With summer comes vacations and travel, but how do you do it with small kids? Here are some tips for traveling with toddlers, short or long distances.
By Virginia George, Contributing Writer
“Mom! He’s looking out my window!” This is a true story my mother still tells of one particularly frustrating road trip that occurred more than 20 years ago. We had just upgraded from the Ford Escort station wagon to a fancy 1988 Ford Aerostar minivan. We had more space, but apparently, physical space wasn’t enough on that trip.
With summer comes vacations and travel, but how do you do it with small kids? In 2009 I drove from Minnesota to Texas solo with my kids, then 4yo and 20mos. I learned a few things along the way, and have gotten more creative as a result. Here are some tips for traveling with small kids, short or long distances.
1. If you’re going on a long trip, leave early in the morning or right before nap.
Most kids will sleep in the car. The best way to ensure that is to leave really early, right before their nap time, or really late at night (attempt this only if you are well rested and there are multiple drivers). The more time they’re sleeping in the car, the less time they’ll have to look out each other’s window.
Make sure your child’s car seat is comfortable and that they can safely sleep in their seat. Children in 5 point harness seats don’t have many options as long as their seat is adjusted properly, but children in boosters should be able to remain upright with their seat belt positioned where they won’t be injured in an accident. If you’re not sure if your children’s seats are installed properly, locate the user manuals and see if you can find a Safe Kids car seat checkup in your area.
2. Dress for the climate
It’s summer so this shouldn’t be as difficult, but make sure your kids are going to be physically comfortable for the car ride. Dress them for the weather, but have other options handy. You know how most people who work in office buildings during the heat of the summer still have a sweater at their desk? Air conditioning can make things cold, and just because they climate feels perfect in your seat doesn’t mean it’ll be great in theirs. Pack a blanket and a sweater. On long trips particularly, you don’t know what the weather will be like at your destination so just be prepared. Young kids don’t always know that they’re hot or cold, just that they don’t feel well and they can express it by being crabby.
3. Speaking of crabby, pack food!
I don’t think this needs any explanation. Plan ahead, bring things that aren’t messy, keep them fed, and don’t forget potty breaks.
4. The License Plate Game
This game is best played on a long road trip or over the course of the summer. It will also work best with older children. I really like these royalty free maps from Free US and World Maps. There are several options – choose between state abbreviations, names, or completely blank. There are also maps of other countries, so if you’re not in the US check the left navigation bar for a map of the area you’ll be traveling in.
The game is simple, keep an eye on license plates of the vehicles around you and see how many different states you can find. When you find one, color it in and see how many you can get before you get home. If you’re heading somewhere particularly touristy you’ll likely find quite a few.
5. I Spy
We play this on short trips all the time. My 7yo and 5yo love to play, but it’s a bit of a stretch for the 3yo. Someone starts by choosing something they see and says, “I spy with my little eye, something that is ______.” The kids almost invariably choose a color, but you could give any attribute of that item. Soft, fuzzy, tiny, or stinky all work as well. Then the others in the car guess what the spy spies, whoever wins is the next to spy.
6. Billboard Letters
This game works best with older kids, anyone who has decent letter recognition. Start at the beginning of the alphabet and have your child find a sign or billboard with the letter A, then B, and so on. If that got boring you could spell a word, like the child’s name. So Daniel would first find the letter D, then A, then N, etc. For younger kids, you can look for numbers and even colors. Once, we were stranded and had to walk 2 miles home. To pass the time we looked for colors, all the way through the rainbow.
Before we left for our trip to Texas, my in-laws gave my son his birthday present, which was a box of Trio blocks. In Iowa, I discovered what an amazing gift this was. Trio blocks click and stay together so they’re great for the car, especially if you have a cake pan to put on your child’s lap to hold extra pieces.
Since the trip, we have been gifted several small sets, and they are currently the toy of choice for my 3yo. He plays with them every day: in the car, at home, and everywhere. They’re very versatile with different types of pieces.
Bring a cookie sheet, preferably one with raised edges, and magnets. You can use letter magnets to spell words, you can even buy magnetic tape and make your own things. Put magnet tape on the back of puzzle pieces and do a puzzle. Or put contact paper over the bottom of it, draw some roads, and use magnetic cars or people to travel throughout the city. You can use a dry erase marker and draw a tic tac toe board and play tic tac toe with magnets too. The possibilities are endless for what kinds of things you can use, be creative.
9. Song Sticks
Take popsicle sticks and write the names of songs on them. Store them in a bag and when you need a pick me up let a child pick a stick, then sing that song.
10. Books on tape
We have some Adventures in Odyssey tapes for our van and some stories loaded onto the iPod. The kids love to listen to these stories and it eliminates the problem of who can see the screen with a portable DVD player (I’m just going to admit that I drive a van so old it has neither a CD or DVD player). The kids use their imagination listening to the story.
You can probably borrow books on CD from your local library to get new stories, or you can find some to stream online.
Do you have any summer travels planned? What tips do you have for making road trips fun with kids?