Q. Hi Jordan!
I was hoping you could do a post on keeping young kids happy/entertained in the car when you get a chance? We’ll be driving from Rhode Island to North Carolina in a month with my 21-month old (and a surly cat, God help me) and I’m really nervous about it. We usually plan longer car trips around bedtime/naps, but that obviously won’t be possible this time around.
Any tips would be much appreciated!
A. Alright, now that our big road trip is over and in the past, let’s talk the reality of spending hours and hours every day in the car with kids (we averaged six hours a day), because I know that this sounds like…well, like a nightmare. But – and I know you probably don’t believe me, but I swear I’m telling the truth – it was totally non-nightmarish and actually…fun. Like, best-trip-ever-style fun.
Now, first, the reality is that both of our kids, for whatever reason, are just preternaturally good in the car. I’m not saying this to brag; trust me, they have plenty of non-chilled-out moments elsewhere…but in the car they’re just bizarrely content (most of the time, anyway). We knew this going in, and the truth is that we probably wouldn’t have planned a two-week road trip if our kids were more difficult travelers.
So above all, the most important thing to think about is that you know your own children, and you know their tolerance level for long stretches of sedentary time. If they’re just not going to be down with multiple consecutive hours of driving, either break the trip up into shorter pieces, or do some percentage of the driving at night, after they’ve fallen asleep (yes, waking them up to get them into wherever you’re staying will be disruptive, but it’s a hell of a lot less disruptive than listening to several hours’ worth of screaming).
But say you’ve just got to do it, or you – like us – just really want to. Here’s how to survive.
1. Be Oh So Flexible. For the first couple of days, I was all “WE NEED TO GET IN THE CAR RIGHT NOW SO WE DON’T SCREW UP THE NAP SCHEDULE.” Day 3? Whatever; they’ll sleep or they won’t, and either way they’ll probably come out on the other end alive. Of course life is easier when you build some degree of consistency into your kid’s day, but on a road trip all micro-management does is stress everyone out (you included). Relax and eat some Cheetos.
2. Pack Like A Professional. Long trips with children require a serious amount of stuff. This is unfortunate, and it’s also simply the truth, because babies do things like throw up. On everything. What I found made life easier was to keep the bulk of our stuff in large suitcases, and then pack one night’s worth of necessities in a smaller duffle bag so that we didn’t have to haul out a bazillion massive bags (plus pack ‘n’ plays, plus children) every time we stopped for the night.
3. Keep It Clean. Cars packed with people make you stressed. Cars packed with people and garbage make you INSANE. When Cheerios and sippy cups are involved, things can get out of control quickly, so being just a little bit vigilant on an ongoing basis can help a lot in terms of making the car feel like a place you want to be. I kept a plastic bag tied to the back of my seat to use as a garbage bag, had wipes and paper towels readily accessible to handle spills, and did a mini cleaning session every time we stopped for gas.
4. Stock The Car. Here’s how I dealt with the food and toys situation: I put a bag of toys appropriate for both my kids’ ages in the space in between their car seats, so that they could easily reach in and pull out things that looked interesting. On the floor of the backseat I put a bag of drinks and snacks – all portioned out into kid-friendly containers so I didn’t have to do more than reach back and hand over a baggie – and a diaper bag. And then in the front seat I kept yet another bag of toys so I could hand over new ones every so often.
5. Fill ‘Er Up. Gas station stops are kind of the best. I know, I know: you want to get wherever it is you’re going as soon as possible, but my experience has been to just let stops be what they are, and if the kids need to get out and run around for a bit, let ’em do it. They’re also an opportunity to pick up entertainment for the next stretch, so make your purchase wisely and pick a snack that takes a long time to eat (try those carrots-and-hummus packs that you get in the refrigerated section or popcorn, assuming your kids are old enough to eat such things – and don’t forget to stock up on water if you have a formula-fed baby).
6. Get Creative. You know what my son’s favorite toy on our cross-country trip was? The string that he pulled out of the hood of Kendrick’s raincoat. I’m not even kidding; that thing was good for HOURS of entertainment. While an occasional (small) new toy is a nice way to break up the monotony of a long ride, it never ceases to amaze me what weird stuff kids will find fascinating, so when stir-craziness sets in look around you for anything and everything that you can call into action.
7. Remember That The Journey Is The Best Part. If you see an awesome playground, go ride some swings for a bit. Run through that massive, empty parking lot. Stop at that weird roadside attraction. Eat Blizzards whenever possible. You might arrive a little later than you’d planned to, but I promise you: it’ll make for a way more memorable ride.
(Check out all our road trip posts here.)