Mar 3, 2012

8 Ways to Keep Children Happy in the Car

Road trip to California. 4000km with an 8 and 10 year old who like to play pinching games in the back seat, with no personal DVD players. How to entertain them? In reverse order:

8. iPod - the new Opium of the People. We downloaded (legally and for free from the library) the complete Chronicles of Narnia, plus Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe and some monster stories.
Good: Great classic stories are now a part of our family folklore. Passed many hours. Playing it through the speakers instead of individual headphones kept it as family time and a shared experience.
Bad: We largely tuned out to the experience of where we were driving through, would have to quickly turn it off to point out something interesting, to which the children would grunt a quick response then ask for the story again. It was a sometimes-needed escape from the long hours of driving, but likewise an escape/division from the very trip we were there to experience.

7. Music. The iPod also gave us much more freedom than my childhood memories of Dad domineering the radio with the country station of whatever county we passed through. Sometimes we went with one artist (Joni, Tom Paxton), other times we took turns choosing a song. A fun twist (and empathy lesson) was choosing songs for each other - an empowering and growing experience for a child to take the time to think about what his parents would like to listen to.
Good: Variety of music, passed time, interactive music selection, fun sing-along
Bad: More auditory sensation than our gentle media-free boys usually ingest, and still a divorce from the actual travel.

6. Food. Do we really get that much hungrier sitting in a car, or do growing boys really need food every 15 minutes? The little cooler was filled each morning with bread, cheese, nuts, fruit... and somehow almost empty each evening.
Good:Serious time-killer to delicately prepare and pass around sandwiches and snacks from the passenger seat. Healthy selections instead of fast-food.
Bad: Messy. Sometimes felt like we ate so much but never had a meal. The occasional Mexican breakfast taco helped with that...

5. Rest Stops. We had a snowball fight at the California border, played tag on muddy rest-stop fields, read historical markers, felt-up palm trees, knocked on doors to ask permission to pick their oranges, oohed at scenic outlooks and aahed at elk viewing fields. Waterfalls, big trees, yard art, historical houses, visitor information booths, any excuse to stretch the legs and release some pent-up energy. Some of our biggest laughs and hardest falls were roadside.
Good: Stretch, shift energy, release energy, PLAY, break the monotony, and often read or see something of local interest.
Bad: Sometimes it's almost better to stay semi-catatonic than to wake up just enough to remember how tired/bored we are. And several 10-minute stops do add up into hours.

4. Games. How many different license plates can we find? I-spy. A my name is Alfred, my partner's name is Andres (modern version). Car bingo, lists of car makes, a drawing journal of sites seen. We didn't do nearly as many of all this as I'd like to crow, but sometimes pulling out a quick riddle works much better than a stern "Stop it NOW!"
Good: Fun, creative, can be tied into observation of the journey.
Bad: Requires energy and creativity at just the same moments that parents are just as tired as the children who need it.

3. Singing. We are the Von-Juliusson Family Singers, so of course there was plenty of a-Capella, multi-harmony singing, humming, and whistling. At one point Zekiah asked "Why is everyone so still and only me making noise?" It gave us a chance to teach new songs, find out their special versions, and create new ones. Turns out Z thought that farmers should not use DVD's (instead of DDT), then galen added a second line, so we ended up singing Joni Mitchel as:
Hey farmer farmer, put away that DVD now
Don't give me TV's and DVD's, and leave my mind to be free

Good: Creative, home-made, shared, and surprisingly in-tune fun.
Bad: Yes, I'm sad to say that sometimes it was too much, too loud, or too incessant - there were some times that we actually told our kids to STOP SINGING.

2. Talking. How often do we get a chance to just sit and talk without distraction or time limits? To share or explore something, let it rest when space is needed to process, then come back to later on? And what better way is there to know what's in our children's minds than to listen to back-seat chatter when they forget that adults are in the front seat? It's all good.

1. Scenery. Wow! Or as the boys said over and over and over again, WHOA!!! Redwood trees, surf, eagles, rivers, sand dunes, desert hills, winding back roads, tractors, farms, old cars, snow, hail, changing ecosystems, signs, bumper stickers, city names (Drain Oregon, Weed California). In the alert spaces with no ipod or other distractions, we just drank in and marvelled at the bounty of the world. The boys wrote "WHOA" on the windows to spare their voices. Pure rolling glory at 70 mph.

As Anne Landers preaches, life is the journey, not the destination. My favourite aspect of this whole trip was just being together as a family and experiencing new worlds together as a family. Anything we did to enhance that experience went into my "good" ratings, and anything we did for survival went into "bad" but was entirely necessary and functional. Not every moment is a teaching moment, and not every tree is a WHOA tree. I celebrate the incredible quality time we achieved in the car, and honour our family's resilience and creativity to get through the in between miles.


  1. Our kids are still a bit young yet but we eagerly look forward to road trips when they are bigger. Great list Rick.

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