On The Road Again – Tips For Keeping Kids Happy And Parents Sane

It’s summer travel season again, and with it comes the huge list of everything that needs to be done in order to take the family on the road.

Many of us have experienced the long hours of whining, crying, and fighting on a long road trip (and that’s just us parents!), and we often don’t get as much enjoyment out of a trip because it can be such an ordeal to get to our destination.

If you’re feeling frustrated at the prospect of keeping the kids happy – and yourself sane — on a long road trip, you can rest easy with a little planning and creativity.

First of all, the key to a pleasant trip with the kids is preparation.  There is so much to pack between gear and car seats and all the other things we need for the little ones when we leave home.

Apart from the obvious — like drinks and snacks and a fully-stocked diaper bag with extra clothes, wipes, and other essentials – you and your kids can have some fun working together to stock the car with activities that just may keep them entertained and engaged the entire way.

We all know that sitting in the car for hours can be trying for even the most patient adults, so it can be all the more frustrating for a small child whose instinct is to be constantly moving and exploring.  And let’s face it; coloring books only keep them entertained for so long.

The solution?  A trip to “Mom’s best friend,” the local dollar store.

For starters, pick up a plastic caddy (usually used to store cleaning supplies) for each child, allowing them to choose the color they want.  This will be their “base of operations” for keeping all their fun car activities organized.

For school-aged children, grab several different types of craft materials, some safety scissors, and packets of glue dots and magnet tape.

With popsicle sticks, pompoms, wiggly eyes, and small pads of paper like sticky notes, they can dream up all sorts of creations.

They can make pompom creatures, puppets, bookmarks, and magnets out of their finds, all stored within their plastic caddy.

It is also a great idea to pick up a cookie sheet while at the dollar store.  The kids can cut out shapes of animals, buildings, or scenery, attach sticky-backed magnet tape, and make their own play scenes on the cookie tray.

These also serve a wonderful second purpose – they can be used as lap trays for coloring or snack time in the car and can be easily wiped off when mom and dad stop for a break.

Older kids can also plan ahead of the trip with mom and dad to find some activity pages and printable car games online, or can pick up some activity books with games or word searches while at the dollar store.

You can also purchase an inexpensive binder and plastic pages for those activity pages and games.  Not only will it allow everything to stay together in one place, but the plastic page covers can be drawn on with dry-erase markers.  Take along an old washcloth, and they can erase and reuse the pages over and over!  (This works great for quick games like tic-tac-toe.)

The binders can also be filled with extra paper and stickers so the kids can keep a travel journal of all the fun things they see and do on the trip.

Toddlers will love to feel like the big kids with their own caddy and cookie sheet, filled with more age-appropriate activities.

Before your trip, purchase a few sheets of colorful felt.  Parents can trace shapes onto the felt pieces using cookie cutters and cut them out ahead of time.  With a few full sheets of felt to be used as backgrounds, the cookie sheet becomes a portable felt board.

Try filling small bags or envelopes with different themed cutouts, like farm animals, dinosaurs, or cars and trucks, so your little one can create different scenes on the felt board.

And if you want to take it to the next level, you can cut out trees and clouds, a farm for the animal cutouts, and rocks and volcanos for those dinosaurs to romp around in!  The same can be done with sheets of paper and themed stickers to save a little time during the busy vacation prep.

And sometimes just putting stickers all over a piece of paper keeps a little one busy for quite some time – so buy plenty!

Another use for that cookie sheet?  Mom or dad can paint it with non-toxic chalk paint and bring a stick or two of sidewalk chalk for a reusable drawing surface.

If you are traveling with infants, a few of their toys and board books will help, but so will frequent stops for diaper changes and nursing or bottle time.

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Sometimes, nothing but mom will do, so if your vehicle has enough space, take turns driving and take a seat in the back next to your little one.  Songs and fingerplays — just seeing mom and dad and hearing their voices — will be all they need.

This can be especially helpful with the smallest of babies who are in rear-facing car seats.  It is no fun for anyone to sit for hours looking at the car’s upholstery!

Some other tips to keep things organized on a long road trip with kids?  Make sure to take plenty of wet wipes for snack time, inevitable spills, and cleaning up after those backseat crafts.

Plastic grocery bags with handles can be saved ahead of the trip and attached over the headrest, encouraging kids to clean up as they go along.  Assign each child a leg of the trip to be “clean-up monitor,” collecting the trash while feeling proud of their accomplishment in the process.

Above all, have fun!  Laugh, talk, and sing corny songs.  Look for landmarks, license plates, and interesting scenery.  If you make it feel like an adventure and not hours of boredom (are we there yet?), everyone will remember the drive as much as the destination.

And don’t forget – they may get messy with some of these activities, but it will be well-worth the fun they will have and the calmness you will experience.  If you fear for your seats, cover them with an old sheet and toss it in the wash when you get home.

(Note: It is not recommended to put anything underneath an infant or toddler child safety seat, as it can interfere with its safety performance in an accident.)

What are your tips for keeping the kids happy and busy on long road trips?  Leave us your ideas in the comments.