We were all wearing masks and mustaches to keep our identities a secret. My oldest son tracked the speed of our minivan as we cruised down the Interstate. My older daughters read signs looking for “code words” on billboards. My youngest son made checklist of sports cars that he saw, believing they could be “the bad guy”. And my youngest daughter drew a picture, of a princess most likely, but that princess was on a mission to uncover the secret plot. We were the Mustachioed Seven and we were a group of super heroes on a mission, not only to drive cross-country from Massachusetts to Oklahoma, but also to stop our archenemies from taking over the world.
It was not, as one might think, an ordinary packed mini-van on a 3-day road trip. It was, in fact, an adventure. And it was worth the extra planning to make it memorable for my family.
I admit. I had enough to do preparing for the trip: all the laundry, packing, cleaning the house, buying snacks, preparing the car, booking hotel rooms, and tending to the other million little details. But I found that the time I invested in planning the fun, the more excited the kids became, and the more memories that we made.
You can make your cross-country trip exciting too. All you need is a little advance planning and enthusiasm, and your children (especially those four years old and older) will look forward to being stuck in the car for hours. Or days.
Consider a theme for the trip. You aren’t just a family packed into a mini-van; you are a big boatload of pirates. Or you’re going on a jungle safari. Or you’re riding a magic carpet. From your choice of theme, pack hats, bandanas, masks, toilet-paper tube binoculars, and eye patches. Then as you collect activities to do in the car, stick to the theme. None of these have to be expensive; in fact most of ours were handmade.
Assign vacation names. During our Angry Birds road trip, we all had bird related names. Mine was Duchess Chachalaca and I took great delight when my children addressed me as such at rest stops. We also made nametags and wore them everywhere. The names have become such an integral part of our vacations that once we put it on the calendar, what will your name be this year?, is our next question.
Have a DVD player in your car? That’s great, use it! But remember that passively watching a movie doesn’t really promote family togetherness or encourage people to enjoy the scenery or stimulate creativity. Watch DVDs sparingly, when your family is the most tired or cranky.
Check out books on CD from your local library: Elementary age kids would enjoy The Magic Tree House series, Little House in the Big Woods, Stuart Little, A Cricket In Times Square. Older kids would like Fairy Tale Detectives, Sarah Plain and Tall, Holes or The Chronicles of Narnia. Ask your librarian for books that may fit your theme. Audiobooks take up hours and are more mentally engaging than a movie.
And don’t forget the music! Check out what CDs your library has to offer. You may find the perfect soundtrack for your adventure or an obscure musician that you really love.
Do you have an iPod jack in your car? Download podcasts that everyone can enjoy. No iPod? Burn a CD of your favorite songs. (We like to stick to the theme. During the Angry Birds drive, all our songs were either about traveling or birds. It was awesome!)
Plan to Keep Hands Busy
Moms everywhere know that busy hands are less likely to get into trouble. So on our road trips, each kid gets a customized binder (with their vacation name on it, of course) filled with printed coloring pages, mazes, crossword puzzles, etc. If you can, print out two work pages per hour you’re in the car (and don’t forget the trip home). Three-hole punch the bottom of a gallon size Ziploc bag and put the bag in the binder. The bag had hold pencils and crayons. The binder is kept in the children’s carry-on bag with other activity books and personal items.
Promote Communication and Play
You’re trapped in a car with your family -- take advantage of it! Plan to play together.
-Play old car trip standards: The ABC game, Slug Bug (which should be modified to TouchBug, of course), license plates list, etc.
-Tell stories. Someone starts a story (possibly related to your theme) (“Once upon a time, there were five pirates who were sailing across the ocean in search of an island that held their treasure. When suddenly a big whale overturned their ship! Then . . .” ) Allow each family member to add something to the story.
-Ask questions of each other that get people talking like:
- Who do you really admire?
- What three foods could you not live without?
- What do you think is creepy?
- What are the three happiest moments in your life so far?
- If you had a million dollars what would you do?
- What animated character do you most identify with? Why?
- Would you rather not have summer or not have winter?
-Estimate: Ask each member of the family to guess these things:
- How long will it take to cross the next state line?
- How much money will it cost us to fill up with gas?
- How many cows will we see in the next fifteen minutes?
- How many McDonalds will we see in this state?
-Play Mad Libs (plenty of printables online!)
Just because your body can’t move, doesn’t mean your mind can’t be active. Talking and playing together will make the drive go by faster.
Encourage Down Time
This is when you can get back to individual computer games or iPods, Daddy can have a little peace, and Mom can get some shut-eye. After a rousing game of Slug Bug, everyone will need a little breather. You can’t get out of the car, so it’s okay to check out mentally for a while as long as you come back later to enjoy the rest of the adventure.
So, as you prepare the car (don’t forget hand sanitizer and extra toilet paper), put a little thought into making your trip adventurous. You’ll be happy with the memories that you make and your whole family will have a great time.