I’ve been taking road trips with my kids in one form or another for over a decade. I took my first big solo long distance road trip as a divorced mom with my four kids three years ago now. Travel looks a lot different for everyone this year with the pandemic, but going on a road trip with your family can still be an option—while following CDC recommendations and local health advisories, of course. It can also be a fun thing to plan for in the future.
Regardless of your experience with road tripping, hitting the road with the family can be as budget-friendly, intricate, or as close to home as you want it to be. My latest trip with my kids was a day trip to Lost Maples, about a two-hour drive from San Antonio. We hiked for a couple hours and had a great time socially distancing while taking in nature’s beauty.
Despite having experience on the road with my kids, I still get the occasional moaning and groaning from them when it comes to taking a trip. I’m a big fan of keeping things screen-free as much as possible in the car (and during our trips), so finding ways to get the kids excited that I also feel good about is imperative. Here are my top 5 ways to help make family road trips educational and fun.
1. Pick Places with History to Visit During Your Road Trip
It can definitely be fun to venture off to an amusement park or some other entertainment novelty while traveling, but it can also be expensive. One way I’ve nurtured my kids’ minds (and my wallet) on road trips is by taking them to places rich with history, like state and national parks. Sometimes that history is around events that occurred in a place (like Fort Davis National Historic Site), and sometimes it’s geologic (like Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico).
Find some place old and interesting to you, and chances are it will inspire a sense of wonder in your kids, too. You can also complement trips to state and national parks with Junior Ranger activity packets. You can usually pick these up when you check in at the park, and you can also download some of them ahead of time––which makes for a perfect car activity to get your kids excited about the visit on the way there.
I also highly recommend getting a National Park passport. It’s a small, spiral bound book with places for you to stamp and mark each National Park visit. Each NP visitor center has a stand dedicated just to the passport stamp (which includes the date of your visit). It’s a great souvenir and it also has information about the different regions of the U.S.
2. Get Your Kids Involved with Planning Your Road Trip
This can be a tricky one when you’re the adult in charge of budgeting and shepherding your kids on the trip, but with some parameters you can involve your kids in the planning, too. Giving them some choices during the trip not only helps foster their sense of autonomy and decision-making skills, but it can help them with things like time management and budgeting, too.
During our last trip to Lost Maples, I asked my kids to help us decide which trail we took while we were there. We had a limited amount of time and we got input from a park ranger on two trail options that would fit within the time we had for our visit. One was less strenuous and would take us to some areas we’d all seen before. The other was more scenic and included a steep incline to an overlook. After discussing the benefits and drawbacks, the kids decided on the scenic route. The climb was indeed steep, but we all enjoyed the view from the top together and had a great day (especially on the easier climb back down!).
You could also ask your kids to give input on what to bring to eat or where to pick food up along the way. Or ask them to help decide a few different places that you’re willing to visit on your trip (whether it’s a day or overnight trip). You can give them a working budget to keep in mind for anything that requires money, which can help them gain a better sense of just how far a dollar does—or doesn’t—stretch.
3. Listen to Podcasts & Audiobooks on the Way There
One thing I often hear from parents that keeps them from hitting the road is the dreaded car ride itself. It can be daunting thinking about sitting in the car for hours (or days) on end with your family, and can be a recipe for stressful situations—but it doesn’t have to be.
A big way that I make road trips more tolerable—even enjoyable—for me and my kids is by listening to podcasts and audiobooks. It all began with me downloading the full Ramona Quimby series on Audible, and we’ve been hooked ever since. On shorter trips we tend to listen to podcasts, but also listen to them on longer trips when we need to switch up what we’re playing in the car. Our all-time favorite podcast to listen to altogether in the car is Guy Raz’s How I Built This, which chronicles the origin stories of some of the most recognizable businesses and brands in the U.S. Raz also hosts a kid’s science podcast called Wow in the World that we’ve loved listening to over the years, too.
My biggest rule of thumb on picking out podcasts and audiobooks is finding ones that I’ll enjoy listening to just as much as my kids. And including them on what we listen to helps to keep them engaged and interested, too. The stories and things we learn then become a part of the shared experience of going on the trip, as well.
4. Teach Your Kids to Read a Map
Another way to keep your kids entertained (and secretly learning) during your road trip, is by handing them a map. Whether it’s a map of the area for them to follow along on during the drive (my daughters love keeping an eye out for the different city signs and finding them on the map), or a picking up a park map to follow a trail, it’s a great way to help give them a sense of place and geography. Grabbing a trail map makes it easy to reference together as you’re hiking. Following a map in the car requires an older sibling to help, or a bit of a tutorial before you start driving.
5. Play Games in the Car
Road trip games are a quintessential pastime when it comes to family travel. One of the classics is the alphabet game, where you work together to find the letters of the alphabet in succession on billboards, signs, and license plates. This is perfect for younger kids working on their alphabet memorization, but is equally fun with older kids, too. Another fun game is seeing how many different states you can find on license plates. This is one that kids can do solo with a printable map or checklist like the ones I’ve created here.
Another game that takes the alphabet to the next level is I’m Going On a Road Trip. The first person starts off saying “I’m going on a road trip and I’m bringing [something that starts with A].” The next person then repeats the opening phrase and says what the last person was bringing, then adds on something that starts with the next letter in the alphabet. You go around with all of the players until you reach the last letter of the alphabet. You can make it a competition with older kids, eliminating players when they forget an item. This is a great game for cultivating memory, and also creativity with the things each person decides to bring. And it’s bound to bring a lot of laughter as well. You can play this one in the car or during a hike, too.
If you’re feeling inspired to take your next road trip, but are feeling daunted by all the planning, I have a digital Pocket Road Trip Planning Guide which can help you break down all the parts of planning a road trip.
I also have a free download with 52 Screen-Free Road Trip Activities for Kids to help beat boredom on the drive there.
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Amy Johnson founded Maker Mama in 2009 as a creative outlet for DIY projects using thrifted and repurposed materials. Her DIY skills extended to website, photography, and social media, and she has grown her own consulting business in media and marketing. Since 2017, Amy has been part of the San Antonio Charter Moms team, making sure our blog posts and videos reach the widest possible audience of parents who need fair and trustworthy information about schools of choice. She is currently working on a book about her road tripping experiences as a single mom.
Find more family travel inspiration from San Antonio Charter Moms in the posts below: