In front of the wood-burning stove, well into winter, we began our typical summer vacation daydreaming. We settled at last on a cross-country road trip to see family.
Truth be known, the idea of driving from New York, USA, to Oklahoma, USA, was inspired by high airfare. Thus began our planning of a long car trip. I think of the process as part of the ever-present task of "educating oneself about parenthood."
Ultimately I wanted the time with my family to be about connection as we experienced a series of places together. As fast paced and demanding as life can be, I found this vision beckoning to me as a welcome retreat from our schedules at home.
No, I didn't suffer from delusions that the trip would be without bumps. A 15-minute trip to our local library sometimes challenges my patience. Driving there with arguing children the week before our vacation commenced, my husband and I wondered if we were going to regret our decision to undertake the "The Great American Road Trip," but any worries were unfounded. I planned several activities we could all enjoy and would also keep us focused on our travels and each other as we experienced new places.
No matter how you travel with your children, you may find that some of these activities we used on our trip are fun, purposely non-digital ideas that you can enjoy with your children, too–and can easily adapt to other situations, such as car rides between errands:
1) Geography Lessons & Car Parties
I printed free online maps of each state along our route and purchased a children's atlas. My children, ages 8 and 5, drew or wrote about each state, including significant land and water features, year of statehood, state nickname, state flower, and so on.
We crossed each state line with a homemade "car party," complete with penny whistles, bubbles, and a novelty snack before we began reading from the atlas about strange and wacky laws in the new state. One of our favorite laws was in Sag Harbor, New York, USA, that prohibits people from changing clothes in their cars.
This activity alone broke up the miles as every new state brought with it a change of focus and a car party to anticipate! We traveled through 11 different states and more than 1,500 miles one way, so we had ample opportunities to focus on our parties, paperwork, and atlas reading.
2) Get-to-Know Storytelling
We traveled with a pack of conversation-starting cards, and wrote the answers in a journal to capture everyone's replies. Looking back, I think videoing their responses would have been a great momento.
Riding along, all of us took turns responding to questions like "What's the first vacation you remember?" "What's the fanciest hotel you've ever stayed at? What's the dingiest?" and "Ten years from now, what memory from this vacation will you still be talking about?" It helped us connect as we drove mile after mile.
We continued the storytelling once we had arrived at our destination by asking other family members and chronicling their responses. What a great way for our children to connect with and learn about their great-grandmother's life by hearing stories, such as her very first vacation happening when she was 19 years old!
In addition to our own stories, we bought a mix of books and audiobooks. I mostly chose stories that related to our travels. As we drove through the Smoky Mountains, we read a Carole Marsh mystery about the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, USA, which excited us for the visit that lay ahead. The Evolution of Capurnia Tate accompanied our Texas, USA, travels. Davy Crockett's tall tales entertained us before we visited his Tennessee, USA, homestead.
I sought online materials to deepen our experience of a place. Once there, we made up treasure hunts, I-Spy games, and activities that supported our children engaging actively with their surroundings.
3) Homemade Meals on Roadside Picnics in Nature
When the need arose, we parked at rest stops to stretch, play ball, go for walks, and eat our meals.
Due to some food restrictions as well as the desire to eat well while saving money on the road, I had baked and cooked food to last us a good portion of the trip. I had a cooler full of frozen, homemade meals and snacks. Not only did this save money, but it allowed us to play games together in nature rather than sit in a restaurant or stretch in a hot parking lot. When children share time in making meals and snacks for the family, it’s especially fun for them when that food is served.
4) Impromptu, Frustration-Busting Songs
When our children had a seemingly immediate need, we tried to respond with empathy and sensitivity. We really could understand their frustrations and verbalized that when frustrations arose, rather than telling them to get over it. We then moved on and found an activity that transformed the irritation to focus and fun.
One of our best tools for riding the waves of frustration when they arose, besides switching the activity or taking a break from the car, was to create music. One of us would begin singing the blues: He wants some gum (x2). Don't know what to do (x2). He wants some gum. Hey, I do, too! He wants it now (x5). Shooby, shooby, do, do! He wants that gum. How 'bout you?
During that song, everyone began to add "do-wops," yodels, knee slaps, and new lines. Believe it or not, we rode 17 miles in creative bluesy bliss to the next rest stop where we found more snacks and stretched. The gum request was long forgotten.
We made up songs like "Ode to Nashville, not Asheville" to cross the miles. Sometimes these songs were sheer genius, not begun due to any lurking fiasco but preemptively whiling away a stretch of road when we were between activities.
5) Flexible Blocks of Road Time
Twice, we opted for evening and nighttime driving after a full day's activities. We spent a day at the Biltmore Estate, playing at the vineyard and farm and eating dinner there before we drove from 7:00 p.m. to midnight. Bonus: The adults got a chance to talk without interruption across the miles, a rare luxury when children are awake.
