Often when I research things about large families, I come up with tips for families that have only 2-4 children. We are a family of 8 (soon). These travel posts are to help bigger families figure out how to survive days of road travel with minimal tension, whining, and stress. Hope it helps, and happy travels!
Other travel posts in this series:
Keeping the Car Organized
Special Tips You May Not Know
Let's be honest. Keeping kids happy means keeping your sanity. Our most recent trip included days upon days of driving. So I spent weeks upon weeks working to prepare for it. I spent way more time preparing things to keep the kids busy than I did wondering what to pack or even looking forward to our vacation time. To save you the same amount of preparation, here are some of the tried and true activities that helped us pass the time in busy peace. Our kids all pack their own backpacks with toys and activities, but it's good for mom and dad to have a few surprises waiting.
We've all seen the seek and find jars. These were super easy to make and the kids loved them. I made two that were identical. Just fill a jar with rice (plastic jars are better than glass in case little hands drop them), take pictures of little things found around the house, and place those items in the jar. Then you can print out a card with all the pictures of what the kids need to find, hot glue it to the lid of the jar, and hot glue the lid onto the jar. Be sure to glue the lid. Unless you want rice all over your car.
While we're on the subject of seek and find, if your kids are like mine seek and find books or Where's Waldo books can occupy them for hours. Seriously, hours. Well worth the price of the books.
Those of you with little ones know how excited they get about pictures of family members or things they love. My little one is particularly fascinated with fluffy animals. I purchased 2 little flip photo albums from the dollar store and filled them with pictures printed from my computer. One was all pictures of animals and the other had various items he would recognize from daily life. Things like toys, balls, toes, and foods. He loved them! And since I didn't allow him to play with them before the trip, they were completely new and exciting for him. (On a side note, it helps to actually tape the pictures inside the photo protectors so that little hands can't pull them out.)
Other cheap activities use pipe cleaners and aluminum foil. Pipe cleaners can be bent and re-bent into dozens of different things. If you give kids a variety of colors, they can stay busy for quite some time. Aluminum foil is also great for creativity. Rip off several sections of aluminum foil for each child and let them sculpt the foil into little armies, animals or other fun things. Just be sure they understand the expectation that at the end of the day the sculptures head to the trash. Otherwise you'll have aluminum foil "masterpieces" throughout your vehicle for a long time.
Traveling at nighttime can be tough. The driver needs to keep the lights off inside the vehicle, but it's hard for kids to stay occupied in the dark. The dollar store has little mini clip lights that kids can use for reading or drawing.
And I have yet to meet a kid who will object to having a few glow sticks to play with. Depending on what your kids like, you can get the sticks, the necklaces, the bracelets, or any other assortment of glowing fun. These can also be found at the dollar store for a much cheaper price than places like WalMart or Target. Besides, if you end up at a hotel without a pool, you can always throw a couple of glow sticks into the bathtub for some swimming fun in your room.
Another terrific idea for our toddler was to bring a cookie sheet and some magnetic cars. You can see by the picture how much he loved it! Some car seats have arm rests that include a space between the bottom of the arm rest and the rest of the chair. In such cases, attaching the cookie sheet to the car seat is a piece of cake. Our car seat doesn't have arm "handles" so we ended up drilling holes in the tray and then created a long strap to go around the back of his car seat. We left the cookie sheet hooked to the strap on one side (which also allowed it to hang down against the side of the car when not in use) and just hooked it to the other side of the strap when ready to use it. I picked up a few strong, round magnets at the hardware store and stuck them on the bottom of a few matchbox cars.
Be sure the bottom of the car is flat or else you'll have trouble getting the magnets to stick.
We also used other cookie sheets for our older kids. Our first grader was given a metal tin full of magnetic numbers and letters and he enjoyed spelling out various words. For older kids you can cut out pictures of facial features from magazines and laminate them. Stick magnets on the back and kids have a great time making all sorts of silly faces on their cookie sheets.
In years past, one of the frustrations while driving has been when our kids drop their pencils and crayons. Of course, we want them to stay in their seatbelts, but it can create a long and whiny wait when they can't reach their writing tools until the next rest stop. We've tried tying pencils on to clipboards in the past, and that has worked well, but when space is an issue even a clipboard per child can feel like a space hog. And many clipboards are either too small for a regular sized piece of paper or too large to fit in a child's backpack. For this trip, I used a small zippered bag for each child. In these bags they received two mechanical pencils (so the leads didn't break and leave them useless) of a specific color, a box of new crayons, one dry erase marker, their book light for nighttime, and a small travel pack of tissues. The marker and tissues came in handy for use with their binders (explained below), and the crayons, pencils, and light eliminated the bickering caused by having to share. Plus, by giving each child a specific pencil color I knew who was missing theirs each time we unpacked the van.
The travel binders I made for the kids were tremendously helpful! Each child had a three ring binder filled with various activities and fun papers. Some papers were reusable because they were placed in page protectors and the kids were able to use their dry erase markers to write and a tissue to clean it off. This allowed them to play tic tac toe and travel bingo again and again. Other papers had coloring activities printed from the internet or copied from our own coloring books. And others were given to inspire creativity.
These papers had them creating silly faces, designing cars to get us to our destination faster, imagining what they would do with a thousand dollars, etc. I packed an extra set of papers for each binder to replace the used ones for our trip home. That way, the binders would once again be fresh and new. My favorite paper asked them to draw or write about the best part of the trip. Those papers are great for putting in the scrapbook once you return home!
Of course there are so many other things you can do. One of our children has a kindle and enjoyed several hours playing games and reading on that. A friend lent us a few leap pads and the kids were quietest when playing on those. However, with electronics, it's good to limit the amount of time the kids spend on them each day. Not only can they strain their eyes, but extended use of electronics can also contribute to motion sickness and sore necks. Electronics for toddlers are a little harder to come by, but a friend let us borrow a personal dvd player. About once a day, we'd turn on a Thomas the Tank Engine video and our 18 month old would happily pass through his fussy time of day.
Another life saver in the car was having the sense to bring a few blankets along and to keep the kids' pillows within reach. If anyone was tired enough to nap, they could do so comfortably. And the blankets were great for moderating the temperature in the car with several differing opinions being heard from the backseat.
Having a deck of cards on hand, a few travel games, and a couple of dollar store surprises keeps even a long ride manageable. With a little prep and creativity you can easily pass the hours and days peacefully ... and hopefully happily!