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Secrets to trips with kids

It is not a secret that I love summer. I enjoy the extra time I have with my children. (Well, most of the time anyway!) When my children were younger, I dreamed of summer vacations. I had visions of quiet evenings playing games, reading books and watching TV after a day of sun and fun. I imagined fun family vacations nourishing my kids minds with living history, science and thought provoking conversations. I saw us in our car or van happily singing songs, playing word games, and other car games. Now how I got these fantasies I have no idea, but for the most part that’s what they were – fantasies!

We took our first trip when our oldest was 4 weeks old. It was a little 3- hour trip to Grammies‘. Well, I discovered very quickly that some children don’t like to travel. She screamed for about 2 hours of the 3-hour trip. I had never felt so helpless, nothing I did seemed to console her. My vision of arriving at Grammies’ with a happy cooing little baby went to the way of the wild goose.

I wasn’t terribly discouraged, I assumed as she got older things would get better. They did, well sort of. By the time she was three, she did travel better. Unfortunately, she slept most of the way in part due to the motion sickness meds which were absolutely necessary. Although she wasn’t car sick the entire way when we got wherever we were going she’d be wide awake and ready to rip and run. For example, if we went to visit my in-laws who lived an hour away, we had to make sure we left their house early in the afternoon. If we left at six or seven o’clock, our daughter would sleep all the way home and then be up until midnight or later! Of course, the next morning she would still wake at her usual time and then be very crabby all day.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard to travel with my little ones. This wasn’t what I had envisioned at all. After our third child came along, my husband took a job about 11 hours from where we were living. He had to move before we had sold our house, our only option was for the kids and I to stay until the house sold. I ended up driving by myself with three children ages eight months, three years, and six years old. Needless to say, I quickly developed some “road trip” strategies.

1) With young children, it is especially important to try to stick to your home schedule as much as possible when traveling. For example, keep bedtime about the same time as home, get up about the same time, eat at usual times, etc. Children need consistency. They feel safer and more relaxed when they can predict what’s happening next. It also helps when you get back home, because you won’t be fighting to “return” to the home schedule. Of course with older children this is not as important.

2) Make sure to have a change of clothes convenient for everyone in case of accidents. Even older children can spill drinks or get drinks spilled on them. It is very inconvenient to have to dig through several suitcases to find a change of clothes, especially when there is a whiney messy child hanging on you!

3) If you have a child that gets car sick, check with your pediatrician for medication that can help. However, be warned most of that medication does make children drowsy. Also, I’ve found that the ice cream buckets are great to use in the vehicle, because of the lid (toxic containment). Enough said about that one – yuck.

4) If you’re taking along battery operated toys, don’t forget the extra batteries.

5) Small flashlights can be a lifesaver, if you have to be traveling at night. We have a standing rule that if you use the flashlight inappropriately such as shining it in your siblings eyes or shining it toward the front of the van distracting the driver then you loose your flashlight privileges.

6) Each of our children are responsible for taking along their own pillow and blanket – even when our children were as young as two years old they knew that when we pack our suitcases that they needed to get a blanket and pillow. It works well to fold the blanket up and put it inside the pillow case with the pillow.

7) I also make our kids pack their own suitcases even before my kids could read they learned to pack their own suitcases. I give them a list (for pre-readers I give them a list with pictures) of what they need to bring and then check their cases for accuracy.

8) As for munching along the way, I try to keep this at a minimum. I do keep things like grapes, dried fruit, cheese cubes, cheese sticks, pretzels, peanut butter crackers, and gummies. For drinks, we try to stick to Kool Aid and water, but we sometimes let the kids do the soda thing too. I try not to give salty things early in the trip, because that makes the kids thirsty and that, of course, means more restroom breaks. I do try to keep the cooler in an easy access position.

9) When it comes to meals while on vacation, we discovered several little tricks that help. First of all, we usually look for hotels that provide breakfast with the room. If we’re going to eat out we usually try to do it at lunch, because the meals are less expensive. We also try to find a buffet. Our kids eat better balanced meals at buffets. Let’s face it, anything is better than fast food restaurants.