Other days, we made headway during daylight when we could see the scenery change and engage in all of our activities.
6) Breaks Between Visits For "Just Us" Time Together
Using our drive time to connect with one another helped to prevent tantrums. We divided the trip between camping and hotels, nature and city, friends and our own forays. We planned time with our children in between visiting family.
Rather than having endless visits with people our children do not know, in child-unfriendly environments with often-inappropriate expectations for their behavior, we gave our children breaks where just the four of us spent time together. One especially exciting activity was taking them "rock climbing" on a converted grain silo.
7) Adjusting Expectations
Speaking of inappropriate expectations of others...I reminded myself that even a 15-minute trip to the library could have bumps, so releasing my expectations that this trip would go smoothly was imperative. It is always important to me to be cognizant of my children's developmental stages, to set realistic expectations, and to remain flexible.
We also didn't expect our children to want to do every activity we presented. When our daughter said she didn't feel like going to Garvan Woodland Gardens in Arkansas, USA, I waited in the car with her to read and relax instead. Less than 10 minutes later, she jumped at a second chance to go into the garden after her father and brother called to say they had seen a snake in the water feature. We then enjoyed the afternoon together, with her willing participation.
We bought postcards at rest stops, choosing which one suited each recipient in mind, and mailing them. We all liked the idea of connecting with loved ones as we traveled along, inviting them into our journey.
9) Road Games
Games helped everyone to enjoy the ride. A favorite of ours was searching for objects we passed that begin with each letter of the alphabet. Sometimes we attempted to get them in order from A to Z; other times, we passed something too good not to write down, like silo or carnival, so we "collected" it before we reached that letter.
Another activity that proved engaging is a game that a friend has used to transform car struggles with her son: Together, we imagined all the items we could put in a bowl of cereal. This game can entertain children up to at least 11 years old, because I've seen it in action.
Another friend, a veteran of long road trips, had suggested travel snacks that keep hands busy– such as pistachios in the shell–loaned me some manipulatives. I didn't introduce my kids to these completely-new-to-them toys until the last day of our road trip when the anticipation of returning home began to create impatience.
One thing that we did find necessary to make time for was creating our own card game, which gave us direction when upset feelings arose. My husband had flown home to return to work part way through our vacation, and our children were missing him on our own return home by car. Any time they expressed sadness about missing Dad, we turned that energy into creative expression. We named our homemade card game, "Welcome Home," and designed it after the stops we saw and activities we did during our trip.
10) Giving Everyone a Voice, Tempered With a Pact
We knew that the return trip, especially without Dad, might be less compelling for the kids after having already made the journey once. I already knew the route for the return trip and where we would stay for two of our stops. These details were non-negotiable. Yet I wanted everyone to have a say in what the return trip could offer.
Sitting around Grandma's kitchen table on our last evening in Oklahoma, I asked the kids to list a few things they wanted to do during our trip back home. I noted that we wouldn't get to do all requests listed, but we would do at least two from each person.
I wrote down my son's first request: "Look for crawdads at Sam Gray's creek," and each proceeding idea. Grandma, who was riding back with us, suggested: "Visit Mount Vernon." Everyone seemed to want to have ice cream of some variety, so we wrote that down. I added: "Hike somewhere," "Visit a museum," and "Go somewhere or do something new and unexpected."
We created a funny, little pledge that I hoped would help just as someone was, say, whining that they didn't want to stop in Washington, D.C. The pledge was inspired by the book, The Penderwicks.
Our pledge went something like this: We, the Nieroda family, do hereby promise to try, to the best of our ability, to remain positive during activities others most want to do on our return trip home and to stay patient as we wait for our own chosen activities.
As did the Penderwicks, we placed our hands on top of one another's as we said our pact.
I thought we might return to it as a gentle reminder at some point east of the Mississippi River. As it turned out, the pact may have been unnecessary as everyone kept positive attitudes. It seems that taking the time to respond with sensitivity to each family member's concerns and need for a voice in decisions strengthened the connection that in turn supported us all as we journeyed home.
Our road trip was two weeks long. We took many photos, and I had them printed at our last stop before the last day of driving to get home. Looking at and discussing them occupied everyone as we drove those last eight hours home.
Grandma sat between my kids as they created their own scrapbooks of the trip. We prompted my son to draw pictures of events or objects that he wanted to remember from the journey. He drew a "thing with an arm that goes up and down" (an oil rig) and a salamander that he found while camping just south of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, USA.
My daughter busily jotted photo captions on scrap paper before transferring them to her photo album. Grandma also helped her write poems about some of the places we visited.
Reflecting On the Trip Afterward
I really would not trade this trip for four round-trip airline tickets from New York to Oklahoma. Really.
And next summer? I'm already dreaming of the possibilities.
What car ride activities do you offer your children? Which activities in this article can you adapt to work for your family?