My wife and I enjoy taking road trips with our twin preschoolers. They are four-and-a-half now, and these techniques have evolved over the past couple of years to keep them contented and enjoying the ride when we travel by car. Whether you are taking a day trip or driving vacation, I hope these tips will help guarantee you happy trails.
Prep them for the trip.
We start to prep them a couple of days in advance for the fact that they will be in the car for a while. We get out a map and show them where we will be going and how we will be getting there, pointing out landmarks and towns they should watch for along the way. Our goal is to get them excited about both the trip and the destination.
Give ‘em leg room.
You might be packed to the gills, but resist the urge to pack items below their feet or in such a way as to restrict their movement. Little ones swing their legs when they are in the car seat – it’s just what they do. It helps to keep them from getting restless. So, be sure to keep the area under and around them clear so they have room to squirm.
Engage them in the experience.
The beginning of the drive is the perfect time to start to engage them in the trip. Ask them to point out to you when things start to look new and different than the area that they are used to – you might be surprised by how well they know their usual surroundings. Once you get into new territory for them, point out things you notice that might excite them (“Look, a windmill!”, “Cows!”). Encourage them to point out the new things they see.
On long road trips, hunger is your enemy. Take a variety of healthy, car-friendly snacks. Start with low-mess snacks you know your kids love and go from there. In a cooler, we keep baggies of precut and cleaned carrots, celery, sugar snap peas, broccoli, strawberries, and blueberries. Our kids still enjoy fruit and veggie pouches, so we are sure to take those because they are super-easy and usually tidy. A company called Bamboo Lane makes a product called Crunchy Rice Rollers, which leave some crumbs, but are a healthy hit. We also pack some of their favorite dry cereal and snack cups to serve it in.
Music, music, music!
Be sure to take along their favorite music on a mix CD (if you still use that technology) or whatever medium that will allow you to play it over the car’s sound system. Some of our favorites are Lori Berkner Band and Veggie Tales tunes. We take some new-to-them kid friendly music and use the trip as an opportunity to introduce them to it. Car rides are also a great time to have a good old-fashioned family sing-along.
Plan for napping… but not too much!
We try to plan our stops so that we will be on the road for a several-hour stretch during the time before, during, and after that when they are likely to fall asleep. This is usually our longest stretch of non-stop driving all day. Since they are asleep for a chunk of it, it seems short to them. I recommend letting them sleep for an hour to an hour-and-a-half, but no more. If they sleep all day then they will be full of energy when you arrive at your destination that night. They will be wired when you are exhausted and that is a bad combination.
Stick with water.
We just give the kids water in sippy cups in the car. With water, they drink just enough to quench their thirst, but not so much that it makes them have to go to the bathroom. Let’s be honest, if you want to make any real time on the road, you don’t want to have to be stopping for someone to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes. They haven’t learned to limit their fluid intake yet, so if you give them something tasty like milk or juice, they’ll probably drink it all then then need an emergency potty stop.
Make rest stops count!
Each time you stop try to make it someplace where they can run. It will help them stretch their legs and get their wiggles out. Exercised kids travel better. Whenever we stop for a meal we always have the kids use the restroom on our way back out to the car. We call it a “safety” stop and it is exactly that, because it saves us from having to get right back off the road as soon as we are back on it.
A note about media time:
If your kids have a Leap Pad or handheld game console then take it with you. Just be sure that you have enough battery life so that they can use it for as long as you want to allow them to do so. Nothing reduces a child to tears on a road trip faster than dead batteries. For our part, we save this type of entertainment until the kids are getting near their breaking point, and then bust it out. We figure that part of raising good travelers is teaching them to love the road as much as we do, and that means engaging them in the trip as much as possible.
Prepare for anything.
Make sure you have something handy to clean up spills and wipe little hands and faces. No matter how hard you try, there will probably be at least one emergency potty stop. Know that it’s coming and then it won’t bother you so much when it happens. Treat the trip like quality family time and you are sure to create some great memories. Travel safe, have fun and enjoy the ride!