by Gina Vercesi – Listen. Do you hear that? No? What you’re not hearing are your kids. They’re in the backseat, quietly plugged into their electronics. Maybe the silence is welcome, they’re not arguing, poking each other, or asking “When are we gonna be there?” on repeat. Nor are they talking about the funky, retro billboard they just saw, or searching for the letters of the alphabet on license plates, or daydreaming while the world slides past their windows.
In our busy parenting lives, a reprieve from children’s incessant questions, requests, and bickering can be bliss, especially when everyone is trapped in the car for several hours, or even days, on a family road trip. Yet far too often kids, and parents, are so focused on their screens that they miss out on the rich, deeply formative experiences that happen through interactions with other people and the world around them.
It’s easy to fall into the habit of using devices for entertainment and distraction. The problem is that it’s also far too easy to become dependent on those glowing rectangles of instant gratification, leading to decreased attention spans and families who are more connected to electronics than they are to one another. It can be difficult to remember that boredom is an important skill, one that often leads to creativity, conversation, and deeper human connection.
A family road trip offers the perfect opportunity to revel in the “joy” of boredom, encouraging kids to invent original ways to amuse themselves, and us, during seemingly endless hours in the car. An unplugged family road trip definitely requires advance planning and preparation, both practically and psychologically. The practical part, while somewhat time consuming, is relatively simple, yet the benefits are huge.
The psychological component presents a bit more of a challenge, especially if technology has become a ubiquitous presence in daily life. Kids who have become accustomed to turning to their screens on a whim may need to wean a bit before hitting the road sans device, but pushback doesn’t have to be inevitable. Talk about all the ways you can have analog fun on the road before you leave and involve your kids in the planning.
One irony in all of this, of course, is that the internet is a fabulous resource for screen-free road trip materials. So go ahead, indulge in some technology to help you get away from it on your trip. Here are some great ways to take a break from electronics as family road trip season approaches.
Family Road Trip Maps and Travel Books
With the rise of GPS, it’s rare to chart a trip these days using an actual map. Pulling out that old road atlas can be a great way to help kids get an idea of what your trip will entail in terms of time and distance. Gather road maps of areas you’re headed and give kids a pre-lesson in map reading before you leave. Along the way, they can follow along and chart your travels.
Travel books geared toward kids abound these days. Two of my favorite resources for these types of materials are National Geographic Kids and Lonely Planet Kids, but a simple search is likely to turn up a ton of great material including guidebooks, atlases, interactive workbooks, and destination-based fiction.
Family Road Trip Travel Board Games
Like travel books, portable games are all over the market and tend to be very affordable. Over the years I’ve invested in several, so our car is now stocked with Bingo and Hangman, along with a variety of conversation cards and I-Spy-style games. Old standbys like Trouble, Monopoly, Battleship, and Scrabble are available in miniature, and a deck of UNO cards is always great to have on hand.
If you’re crafty, the sky is the limit on the types of games you can create yourself. At the same time, a quick internet search should turn up infinite printable sheets, from road trip scavenger hunts to geography games. Old-School Travel Games “I went to the grocery store and I bought?” Remember that one, the memory game that has players name an item that begins with each letter of the alphabet and each subsequent player adds to the list while repeating all the previous items. Counting games, 20 Questions, and Name that Tune are a few other favorites from the pre-digital era.
This is a good place for kids to put on their creative caps, too, as anything can become a game.
Family Road Trip Travel Journals
An inexpensive notebook can easily become a masterpiece of travel documentation. Kids can write, draw, and paste in mementos. Bring along some small scissors and glue sticks so kids can work on their journals on the road. A collage made from bits of brochures collected at a rest stop is another cool addition.
Family Road Trip Arts and Crafts
A pile of coloring books, hidden pictures, mazes, and crossword puzzles are a great way to while away hours on the road. Add blank paper, crayons, and markers and you’re all set. We have wooden boards we bring on road trips that serve as lap desks, but any flat surface will do the trick.
Family Road Trip Books and Audiobooks
I will always be grateful for my ability to read in the car without getting queasy, as devouring books was always my go-to way to pass the time on longer trips. When my kids were smaller I kept a big basket of picture and board books between their car seats. Now that they’re older, they bring their own books along and because of e-readers, this is one place I don’t mind departing from the screen-free rule; you can fit a lot of books on those things.
Sharing a book as a family is another fun activity. I’ve read-aloud to my kids on family road trips, although that can become tiring. The solution is to stock up on audiobooks from your library. Overdrive is a fantastic app that allows you to download audiobook files from your local library as well.
How to Rock Out on a Family Road Trip
As an 80s girl, I loved making family road trip mix tapes. With the dawn of digital, we now have an enormous library of music at the ready. Again, this is a place where tech comes in handy. Create playlists taking input from everyone before you leave. Download audio apps before you hit the road and become your own DJ. It’s also fun to tune in to local radio stations for a taste of what’s being played in different areas of the country.
Fun Family Road Trip Pit Stops
One of the best parts of a road trip is searching for kitschy sides of Americana along the way. The world’s largest fire hydrant? You’ll find it in South Carolina. The National Museum of Funeral History? It’s in Texas. The Sistine Chapel ceiling made from spray paint? That one’s in Iowa.
A bit of sleuthing will turn up a bounty of campy attractions (Roadside America is a great resource). Other good places to stop and stretch are state welcome centers, local parks and hiking trails, and restaurants.
Family Road Trip Daydreaming
Finally, I recall spending many an hour lost in thought on family road trips, watching the scenery and imagining the vacation ahead. There’s a lot to be said for simply staring out the window. Once the tech is cast aside, there’s room once again for daydreams.
Need more family road trip resources?
Check out these links for ideas, information, and inspiration.
- Planning the Perfect Family Road Trip
- Screen-Free Ways to Entertain Kids in the Car
- Wacky Roadside Attractions
- National Geographic Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas
- The Big Disconnect
Gina Vercesi is a freelance writer with a passion for exploring nature and the outdoors. Gina features off-the-grid family travel on her blog, Kids Unplugged, writes as the “Unplugged” Traveling Mom for the Traveling Mom Writers’ Network, and is one of Ski Vermont’s All Mountain Mamas. She lives with her husband and three daughters about 20-miles north of New York City in a friendly village on the Hudson River.