Monday, May 30, 2011

Tips for Surviving Family Trips in a Van

Just after Christmas, Kansas Dad and I packed all four kids up for a twelve hour drive to my parents' house. I hate drives like that and over-prepared in the hopes of avoiding melt-downs and disasters. I couldn't have predicted I'd become horribly ill myself, but the children managed the drive there and back remarkably well. I've shared below some of the tricks I learned to entertain the children and keep all of us sane for the drives. (Again, that was twelve hours to my parents' house and twelve hours home from my parents' house.) At the time, the children were just barely 7, 4.25, 2.5 and about five months old. (You can read about a few tricks from our trip the previous year here. Many of those were still helpful this year.)

We decided against bringing a DVD player. Our portable DVD player broke a few years ago. We had been borrowing one from Grammy, but she only had one screen and with three seats in the van, we needed two or someone was going to be left out. Rather than buy one or borrow from a friend, we bravely went without...and we were just fine.

Personally, I find books mostly useless in a long drive. They simply don't entertain little ones for very long. (First Son is old enough to read chapter books, which would work better, but he tends to get a little queasy when reading in the van like that.) Even so, the older three each picked two and I brought one "new" one for each of them. They also picked two stuffed animals or dolls for the road and to sleep with at Gram and Papa's house. Also, we let them have their Kinderglo lights once it was dark. As long as they didn't hold them up above their heads, Kansas Dad didn't have any problems driving.

I saved an old shoe box for each of the older three kids. In it, I stashed new pencils, erasers, and a new box of crayons. Before we drove back home, I added a few sheets of stickers which they could use to decorate the box. They were able to store little books (like the Dover Activity books), tissues and other goodies in there as well. Second Daughter broke all of her crayons nearly right away. I had bought the triangular crayons so they wouldn't roll away from her so much, but I think the twistable ones would have been a better choice. (I took along a small rimmed cookie sheet for Second Daughter. She could hold it on her lap and use it for coloring or other fun things. Mostly she rolled her toy cars on it, which was a little annoying, but Kansas Dad said it was better than screaming. If you use a cookie sheet yourself, I recommend using an old one or buying one at Goodwill or something. My youngest sister accidentally stepped on mine and bent it.)

I made big folders of pre-printed pages for each of the three older kids. I used inexpensive three hole punch folders (without pockets), but wish I had brought extras when First Son got sick over First Daughter's within the first two hours. Plus, they got stepped on and generally looked pretty rough before we were done. In them, I stashed all sorts of pages I printed free online.
  • coloring pages (VeggieTales, etc.)
  • Dover sample pages
  • Dot-to-dots (I searched online for these since First Son and First Daughter particularly enjoy them.)
  • Lines and dots game - My daughter is just now beginning to understand this game, so it'll be even more fun for them next time to play with each other. This game is a great one to keep handy for those times when you're waiting for food at restaurants, too.
  • Though no one was ready for it this year, next year I'm going to make some pages for Hangman with all the letters written out and room for spaces for the word or phrase to guess.
Coloring books and activity books - I collected quite a few little surprises for our trip. I thought it would be good to have something to pull out about every hour or so. I just watched sales or grabbed inexpensive things when I was ordering something else. We did not end up using all of my surprises on the way there and the way home, so I slipped them in the closet for our next drive.
Listening - I am continually surprised and pleased at how much we all enjoy listening to audio books while in the van. For this trip, I also picked up a few other CDs as some of our surprises.
Next time I'm going to bring along some more music. The kids got tired of listening to all the talking and the radio is tricky when driving. You never know if you're going to find something appropriate and enjoyable.
    The most important trick of all -- snacks! Especially for the toddler and preschooler crowd. When the little ones are hungry, they don't understand why we must drive another thirty miles to get to an exit. It's best to come prepared. I also packed quite a few "treats" to make it easier to encourage them to get back in the van after our stops along the way.  I packed each snack in an individual bag so it would be easy to pass all the way to the back of the van without stopping or unbuckling.
    • Sippy cups - The allure of a sippy cup extends far beyond what you might expect. My seven year old still things they're fun. They minimize spills and it's easy to refill them and pass them back and forth. We mostly drank water, but once when everyone was tired, Kansas Dad bought some chocolate milk to share.
    • Smores bags - M&Ms, marshmallows and graham crackers
    • Cereal - Cheerios of various kinds mixed with whatever we had. This is a good way to use up any that might go stale while you're away from home.
    • Cheezits, Oreos and any other "stuff we never buy" that went on sale in the weeks before we left. My kids were amazed at some of the things I pulled out of the box.
    • Chocolate covered pretzels - The kids and I made these together and they were really excited when I pulled them out. Using wipes to clean up afterward was seriously part of the fun for them.
    • Hard-boiled eggs - These travel very well in a cooler if you peel them ahead of time.
    • Pumpkin muffins - Oh, how delicious!

    Bubbles - When your toddler and the driver have reached their limits, pull out some bubbles. If you trust your older children, let them blow some, too. These absolutely saved us in the last hour of the last day of driving.

    For reaching the far back seat - We picked up a grabber from Ace Hardware which has come in quite handy around the house as well. It was definitely worth it. Something like this. I also kept a little plastic container I could use to transport things I couldn't directly grab. On the way home, First Son took over the grabber duties, which worked very well. He loved it and I had one less thing to manage while turning in my seat.

    We'll be loading back in the van this summer for a little family vacation, though we won't be traveling quite so far this time. Let me know if you have any suggestions. Second Son will be about a year old for this trip and I anticipate a bit more trouble from him.


      1. I enjoyed this post. We rarely travel though (thank goodness) so I just can't identify. But you are very creative.

        And hardboiled eggs. LOVE them. We constantly have them in our fridge, they make such a great, hearty snack.

      2. Monica, we only take long drives two or three times a year. I'd like to visit my parents more often, but frankly the thought of the drive overwhelms me. Luckily, they are able to come here more often. One day the kids will be older and the drives won't be so intimidating.

        I hope.

      3. Hey, Kansas Mom, some great ideas. I'll have to swipe a few as we're planning a trip to the St. Louis area later this summer. Another option for shoeboxes would be baby wipes containers. I usually buy the big box of wipes at Sam's Club, but if I can get a good deal on the tubs, I'll get those, so I have a stash of them. I've been looking for ways to put them to use.

        I remember reading Five Little Peppers and liking it. Maybe it's not as good as an adult. Or maybe it's just not good when you listen to it.


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