting your mom’s teapot on the stove to make tea.
It won’t be said that the art of conversation is lost. Luckily out of two girls I count a chatterbox but even if you don’t have one on hand, you can still have a real conversation with most any kids if you tackle topics they love. Think about it: friends, school lunches, field trips, after-school classes, books, music, movies – and if nothing works, play your ultimate card.
Disneyland! Yes, you can talk about the wonders of Disneyland without going there, it’s OK. For the kids’ morale it’s even better to plan a Happiest Place on Earth trip but hey. Whatever suits you. All I’m sayin’ is, when you’re stuck in the driver’s seat holding the driving wheel and checking the rearview mirrors, there’s also so many things you can do and talking is one that’s easy.
6. Kid Magazines or Comic Books
Now 7 and 8, my girls are at an age where comics or graphic novels are all they’d like to read all day. Tons of pictures, very little text, it’s the paper version of an animated movie. Before a long road trip, we hit the bookstore, a big chain or the gas station (if they have a kids books section) and the girls pick one or two such books each. They love kid magazines with comics – in France we get Le Journal de Mickey but in the US, Highlights or Disney Phineas and Ferb would be good picks. I only ask that the books/mags be thick enough that they’ll last an hour at least in the car. Think 96 pages or more.
Among our favorite road trip games:
- I spy “a green tree”, “a yellow sign”, “a white car” and so on
- What car brand is this? No kidding, you can brainwash your kids into recognizing car logos from 200 yards away!
- The fruit/veggie game: each person impersonates a fruit or veggie. The adult then asks questions about the produce. “Which one of us grows during the summer?” “Which one of us is green?” “Which one of us attracts bees?” Sometimes the result applies to all, sometimes not. I see it as a fun way to teach fun facts to kids.
8. Take a Break
Taking a well-deserved break is the perfect cure to road trip fever for kids and adults alike. Highway rest stops are not the sexiest places on earth but they usually have restrooms, picnic tables and if you luck out, a grassy patch. If you’re driving through small towns, a kids’ playground is the perfect spot.
Get out of the car, let the kids to run amock a bit, walk around, freshen up at the restrooms, drink water or treat yourself to a cup of joe, feel the sun on your skin. Make it at least 10 minutes so it feels like a break. You’ll be more alert for the next stretch and the kids will be happier.
What about you, do you have fun road trip tricks to share?