Long distance travel is often intimidating for parents. The combination of energetic kids, and prolonged periods of time in a confined space seems like a recipe for disaster. However, by preparing in advance, being flexible to change and following these tips compiled by the Quirky Kid team, your long distance travel experience can be more positive, rewarding, and fun for children and parents.
Tip #1 Let Kids Play a Role in Planning the Itinerary
Make the trip more inclusive and enjoyable for kids by letting them have a say in the kind of places they would like to visit, sites they would like to see, and activities they would like to do along the way. Letting them take part in family decision-making teaches children valuable skills as they learn to advocate for what they want, listen to others’ wishes and make compromises. It also keeps them excited and interested and gives them specific things to look forward to. Furthermore, acts as an incentive and a reward for sitting through the parts of the trip that less suit their preference.
It may not always be feasible, and children may not always come up with appropriate suggestions, but letting them select between a couple of alternatives that you deem acceptable and possible (e.g. stopping at a pool along the way, or, having a picnic at a roadside park/playground) is a great way to make the trip pleasant for all.
Tip #2 Avoid Relying on Screens to Keep Kids Busy
It is tempting to keep kids occupied with screens on long haul trips. Phones, Ipads, and laptops are easy time-fillers on the road. Dr. Kimberley O’Brien, principal Child Psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic, warns about the use of technology to keep kids preoccupied, particularly for long periods of time. While it may not always be avoidable, it is recommended to try all other entertainment avenues before turning on the screens, and ideally avoid using them at all when only travelling short distances.
An alternative strategy Dr. Kimberley suggests is planning for the trip well in advance, and packing a “kid-box” to keep kids entertained throughout the journey. The box can be filled with resources that are specific to each child, by asking them before you take to the road to “imagine they are on a long trip, and to think about the kind of things they would like to do”.
Here are some suggestions of fun activities for your long trip with kids:
- Activity books (such as, colouring-in or dot-to-dot books) and story books/audiobooks
- A great creative resource is the Tell Me A Story cards. These cards encourage kids to recall and retell some of their most extreme moments (“Bravest!” “Fastest!” “Highest!”), while uncovering a sense of pride in their past achievements and skills. Kids love hearing and telling stories, especially true stories, and it is an engaging and interactive way to pass the time together.
- If you want to get more creative on the road, a few erasable whiteboard markers can turn the car windows into works of art, or a simple cooking tray can be turned into a magnetic play table using assorted fridge magnets (e.g. letters and numbers) or with a magnetic puzzle to keep all the pieces stuck in one place.
Tip #3 Take Frequent Breaks
A recent study (Morris & Guerra, 2015) examined 22 000 frequent travellers’ responses, in order to explore the link between trip duration and mood during travel. Not surprisingly, trip duration was found to negatively influence mood, primarily due to rising levels of stress and fatigue over the course of the journey. To combat this, consider frequent breaks where possible. Children have shorter attention spans than adults (Cowan, Fristoe, Elliott, Brunner, & Saults, 2006) and have not yet fully developed impulse control (Tarullo, Obradovic, & Gunnar, 2009). This means they will quickly become restless, fidgety, and uncomfortable if not given the opportunity to change environments and ideally, move around.
Taking breaks on family trips with kids where possible is important for drivers and passengers, both for safety and sanity. For kids, the opportunity to get out of the car should also involve some form of physical activity to let them burn off some steam. While this may mean allowing extra travel time to reach your destination, it makes the trip more bearable for all.
Tip #4 Plan Your Snacks (and take plenty of them)
Nutritionists admit that on the road with family it is often convenient to fall back on take-away foods and processed snacks from roadside stops. Sugary and highly-processed foods are not ideal and giving kids more energy that they are not likely to use up in the car is likely to backfire. Additionally, unhealthy snack options can deplete energy levels and leave you feeling drained over the course of a long drive. Nutritious treats can be prepared at home for easy on-the-go snacking and keep everyone feeling happy and healthy over the journey. Additionally, having access to plenty of snacks while travelling, giving kids a choice as to what they want to eat, sharing and divvying up snacks as the trip goes, is often a welcome distraction.
Tip #5 Use travel as a teaching/learning opportunity (for yourself & the kids)
Sometimes a change of mindset is needed. We often view travelling with kids as something impossible and difficult, or as the kind of trip you suffer through to get to your destination. In reality, travelling is a wonderful opportunity to share exciting, new experiences as a family and learn about other places, cultures, and ways-of-life. In fact, a study (2006) conducted by researchers at Clemson University (U.S.), used data compiled from the U.S. Department of Education, and found that kids who travel over their vacation/holiday period (no matter their destination) tended to perform better academically at school (indicated by better performance on standardised tests of reading, maths and general knowledge) than peers who didn’t travel.
To make the most of this learning opportunity, Quirky Kid recommends encouraging children to hit the books/computers to do some research and learn more about the trip and destination before you go, and encouraging kids to keep a travel journal. This could be in the form of drawings, photos, hand-written pieces, blogs, or whatever strikes their fancy. Not only does it keep them busy and help them remember the experience, it can be shared and enjoyed with friends and family on your return. The kids will love to show it off and tell everyone about how much fun they had on their family trip.
Butler, N (2016, June 3) Eight Kid-Pleasing, Healthy Road Trip Snacks. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/healthy-road-trip-snacks
Cowan, N., Fristoe, N. M., Elliott, E. M., Brunner, R. P., & Saults, J. S. (2006). Scope of Attention, Control of Attention, and Intelligence in Children and Adults. Memory & cognition, 34(8), 1754-1768
Denny, S. (2014, January 5). 25 healthy snacks for kids. Retrieved from http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/planning-and-prep/snack-and-meal-ideas/25-healthy-snacks-for-kids
Morris, E. A., & Guerra, E. (2015). Are we there yet? Trip duration and mood during travel. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 33(Supplement C), 38-47. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trf.2015.06.003
O’Brien, Dr. K(Producer). (2017, August 31). Children and Technology (Audio Podcast). Retrieved from: https://childpsychologist.com.au/podcast-children-and-technology/
Pantley, E (2003). Taking a Road Trip with Your Babe. Retrieved from: https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/ages-stages/baby-infant-development-parenting/road-trip-with-babies/#.WcG_I9Og-8U
Parker, J. L. (2006). The Relationship of Family Summer Vacation Trips an Academic Achievement Among First Graders: A National Study.
Shellenbarger, S.(2017, May 17). Dare to let the Children Plan Your Vacation. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/dare-to-let-the-children-plan-your-vacation-1494947476
Tarullo, A. R., Obradovic, J., & Gunnar, M. R. (2009). Self-control and the developing brain. Zero to three, 29(3), 31. Retreived from: https://web.stanford.edu/group/sparklab/pdf/Tarullo,%20Obradovic,%20Gunnar%20(2009,%200-3)%20Self-Control%20and%20the%20Developing%20Brain.pdf