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Five low-tech suggestions for managing a road trip with kids

Too many parents fear the road trip. Just because this method of vacationing confines you, your partner and your children to a tiny metal box for hours on end doesn’t mean it has to be hell.

Road trips with the little ones actually can be great fun—a wonderful way to bond as a family and experience the American countryside in ways that many modern travelers (read: people who fly everywhere) never even attempt.

That said, you still need some strategies to keep the kiddies from going cuckoo.

We Villanos tend to shy away from road trip diversions that involve technology; my wife and I (and dozens of experts, by the way) agree that it’s way too easy to crank up the videos or stick the kids with iPads for a multi-hour drive. Instead, here are some lower-tech solutions that have worked for me and some other traveling parents whom I respect.

Nursery rhymes, Raffi and They Might Be Giants are all great options for getting the kids crooning for a while. But you don’t have to limit yourself to music from the (often inane) “children’s” genre. We keep a playlist of the “grown-up” songs our toddler likes and crank it at least once or twice on each long drive. Tracks on the current iteration include “Umbrella” by Rihanna; “I Gotta Feeling,” by The Black Eyed Peas; and “Death to My Hometown,” off the new Springsteen album. Broadway musicals often work, too. (L's go-to pick: “South Pacific.”)

Word games
All sorts of research (including, for instance, this) indicates that word play makes our kids better readers, speakers and writers. With this in mind, depending on your child’s ability to speak and spell, of course, these games can be fun. Younger kids love rhymes; older kids like spelling games (when I was a kid, we played a geography game in which participants must think up with locations that begin with the last letter of the previously selected word). Free-association games work, too. An example: How many Q words can you think up between now and the next exit?

I spy
When our parents (and their parents) went on road trips, the most popular game to play was, “I, spy.” Trust me: the game still works wonders. We usually embrace an open-ended iteration, and let L tell us what she spies. Sometimes we mix it up and challenge her to spy specific stuff, such as cornfields, hawks, other hybrid vehicles (we usually travel in Powerwoman’s Prius) or drivers risking their lives by texting behind the wheel. (OK, I'm kidding about the last one. But it's not a bad idea.)

Story time
Nothing kills time in the car like a good story. Provided you don’t get car sick, bring books to read from the passenger seat along the way, and hold the books up like a librarian as you read, so the kids can follow along. Another option (and a good alternative for those who do get sick): Telling stories. My wife and I have invented entire families of characters and elaborate fantasy lands on drives from our home in northern Sonoma County to my inlaws’ house south of San Francisco. Many of these have become road-trip traditions.

Prizes and presents
Just about every kid—even the most spoiled among them—looks forward to receiving trinkets and treasures. Make road trips fun by doling out small rewards at pre-established milestones along the way. After one hour, for instance, whip out some stickers. At the two-hour mark, offer some Wikki Stix. Other parents I know bring a cookie sheet and magnets. Whatever you use, just remember to choose toys that are safe; especially if one of your children is an infant, you don’t want to give your older kids stuff that could potentially harm the baby.

What are some of your secrets for managing road trips with kids? Please submit suggestions into the comment field below.