You know that saying, It’s the journey that matters, not the destination? Clearly, whoever came up with that one has never sat in a car with two bickering kids in tow. Family road trips are often advertised as a bonding experience, complete with sing-a-longs and heartfelt conversations. But as any parent who’s actually done one knows, sitting in the car for more than 15 minutes with your brood is its own kind of torture. In fact, the only thing worse than hitting the road with little people is dealing with flight delays, lost luggage and crappy airplane food. So this summer, you’re hitting the road. Don’t fret—we have 15 ideas for how to make the time fly by. Here are the best things to do on a long car ride with kids. (Psst: They’ll also work great on a quick trip to the grocery store.)
1. Listen to a podcast
Yep, the same thing that keeps you entertained on your morning commute will work to occupy the entire fam on your car ride to visit grandma. From the hilarious to the thought-provoking, here are nine awesome podcasts for kids. And for kids slightly older, try one of these podcasts for teens. Want something a little more substantial for little ears (just because it’s summer, doesn’t mean that the learning is over)? Try one of these educational podcasts for kids.
2. Or try an audiobook
You were so excited to read the entire Harry Potter series again, but this time sharing the world of Hogwarts with your kid. The only problem? Those books are long. And by the time you snuggle up to your mini at night to read him a bedtime story, he can only manage a couple of pages before passing out. Well, a long car ride is the perfect opportunity to relive the magic. Download the wizarding series and so much more with our pick of the ten best audiobooks for the whole family.
3. Play the state license plate game
You might remember this activity from when you were a kid and that’s because a classic never goes out of style. To play, make a list of all 50 states either beforehand or while in the car (for an extra challenge, see if your little geniuses can name all the states without looking them up). Then as each kid finds a plate from a new state, they get to cross it off their list. The first one to complete all 50 states (or get the highest number of states crossed off) is the winner. Extra bonus? Your kid will practice his geography and memorization skills.
4. Take a rest
If your road trip is really long and you have small kids with you then naptime is a must. But what do you do if your child is resisting? Make the backseat as cozy as possible to increase the chances of a snooze. Think: dimming the lights (maybe even investing in one of these window shades), playing some soothing tunes, supporting their head and bringing a favorite toy along.
5. Play Mad Libs
Another favorite that’s just as much fun to play now as it was when you were a kid. Before hitting the road, stock up on a couple of packs of Mad Libs and then take turns filling in the blanks for what’s guaranteed to result in plenty of laughter all around. (Psst: The Junior version is great for the under-8 set.)
6. Watch a movie
Whatever guilt you have about screen time, leave it at home. A well-chosen show or film can save a disastrous road trip and make into something actually enjoyable (for everyone involved). From short cartoons to laugh-out-loud comedies, here are our favorite family movies that you can rent or download in advance of your trip. Hey, you may even get that family sing-along you were dreaming about (to Let It Go, obviously).
7. Have a snack
A hungry toddler is a terror wherever you are—backseat of the car included. Be sure to pack a selection of healthy snacks for your trip and dole them out when you sense your kid is getting peckish. We like to whip up a batch of cherry-almond granola bars or mac-and-cheese bites before traveling but you can also buy a couple of pouches or string cheese to take with you. This will also help ensure you don’t go crazy at the gas station and load up on chips and candy (because a kid hopped up on sugar is never a good idea).
8. Connect with each other
Sure, you see each other every day but how often do you really sit down and open up to each other? Use this car ride as an opportunity to re-connect with one another. How? By asking thought-provoking questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Here are some ideas: What’s the best thing that’s happened to you? What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you? If you could make one rule that everyone in the world had to follow, what would it be?
9. Learn a language
OK, nobody believes that you’re going to teach your kids Mandarin on a three-hour car ride upstate. But if your kid’s have started learning a language at school, then why not take this opportunity to review what they’ve learned and maybe even teach them (and yourself) a few more words and grammar rules. Download an app (we like Stories By Gus on the Go for Spanish or Duolingo for more than 30 other languages) and go through it together. Vamanos.
10. Play a travel game
Once your brood has found all 50 states, you need another game to keep everyone occupied. From travel chess and connect 4 on the go to brain teasers and memory puzzles, these 21 travel games for kids will definitely help keep the “are we there yet?” questions to a minimum.
11. Let the kids decorate their windows
Here’s an idea that your children will love: Give them window cling sets and washable markers and let them go nuts on their car window (while safely strapped into their seats, of course). They’ll have so much fun creating their masterpieces and if you pack a cotton cloth in the back seat, they’ll be able to erase their creations and start all over again.
12. Do a scavenger hunt
This one requires a little planning on your part but the pay-off is huge (i.e., a kid who doesn’t complain that he’s bored in the back seat). Make a list of items to search for before getting into the car so that your child can mark them off as you go. Here are some ideas to get you started: cows, churches, a firetruck, a yellow car, a stop sign, a dog…well, you get the idea.
Does the idea of getting your high-energy kid to just breathe and relax seem far-fetched? When we talk about kids and mindfulness, the goal shouldn’t be to achieve an adult’s version of total relaxation or meditation, says Regine Galanti, Ph.D., author of Anxiety Relief for Teens: Essential CBT Skills and Mindfulness Practices to Overcome Anxiety and Stress. “What I like to think about with younger kids is giving them something else to do with their bodies that refocuses them,” she says. “It’s not necessarily about calming them down completely.” Here, seven mindfulness activities for kids, all designed to help them settle down.
14. Play 20 questions
Here’s how: Think of a person, place, or thing. Then it’s time for everyone to take a turn to ask you a “yes” or “no” question until they what you are thinking of. It’s fun, easy and a great option for all ages.
15. Have a sing-along
Come on, you know you want to.