10) As for the drive itself, we plan frequent breaks. We usually take along a ball to play with at rest stops. The car seats that keep our little ones safe are also very confining. Our kids are used to being active and need to use those muscles and burn off their energy. Other things we have begun to carry are bubbles, various balls and mitts, and jump ropes. Basically, I let the kids take what they want as long as we have the room and it doesn’t pose a danger to others when we’re at a rest stop (absolutely no paintball guns.) Also, we do try to stick to rest stops because it tends to be less expensive. There usually isn’t much to buy there – thank goodness. Of course, if the weather isn’t cooperating then we have to use places that have an indoor play place. However, before we go in we tell the kids how much they can spend.

Ok, we’ve worked on feeding them, and packing them. What’s left – oh yeah. Entertaining them. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a DVD player in your vehicle sometimes you can still find yourself looking for something to keep the peace!

Children love surprises, even little ones. So when we take a long vacation that has a couple days of travel time, I pack surprise bags for each day. I use plain brown paper lunch bags and put things that I’ve picked up on sale or at discount stores. I also label each bag with a child’s name and the day they are to receive them.

Some ideas of things to include are small notepads, pencils, colored pencils, activity books, new books from a favorite series, stencils, small toys, washable makers, cards, card games, magnetic travel games, a few pieces of chewy candy etc. Just a tip about markers, you can take a small shallow container fill it with Plaster of Paris, put the markers lid down in the plaster and let dry. The kids are less likely to lose the lids this way. If the lids pull out over time just glue them back in.

Things not to use include in surprise sacks are play dough, silly putty, chocolate, crayons, ink pens, toys with lots of little parts, gum and other things that are either messy or that will melt. By the way, did you know silly putty can melt? Yes, it sure can and it is a pain to get melted silly putty off a car set! (My husband was very angry!)

Other things to do while in a vehicle are car games. For example, see how many different state license plates you can spot. We do this as a family as opposed to individually to prevent the fuss of who saw the license plate first. Pick a color of car and see how many cars you can spot of that color or make a list of colors and then tally how many cars you count of each color. I think it’s best to set a time limit and then have the kids “graph” the results. You get the bonus of sneaking in a “school” skill, too! Along these lines, a small travel desk is absolutely wonderful, especially one that has a cup holder that can be used to hold pencils as well as, obviously, cups.

I’ve also found a wonderful website, that has great printable games, road trip crafts such as pipe cleaner creatures, cootie catchers (the little paper fortune games), travel journals, etc. In addition to the website I just mentioned, there are many others that have great travel advice. A couple that I enjoyed are and

Of course, there are the expensive sanity savers like the hand held video games, the afore mentioned TV and DVD player, CD players, ipods, etc. However, after a while even these things will loose their appeal. That’s when you need those frequent breaks I talked about earlier.

Once you’ve reached your destination, don’t try to cram everything in. Believe it or not if you really enjoy the area and didn’t get to see everything you wanted to it’s OK. More likely than not, the area and the attractions will probably still be there next year if you want to come back! Do what you can in a relaxed way. If you’re running from one thing to the next, the kids will not get as much out of it and you will not have time to enjoy it either. Sometimes it is tempting to let your kids explore on their own within your eyesight, of course. Allowing this is good to a point, but be careful not to miss those wonderful teachable moments. Sometimes things just strike kids as very interesting. I try to take those times to discuss the interest and expand it as well. Let me give you an example, when we were visiting Dauphin Island about 8 years ago, one of the kids became very interested in the Battleship Alabama. Overall, most of us thought the battleship was kind of neat, but one child was fascinated by it. He and his Dad went through every accessible crevice on that ship. John took his time explaining the different aspects of the ship, but only as long as the child was showing interest. If the child became bored, John moved on. However, the interest the child showed has continued and expanded over the last five years as his History teachers have discovered over the past few years.

Vacations should be enjoyable, not stressful. A little bit of planning can go a long way. Also, if a parent is calm and has a good attitude even when things go a little awry the children will be calmer, too. Hope you have a great vacation!


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