Midway through a seemingly endless five-hour car trip from New York to Maine, I wondered why I'd ever thought a family vacation seemed like a good idea. My four kids, ages 1 to 7, were arguing over who had the most space in the backseats, how far down the windows should be rolled, and whether the radio should be on or off. My husband had long ago stopped talking to any of us and was keeping his (glazed) eyes fixed on the road.
So I made up a silly game for us to play. I hummed a few bars from a popular song, and whichever child guessed it first got to choose and hum the next one. This little exercise kept everyone distracted until lunchtime, when we could pile out of the car for sandwiches and a good stretch.
I've had two more children since that trip, and we still take a weeklong vacation together every summer. My secret: I've learned to plan enough games and activities to keep the kids busy en route. Here, 18 ideas for making your own family's travel time speed by:
Simple Simon says
Play an easy version of Simon Says: Ask your child to touch his nose, kick up his leg, put his hands in the air, and so on.
Sort and drop Pull out your snack bag, hand your child a cup, and encourage her to put, say, cereal or small crackers into it, one by one. (Then dump them back into the bag and start all over again.)
Sound charades Bark like a dog, wail like a police siren, or moo like a cow and see whether your child can tell you what makes that sound. Let him try to stump you, too.
Look for... Challenge your kids to find (with a little help from you) something in the car or outside the window that's in the shape of a square. Then try a circle, a triangle, and so forth. Look for colors next, then sizes.
Tune in Don't forget classic songs like "Eensy Weensy Spider," "Wheels on the Bus," and "If You're Happy and You Know It." Your toddler will love joining in on all the fun hand motions with you.
Blowing in the wind Pack a pinwheel. Let her hold it in the breeze of an open window. A napkin works well too.
I spy... Together, make a list of ten things you hope to see on your trip, such as a traffic light, a dog, and a taxi. Then try to be the first one to spot them.
Scribble art Give all passengers a washable marker, paper, and a hard surface to write on (use a book or lap tray). Have everyone draw one squiggly line on the paper, then trade with someone else. Now try to make a picture out of what's there. Can each of you guess what the other's drawing shows?
Post it Take along Colorforms and stick them to windows and lap desks. If you use the set of classic shapes, give your child specific challenges: Can she make them into a car? A horse? A house?
Handmates Take finger puppets or, with a marker, draw funny faces on your child's fingertips. Then let him put on a puppet show for you or his seatmates (a good way to keep a younger sibling entertained).
Homemade puzzles On your child's tray, break a large cracker into several pieces and see whether she can put it back together. She can make new puzzles by nibbling at the pieces!
No peeking! Tell your child to close his eyes, then fill a bag with items you've got in the car: a cup, a toy, a sock. Let him feel inside the bag and guess each object.
Twisty creations Pack a bag of pipe cleaners. What contraptions can your child invent?
You don't say... Make a list of words that no one's allowed to say, such as "car," "tree," and "Dad." When someone utters a forbidden word, she has to entertain everyone else with a silly song or story (or some other "punishment" of your family's devising).
Hue hunt Give all passengers paper and a pencil, then have each person pick a different color and print it at the top of his page. When you yell "Go!" everyone should look for passing cars and trucks in the color they chose. The first one to get ten wins. Pick new colors to start again.
From A to Z Find one object -- inside the car or out the window -- that starts with each letter of the alphabet. You can search as a team or individually.
Repeat after me Have the youngest child in the car start by saying, "I have something in my pocket, and it's a _________" (she should fill in whatever object she wants). Each subsequent player repeats that sentence and adds an item to the list. The trick: You have to name every object in the correct order or you're out.
Dig for digits Pick a number -- as simple as 4 or as hard as 102 -- and see who can be the first to find it on a street sign, billboard, or license plate.
Rosemary Black is the food editor at The New York Daily News and author of the Kids' Holiday Baking Book.
Thanks to Penny Warner, author of Great Games for Kids on the Go; Stephanie Calmenson and Joanna Cole, coauthors of Fun on the Run: Travel Games and Songs; and Laurie Waldstein and Leslie Zinberg, coauthors of The Pink and Blue Baby Pages, for many of these game suggestions.