Long car rides with kids require creative strategies

Katie Stokes

Katie Stokes

Last year, my family and I met up with my sister and her family in Indianapolis, a midway point between Northern New York and Oklahoma. We rented a house and cooked our own turkey dinner with groceries we brought from our own homes.

But to get there, we had to first endure a 14-hour cross-country road trip. My kids were three and six, and inexperienced at sitting for long intervals in a car. We’ve flown many, many times, but the thought of having them strapped in for longer than the hour ride to Syracuse, or even the nearly three-hour trip to Rochester, was intimidating.

As is my way, I fretted and planned for several weeks before the road trip. I read articles and blogs for tips, downloaded books and games on our Kindle, rented DVDs and audiobook CDs from the library, created an entire Pinterest board of ideas on how to keep young kids occupied during the 14-hour trip and assembled personalized binders for the kids with age-appropriate printable games, coloring sheets and puzzles.

The planning worked out beautifully, and despite the fact that I spent at least 13 of the 14-hour drive twisted around to face the backseat, we all made it to Indianapolis with minimal histrionics (and only a couple of episodes of “Magic School Bus.”)

This year, we’ll be embarking on an even longer trip—24 hours split between two days, as we drive down to my hometown for the holidays. Having done my homework last year, I’m not nearly as panicked about this trip, mostly because I’m not above using a pool versus no pool hotel stopover as a bribe.

In case your holiday plans involve travel, here are some of the things we found helpful and will certainly use again after figuring out how to fit all our baggage and the kids into the car:

  • Don’t overuse the DVD player. Technology is a beautiful thing, but we’ve found that the more our kids look at a screen, the more likely they are to fight and whine. When we do fire up the devices, it’s for brief spurts, and we have the kids use headphones. The less noise pollution, the happier we all are when we arrive.
  • Mommy-Clown Game Face Time. The goal? To keep the tone buoyed like an oxygen-inflated balloon on a bed of hot coals. If one child starts a petty argument—the “She’s LOOKING AT ME FUNNY!” moments—turn to the backseat with a set of Groucho glasses on, or some straws stuck up your nose (Yes, unsanitary. Still, hilarious). Tone is the point from whence all good, or tortuous, things come. If things turn sour, it can be tough to get back on track. You don’t necessarily have to be a fool the entire time, but you certainly shouldn’t rule it out. Nothing makes a kid laugh like a silly mom.
  • Mess-less crafts. Even if you have raised a bookworm, don’t expect your kid to spend blissful hours with his nose buried in a book. To make the limited DVD player rule work, you’ve got to give them something to do besides read. Some of the ideas I found for in-car activities included creating things out of pipe cleaners, magnetized “dress up” dolls and the biggest hit of all: some Melissa and Doug sticker books that were basically big, blank faces with eyebrow, eye, nose and mouth stickers that the kids could arrange in any way that struck their fancy. For older kids, break out the cheesy (read: timeless) car games, like the Alphabet Game, I Spy, even 100 Bottles of Pop on the Wall. If you want new ideas, there are some great car trip activity books available on Amazon.
  • Snacks and drinks. ’Nuf said. I pack large quantities of fruit and other healthy snacks so I don’t have to limit boredom snacking, although we do occasionally have to drive several miles with the windows cracked after Hunk ingests more than his fair share of granola and grapes.
  • Divide and Conquer. The absolute best idea I found on Pinterest was to bring along some tape or Velcro and tack up a blanket or sheet (I used a pillowcase) between the kids. They were the same distance apart, but the offensive “looks” were disarmed, and everyone was happy. Parents included.

My children have seen their fair share of patchwork fields from high above the ground, and billboards flying out of the night beyond the highway as we speed down the Interstate toward loved ones with much higher zip code numbers. But when you live in Northern New York, long car or plane trips come as part of the deal, and it’s important to find a way to try and enjoy those as much as you enjoy the NNY life.

Katie Stokes is an Oklahoma native who has called Northern New York home for more than a decade. She is a freelance writer and blogger and the mother of two children, Diva and Hunk. She and her husband are raising their children in Hounsfield. Visit her blog at www.NNYLife.com. Her column appears in every issue of NNY Living.