With seven children, you can imagine the travel tensions my wife, Ellie, and I have experienced during long road trips: bad attitudes, wars over seat space, and the incessant asking of the timeless question, "How much longer until we get there?"
Whether your family is taking a short trip to Grandma's house or a cross-country vacation in the family car, having things to do always helps the trip pass more quickly and makes things much more enjoyable along the way.
Sure, it’s easier to turn on a DVD or let the kids use their hand-held devices. But since you already have everyone in one place, why not buck the solo trend and give everyone a chance to connect and enjoy the trip and each other—as a family?
Through three decades of parenting, Ellie and I have adapted some travel ideas from other creative parents, and we developed others out of our own desperation. The following are some of our favorite non-digital activities and games to play on a road trip, short or long. We’ve even included some links to make it easier for you.
1. Mile marker. On all interstate freeways and many major U.S. highways, there are small green signs along the shoulder of the road to mark each highway mile. The object of the game is to call out a "mile marker" before anyone else. Each mile marker earns a point. If a family member incorrectly calls a mile marker (it turns out to be another kind of sign, etc.), a point is taken away. If two people call a mile marker at the same time, no point is awarded. The first person to get 10 mile markers (or 20 or however many you want, depending on how long you want the game to last), wins the game.
2. Alphabet signs. Find all the letters of the alphabet, in order, on billboards, highway signs, license plates, etc. (The only letters off limits are those inside your own vehicle). As a person finds a letter, they call out the letter and the word that contains it. Everyone competes individually, and everyone can call out letters and words at the same time. The first person to finish is the winner.
3. Bible characters. In this variation of the classic game, "20 Questions," one person secretly selects a Bible character and announces the first letter of that person's name. All other family members take turns asking yes/no questions to try to narrow down the subject ("Is it a woman?" or "Did he live in the time of Christ?"). Whenever a family member gets a "Yes" answer to his question, he may continue asking until receiving a "No."
To win the game, a person would ask "Is it _____?". If the answer is "Yes,” the round is over and the person who guessed correctly gets to choose the next character. If the answer is "No," the person is eliminated from that round, and the other family members play until someone correctly guesses the Bible character. One more twist: If the person who selected the Bible character can't answer one of the questions about the character, the family member who stumped him wins. You can also play this game with animals, sports teams, etc.
4. Camping trip. One person, called the tour guide, announces, "I'm going on a camping trip, and I'm bringing a ..." To decide what he is bringing, the tour guide thinks of a rule. For example, the rule could be “Only words that start with an 'F' are allowed,” so the tour guide could say, "I'm going on a camping trip, and I'm bringing a flashlight."
The goal is to guess other words and, in the process, figure out the rule. One person might say, "Can I bring a battery?" The tour guide would say "You can't come," because he knows that it doesn't start with an "F." That person stays in the game, but his turn is over. If the next person says, "Can I bring fun?" the tour guide would respond, "You can come." The round can end in one of two ways: 1) Those who figure out the rule can keep suggesting items for the camping trip until the other participants catch on; or 2) Someone uses his turn to ask, "Is the rule, 'Things that begin with "F"'?" If a person tries to guess the rule and the guess is incorrect, he sits out for the rest of that round.
Other rules that could apply to flashlight might be: words with two syllables, things you'd find in a backpack, words with three consecutive consonants, things that produce light, etc. You can make the game as simple or sophisticated as you want to cater to the abilities of your family members. This game is great for spawning creativity on the part of the tour guide, and building analytical skills for all the other family members.
5. License plate. Each player has a blank map of the United States. When a family member spots a vehicle with the license plate from a particular state, he marks it on his map. One rule: You have to be able to read the name of the state, not just identify the plate by its colors or graphics.
6. The box game. Using a piece of graph paper or a page with 10 rows of 10 evenly-spaced dots, players take turns drawing one vertical or horizontal line from one dot to another. When a person draws a line that completes a box, he puts his initial inside the box. When the grid is fully filled in, the initials are counted, and the person who has the most initials is the winner.
7. Scavenger hunt. Before the trip, develop a list of items that you are likely to see on the trip. When the trip starts, hand a copy of the list to each family member (non-readers can help readers find the items). Our family has broken our items into categories (animals, people, vehicles, structures, landscapes, etc.). The first person to complete a category gets a special treat (for example, any item under $1 at the next gas station stop). Once a person completes a category, he is not eligible for other category awards (this gives everyone a chance to earn a reward), but is still in the running for the big reward, which is given to the first person who completes the whole list.
8. Reading and listening. Plan a visit to the library before your trip. Allow each child to pick out a few books and make sure they have a personal book bag to keep up with their own stuff (you can also add some coloring books, activity books, pencils, etc.). While you're at the library, pick up some family classics on audio. We actually listened to a dramatized Cheaper by the Dozen during four days of driving.
9. Progressive scrapbook. Buy a journal or album for each child, along with some tape or a glue stick and car-safe scissors. Wherever you stop, pick up some brochures or postcards. Have the children select pictures or other memorabilia to put in their personal scrapbook, and have them write what they liked about that part of the trip, what they did, etc. Encourage them to write down as many details as they can. They can add family photos to the book once you get home.
10. How much longer? Using Google Maps or another mapping website, print a map of your trip and give it to each family member. When someone inevitably asks, "How much longer…?” have the questioner pull out his or her personal map and point to where you are on the map. Every once in a while, you might announce, "We're in ______" or, "We just passed Highway ____. Can you find it on your map?". This exercise gives the children something to do, answers their questions, and teaches them map skills. And you never again have to say in exasperation, "If you ask again, you’ll have a quiet time out for the next half hour!"
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