July 23, 2023
In today’s article I share my experiences and tips on the great social art of roadtrips with littles. I’m kind of kidding about it being a social art, but really, it feels like an art more than a science to master these kind of family adventures!
Did you ever ride in a third-row station wagon as a child- you know, the kind whose seat was turned to face the back? Riding in the third row with a sibling, watching the world move backwards and feeling so far away from parents in the front seat was the best way to ride for a road trip. Along with whatever spontaneous games we invented, whatever silly songs we decided to annoy the rest of the car with, and our pack of snacks, I found the whole experience delightful.
These were the memories I beheld when first embarking on road trips with my young children, only to realize that this dreamy experience doesn’t happen from day one, and it doesn’t come easily. First of all, road tripping with infants and toddlers is a different situation than with children even a little bit older. Until my children learned to read independently, however, our practices were pretty similar and only the durations between stops increased.
I have been thinking about some of the practices that helped ease the way on our many drives between Oklahoma and Missouri when our children were young so I could share them with you.
There are several things to consider ahead of time that can help the trip go more smoothly.
Know your limits– Be familiar with how long you can be in the car before needing to break things up, and how long your children can last. Age and personality both influence the duration of time you need to plan for driving between stops.
When to drive– Some people say driving at night is best with littles, but I think you really have to decide for yourself. Even though it often meant we could spend a little more time at our destination, after trying this out a few times, I couldn’t sustain it. I am not good at night driving and it worked better for our crew to leave extra early in the morning, when everyone was energized and in a good mood. We packed as much as we could the night before, let the kids run around for a while as we packed the rest, and often started out the trip with a “treat breakfast”.
Communicating what to expect- This also varies with age, but as children grow we can prepare them with appropriate details. For the very young, we simply state that we are “going to grandma’s” or “taking a long car ride to the mountains”. As they grow we can add comments such as, “It will take as long as it does for mommy to pick you up from school, but we’ll take some breaks, “ and perhaps adding something fun that will be done on a break or a game that will be played on the way. Naming an amount of time is too abstract for young children and will do nothing to communicate clear expectations. For children three and above, we can also explain that some of the time will be for “alone play time” so that an expectation is set to not have to do all the entertaining. This leads to my next tip…
Already have independent play times and quiet times in practice at home; and try to follow your typical daily rhythms as closely as possible– Obviously there is a lot more sitting and waiting involved, but we did find it helpful to try aligning stops with snack/meal times along with a good length of physical activity and driving with nap/rest times. And since we had a lot of independent play time in our daily rhythms, it wasn’t a grandiose expectation for the car.
Planning stop locations– Outside of random bathroom breaks, scope out parks for your big stops. A quick internet search for “best parks in ___” and GPS directions makes this easy even when you haven’t planned on it, and it makes a big difference compared to a pit stop at the gas station. Being surrounded in nature for a little “breathing out” was rejuvenating for all of my family of five, and provided plenty of relief for restless legs.
Decide where to seat everyone– For some families it works to seat siblings together, for some it works to separate them. I know some adults enjoy, or find it easier, sitting with children in the back seat. I did this when my children were infants, but beyond that I didn’t find it was necessary. Children of toddler age and older have the capacity to be content by themselves in rest and at play for stretches of time, if it is expected and put into practice. My children often enjoyed just looking out the window during our car rides; and I appreciated the time with my husband in the front seat- a rare commodity in the days of young childhood!
On the Road
Here are some tips for making the actual car trip enjoyable for all.
Let’s get a big question out of the way. What about media?– This is a choice every family must make for their family in general, and as a practice in the car. As parents we need at least some quiet time during road trips, and a show or movie on an iPad nearly guarantees it. But I can also say that when media isn’t heavily relied upon at home, that doesn’t change in the car. Studies show that children who engage with media on a regular basis have a reduced attention span and are less capable of entertaining themselves.
Also while viewing, the brain constantly and actively overrides its natural stimulation to move causing more restlessness. For little bodies that already have a huge need for movement, I think that’s a perfect storm for overwhelming emotions and meltdowns later.
