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8 Unplugged Road Trip Activities for Kids

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How do you survive a multi-week, 3,000-mile road trip that covers two countries and six states? Lots and lots of planning. A bit of luck helps, too. Every year, I take my kids on an extended road trip from Denver, Colorado to my hometown of Calgary in Canada. My husband joins us for part of the trip and flies home, leaving me to juggle the roles of chauffeur and entertainment committee for hours on end. If you’ve ever played referee to your kids in the backseat, you know just how tough it can be. Sure, we love our DVDs, Nintendo DS and iPad but there are lots of things to do on the road without powering up. Here are eight unplugged road trip activities for kids to try before your next family journey.

8 Unplugged Road Trip Activities for Kids1. Travel journals

At the beginning of the summer, I give each child a notebook to use as a travel journal where they can write about and draw their favorite activities. Our goal is to be on the lookout for fun roadside treasures to sketch in the journals, in which we also preserve many of our travel souvenirs. The kids also use their notebooks to make funny signs and pictures to display when we pass cars.

2. Maps

My kids are not directionally-challenged like their mother and they adore maps. Before each trip I print out a Google map of our journey. We also follow our route in our Rand McNally book of maps. When I’m really organized, I do some research and share fun things the children who live in that area like to do.

3. Coloring/craft projects

I purchased a travel easel for each child for drawing, making travel crafts and playing games (I used a cookie sheet when they were younger because constantly picking up dropped items gets old, fast). I keep a big ol’ laundry basket in between the kids’ car seats replete with coloring books, notebooks, crafts, tape, pipe cleaners, crayons and markers. Easy access means mama won’t be turning around every five minutes to help (in an ideal world).

4. Travel toys

I am convinced the Dollar Store was made expressly for kids on road trips. The week prior to our vacation, I assign my kids various chores around the house. With the money earned, I set them loose at the Dollar Store to relish in the glory of cheap plastic toys.

Another suggestion is to purchase a bunch of travel toys before your trip and keep them hidden from the kids. Then hand them out for good behavior or at particular mile markers. If you're feeling rather fancy, you can wrap them before you go. An easier solution is to wrap them up in tin foil. Easy peasy but still fun to open! You'll definitely want to take a peek at our picks for the best travel toys for kids of all ages and best toys for car trips before you go.

5. Travel games

My family has a great collection of travel games that ranges from Hungry Hungry Hippos to magnetic playing cards. After losing numerous game pieces to our car’s black hole, we now keep these games in an enclosed container. You can also find a lot of great printable car games online. Don't forget about old classics like “I Spy” or the license plate game.

6. Books

Because I'm a mean mom, before I allow my kiddos to use any technology they must get 20 minutes of reading done. And I'm not picky about what they read, either, so they often turn to comic books.

7. Healthy snacks

In the past, our road-trip snacks have consisted solely of junk food. Nowadays, we will have treats, but my goal is to take plenty of fresh fruit, nuts, trail mix, granola bars and other healthy snacks. I also give each child their own snack bag so they don’t fight over the food. (I speak from experience.)

8. Audio Books

A couple of years ago, we tried listening to the Magic Tree House Collection on audio CDs and it was a failure; they weren't engaging enough. Now that my kids are a bit older, I gave audio books another try. We rented a couple of Harry Potter books and they were hooked…for hours and hours! Check out our picks for the best audio books for family road trips for story suggestions. If you want to rent, try the library at Audible.com, which has more than 100,000 titles. (Technically, this is not “unplugged”—but still, it keeps kids' minds active. And the backseat quiet!)

For more tips, read Family Road Trip Tips for a Fun and Stress-Free Journey.

What are your favorite unplugged road trip activities for kids? Let us know in the comments below!

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About Amber Johnson, The Outdoorsy Travel Mama

Amber Johnson is a fun-loving mom of two. After a whirlwind career as an adventure-travel writer and publicist in Utah’s ski industry, she married and moved to Denver where her family loves skiing, biking, hiking and climbing 14ers (14,000-foot peaks). She is the founder of The Denver Post’s Mile High Mamas, writes a regular “Family Cents” column for the newspaper and has been blogging since 2005 (you can find her at themilehighmama.com). Amber is excited to be a part of the Travel Mamas team and looks forward to chronicling her occasionally-painful but always-hilarious misadventures! You can connect with Amber on Twitter as @TheMileHighMama.

Comments

  1. Claudia Laroye says:

    Love your tips Amber. It’s always a challenge to keep kids occupied on the road (or in a plane), but creative solutions make all the difference. We swear by Audiobooks, and have loaned most of our local Library’s collections over the years. Bonus: They still work very well with teens too!

  2. Thanks Amber Johnson for nice post. I am unmarried now but this post help me in future. when i got married and travel with my children. So keep posting. Good job…

  3. great tips! and don’t forget your library – you have access to thousands of audiobooks! 🙂

  4. This is a great list of ideas! We love technology on road trips too, but it works a lot better when we set limits on it. I have found that the car is a great place to just talk to the kids about whatever is on their minds. For conversation starters, a few questions might include “What is your favorite…” or “What do you remember about…” It’s a good opportunity to tell family stories from your own or their grandparents’ lives.

  5. Wonderful ideas and suggestions!

  6. We spent 16 hours listening to the Lord of the Rings trilogy on a recent roadtrip around Canada and another 16 driving to Baltimore and back last weekend. Never put on a DVD, turned on the iPad, or listened to any whining. Only switched on the radio for traffic reports. It was amazing. Highly recommend Audible.

  7. I am so bad about unplugged activities when we are enroute. I finally tried a game of iSpy to distract my slowly melting down toddler yesterday while his brother slept. It worked! I think we will be pulling out more games in future trips. Now I just have to learn them!!

  8. Olivia Mak says:

    These tips were a life-saver for me when my son and I took a “mom and me” road trip this past weekend. It was about a 3 hour drive to the indoor water park in Wisconsin dells and of course my son was anxious. I decided to try an audio book for the first time and we actually listened to the entire audio book of The Little Prince. Needless to say, the drive was much more relaxed, it was great.

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