As the summer season kicks into high gear, families are making plans, packing bags, and hitting the road for a time-honored tradition—the family road trip.

A few years ago, we bought a portable DVD player to keep our kids entertained while we traveled.  And you know what?  It worked great!  But it broke, and we decided not to replace it.  And then we rediscovered how much fun family trips can be when we are engaged with and connected to each other.

We’ve had to get a little creative in coming up with ideas to keep the little people occupied without the help of a screen, especially since neither of them is old enough to read independently.

I’ve been thinking about what my family did when I was a child on road trips in those pre-DVD days, so I thought I might share a few ideas to inspire your travels this summer.

1. Play games.

Go vintage!  Bring back the travel games of your youth and teach them to your children. Even my two-year-old can play I Spy, and older kids might like the ABC game.

To prepare for long road trips, my mom would load up with travel versions of our favorite games (Yahtzee was always included!).  M.A.S.H., Tic-Tac-Toe, and Hangman are all games that are relatively easy to play in a moving vehicle with just a pad of paper and a pencil.

2. Sing songs.

Of course there are road trip classics like “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” but wouldn’t it be fun to teach your kids the camp songs or cheerleading chants or popular songs of your childhood? I might never have learned every single word to Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” if it hadn’t been for my dad serenading us with it on every road trip of my childhood!

3. Read books.

Photo by twodolla

If you find it hard to fit reading time into your normal, everyday routines, perhaps travel time will allow you to catch up on some of what you have been missing.

Include a trip to the library in your pre-travel preparations to stock up on reading material for kids of all ages, and don’t forget about audiobooks! Look for stories that will appeal to all ages.  The hours will pass by so much more quickly when the imaginations of your family are indulging in the joy of listening to stories being read.

4. Tell stories.

Listening to the stories of others is wonderful, but what about narratives from your very own family?  Do your children know the story of how you and your spouse met?  Where was your favorite place to vacation when you were a child?

In the fast-paced culture in which we are raising our children, it’s easy to let family tales slip through the cracks.  What better time to share stories than when you have a captive audience?

5. Write notes.

For children who are old enough to read and write, a journal is a great way to capture conversations while on the road. You could invite your children to ask questions they have been struggling with, or you could provide them with some prompts to get the conversation going:

  • What makes you really, really happy?
  • What makes you really, really sad?
  • What is your favorite smell?
  • If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?

Pass the journal around and let everyone have a chance at recording responses.  The road trip journal is sure to become a family keepsake!

6. Take pictures.

Photo by Kamoteus

Be tourists! Stop at scenic turn-offs and hop out of the car for a picture.  Capture shots of silly billboards or road signs.  Take a picture each time you cross the state line.

I have an old point-and-shoot that I let my daughters (carefully) play with on long trips.  They get some very interesting shots as well as some great pictures of each other in the backseat.  With digital cameras, all of the wasted pictures can be deleted in a second, but the fun pictures will make a great addition to family albums.

7. Be quiet.

Somewhere along the way, I fell into the trap of believing that I was responsible for the entertainment of my children for every second we were on the road. I had forgotten that some of my favorite parts of road trips as a child came when I was just watching the landscape roll past. Our days are filled with lots of noise, but aren’t vacations supposed to offer us a break from the usual?

I am certainly not disparaging those who bring DVDs and portable gaming devices along on trips.  There is a time and place for everything.  However, if families began to view the time spent traveling as a wonderful part of the journey rather than just means to an end, we might discover there are golden opportunities for memory-making if only we are brave enough to turn off the power button.