We successfully avoided screen time, but something we did employ when we really needed the quiet time and it wasn’t happening is Sparkle Stories. Available both as a free podcast, and a monthly membership, Sparkle Stories is chock full of nourishing stories for children ages three to nine and older. I know a lot of adults who love listening as much as their children, myself included.
Road games, songs and stories– With really little ones, singing together is a great source of amusement. Singing may not be your best talent, but kids really don’t care what we sound like, they just love having the experience with us. I also encourage you to find music from which you all can benefit. Children do not actually have a need for the highly commercialized and promoted songs in today’s “kid music” genre, and so there is no need to suffer through Baby Shark twenty times in a row.
Children also love hearing stories from us, especially about our own childhoods. If you are new to telling stories, here is an article about storytelling with toddlers; and as they grow, children can join into storytelling games and word play such as is mentioned in this article.As my boys have aged, they have become fantastic game-creators at home and en route, and while it took some time to hone those skills, encouraging it in the car helps cultivate the kind of creativity necessary. There are many classic car games to start with that you can find in this article, and once the inspiration gets rolling, the places to go thereafter are endless. A dry-erase board is easy for pen-and-paper games, and fun for kids to draw on instead of managing coloring books and drawing pads.
Snacks- This is a pretty obvious one but also should not be accidentally overlooked! We try our best to pack a bag of healthy veggies and (non messy) fruit options as well as a few indulgent ones.
Preparedness Kit– This is as standard as snacks, but makes a huge difference when little ones in carseats fill your vehicle. Along with a family First Aid kit, I would also recommend:
- Wet wipes
- Plastic bags
- If possible, a small cardboard box that fits under the front seat to wrap with a plastic bag in case someone gets sick (it’s not easy puking in a limp plastic bag).
- Travel or neck pillows, small blankets and stuffies
- Bag of “new” toys- This idea is courtesy of my mother-in-law who would eat kids meals and save the toys in her car for when she traveled with grandkids. We would pick up a few toys at a thrift store or on discount to surprise the boys with, and keep them as “car only” toys so they wouldn’t tire of them too quickly.
- Extra diapers, or toddler potty fitted with a plastic bag, for emergencies
- Extra water
What to do on stops– Again, in mimicking our daily rhythm, we tried to make stops long enough to have a meal and play big for a while. We might play a game of tag, jump stones at a creek, or explore park options. Sometimes we just needed time to stretch out on a blanket in the grass. Either way, while it can be tough as a parent to not want to get back on the road and power through, honoring our children’s limits and slowing down to meet them is worth it.
When are we going to get there?– If making a routine trip (like ours between OK and MO), finding familiar landmarks and frequented rest stops helps children feel the progress. If you’re taking a new trip and can identify some landmarks for yourself ahead of time, you can tell your children to look out for them. And, on a sillier note, when the question persists, turn it into a game. They ask, “When are we going to get there?” And you reply, “When giraffes learn how to ice skate.” “When are we going to get there?” “When the sky rains ice cream.” And so it goes. They will likely repeat, and then want you to ask so that they can come up with a crazy answer, too.
Even with all of these ideas in practice, what made the biggest difference for me was in allowing the trip to just be what it was. I keenly remember a trip back to Kansas City that I took alone while six months pregnant with my youngest, and my two oldest at ages seven and nearly-four. We stopped to pee every hour (most of the time for me), the rental car I was driving was giving me trouble with an office that wouldn’t respond, and it was unseasonably hot for mid March. The whole trip that typically takes an adult less than six hours to make, took us eight hours that day. It was stressful and tiring, but I remember at one point just throwing up my hands in surrender to what it was. My reality at that moment was a really long trip with lots of things going wrong. It wasn’t going to get much better until it was over and I only felt relief in accepting it…. and buying an ice cream at the next stop! There never was such a rough trip as that one, and the many others we have been on since have been pretty pleasant. I chalk that up to lots of practice, and I hope the fruits of my road trip labors do well for you, too!