Summer brings vacations and vacations often bring trips. Long road trips. Or the dreaded plane ride with small children. We once took a trip with three young children, ages 5, 2 and 1 month (yes, we were that crazy) from Chicago to the east coast and back (over 1,200 miles) in what was one of the hottest, most humid weeks the Midwest had seen in many summers. And that was back in the day before car electronics. It almost caused me to cry, "Kill thyself."
We now have access to laptops, iPods, iPads and all sorts of media to keep our children happy during our yearly 14-hour, one-way trips to grandparents' homes. But we'd like to not turn these family togetherness trips into kids who tune out from one another. Electronics are a welcome addition to trips, either by car or plane, but here are some cheap, easy games and activities that families with children of all ages can do to tune in to each other rather than fighting and hearing screams of, "Mom, make him stop touching me!"
1. Map it out
When we took our trip to the east coast, we made a large map before we left of the route we'd be taking. We drew lines for the route, dots for the stops along the way, stars for points of interest, and smiley faces for treat times. As we drove, the children could chart our movement, be a part of seeing the journey progress (no more "Are we there yet?"), and were rewarded with opening a wrapped treat or prize when we reached the smiley face on the map if they had all been happy as well.
2. Put it in a bag
Make each child their own travel bag. They help you decide what they'd like to put in it. Crayons, special markers and pencils, coloring books, game and activity booklets (a must for older kids: Mad Gabs, Sudoku, Crossword Puzzles and Word Searches), post-it notes (they go a long way), mini Magna Doodles for younger children, and playing cards and travel games are just a few things you might think about.
3. Get crafty
Pack open-ended crafts. You'd be surprised how small things can keep a child's interest for a long time, especially if you introduce them gradually. Older children can make friendship bracelets or learn hand string games, like Cat's Cradle, which forces them to cooperate with another sibling (a plus). Pipe cleaners, bendy sticks or even aluminum foil are fabulous for any age child to keep their minds and hands occupied molding and bending endless figures. Other items include paper clips (who can make the longest string, or how many can you stack without falling?), Play Dough, stickers and tape or origami paper.
I learned quickly that you can't keep children happy if you don't have an arsenal of creative songs and games up your sleeve. Some go-to games and songs are Password, Scattergories, 20 Questions, Name That Tune, "Down By the Bay," I Spy and I'm Going on a Vacation. We also play mental math and history games to keep summer brains from turning to mush. Keeping a list of games you like to play helps avoid older children from resorting to singing the mind-numbing, "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall."
5. Keep it in the family
Tell family stories. I've written about the benefits of storytelling and research that reports when children grow up knowing where and who they came from, these narratives help build resilient children. If they know the story already, challenge older children to re-tell it to see how much they remember or tell part of the story, leaving out certain key words the children have to fill in.
6. Use your ears
Audio books and music CDs. This is an underused gem. On one of our 14-hour trips, my 11-year-old son listened to "The Lord of the Rings" book series the entire way and we didn't hear a peep from him the whole time. Bless J.R.R. Tolkien.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Life is a journey, not a destination." Happiness together along the way is more important than getting there. By taking a break as often as needed, you might encounter serendipitous joys. Once our daughter was feeling carsick so we pulled off on the side of the country road, walked around, and found a beautiful hidden bridge over the most serene river. We enjoyed that restful, peaceful place and everyone returned to the car restored and happy. It was one of those unplanned, memorable moments. Life is full of them, even on road trips.
Julie K. Nelson is the author of "Parenting With Spiritual Power" and "Keep It Real and Grab a Plunger: 25 tips for surviving parenthood." She is a mom of 5, a proud grandma, and a speaker and professor at Utah Valley University. Her website is www.aspoonfulofparenting.com where she writes articles on the joys, challenges, and power of parenting.