Prevent road trip meltdowns with 13 stuck-in-the-car games
* Count the scenery. Have your child keep a running count of items outside the car window, such as brown cows, red cars, or restaurant billboards, and tally the findings. Older children (7 and up) can sharpen their math skills by adding up license-plate numbers or mile markers. For the competitive set: The first one to reach a particular number can be the winner.
* Watch for signals. JoEllyn Mascarenhas of San Diego came up with this colorful graphing activity for her 5-year-old: “I gave him red, yellow, and green dot stickers and drew three columns on a piece of paper,” she says. “He used the stickers to mark every traffic light we saw. Later we counted up and compared how many were red, yellow, and green.”
* Search for numbers. Challenge your kids to find a specific number on road signs, billboards, or license plates, says Diane Flynn Keith, a mom of two and the author of Carschooling. If your kids like to keep score, make flash cards with numbers on them. They can pull out one card at a time, search for the number on it, and then count how many cards they’ve piled up by the time you arrive.
* Play with time. A watch with a second hand can be a fun tool. MaryAnna Cashmore, a mom of three in San Francisco, lets her kids share a stopwatch and asks them questions like “How many seconds does it take to breathe in and out ten times?” “How long will it take for our car to go through that tunnel?” And, of course, “How long can we be quiet?”
* Start with the basic Alphabet Game. Beginning with the letter “A,” passengers work together to find each letter, in alphabetical order, on signs or license plates.
* Make it speedy. Try to make it through the alphabet before you reach your destination. On a long trip, see how far you can get in ten miles, or if you can make it through the alphabet twice before your next rest stop.
* Come up with some family rules. Make the game a little more challenging by calling license plates off-limits or requiring each letter to be found on separate signs.
* Create bigger challenges. Have kids who can read work through the alphabet backward or spell out their names, words, or sentences instead of just going through the alphabet in order.
* Track the miles. Teaching kids how to follow a map is a great way to keep them busy while you’re running errands-and it helps develop their sense of direction. Michelle Collins of Severna Park, Maryland, likes to print out maps from Mapquest.com so when her kids ask, “Are we there yet?” she can show them where they are and where they’re going. Kids who read can even call out the driving directions as you go along. Another idea: Laminate and save maps for places you go often, such as Grandma’s house, daycare, or church. Early grade-schoolers can follow your route each time by tracing it with a wipe-off marker.
* Color inside the (state) lines. On long road trips, give your child printouts of a U.S. map (you can find one at Parenting.com/map) and tell her to watch for out-of-state cars. Whenever she spots a license plate from a particular state, she gets to locate and color in that state on the map. The finished product is a great souvenir.
* Keep an eye out for shapes. An on-the-go version of I Spy, especially good for kindergartners: Have players try to find as many circles as possible in the passing scenery. The first person to call out a specific item (“I spy a circle window on that van!”) gets a point for it. Hint: You might want to eliminate “wheels” as an option so players will look a little harder! The player who collects the most points in five minutes or five miles wins that round. You can then go on to identifying triangles and squares.
* Make paper-bag puppets. Keep a stack of brown lunch bags and a few markers in the back-seat for those times when antsy passengers need to shift gears. They can draw faces on the bags, then use them to act out their favorite stories.
* Orchestrate the ride. An old-fashioned sing-along will fine-tune any car trip with kids. Want to sing “Moo, Cow, Moo?” but can’t quite remember the words anymore? No worries-before you hit the road, visit an online site like Bussongs.com or Mamalisa.com and print out lyrics for favorite children’s songs and nursery rhymes. Then sing the miles away!