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Family Traditions to Keep Kids Happy on a Road Trip

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Two girls with father in car
Family on a Road-Trip

Growing up I spent every spring break and summer vacation on the road with my family. We drove, in a minivan, to forty-four states. To keep three children from kicking and screaming my parents devised a load of little activities and games for us to play. It was through these games that we were able to more fully enjoy each trip, and we all looked forward to them. The games became as much a part of the trips as the hotels, national parks, and picnics; they became traditions.

If you have kids and want to find a way to entertain them as well as bond through a new tradition I think that some of these classics will interest you.

  1. License Plate Game

    This game was always our favorite. On one trip from Indiana to Arizona and then back via Utah and Colorado we saw license plates from forty-nine states (darn Rhode Island!). The game works two ways. One masterlist is kept of license plates seen by the family as a whole. A second set of lists, one for each family member, is used to keep track of who sees the most states on their own. So let's say I see a North Dakota license plate, it will be added to the family list and my personal list. If another North Dakota is spotted by my father then it will be added only to his list. At the end of the drive the person with the most states on their personal list wins.

    My family took this game seriously; we have countless stories of trying desperately to find a license plate of a particular state. It wasn’t uncommon for us to force my father to drive through an entire parking lot at five mph in search of "the" license plate. But for all of the driving we forced him to do, the rewards were great. We all remember that miraculous moment when we came across a Hawaiian license plate in the parking lot of a Vietnamese Restaurant in Albuquerque. It was pure joy. Looking back, I think we looked forward to this game just as much as the places we visited, if not more!
  2. Volkswagens, PT Cruisers, and other weird looking car finder game

    The infamous "punch-buggy-no-punch-back" was replaced in our car with a less-violent point system. Each person was rewarded points for seeing one of these cars. The scoring varied from a single point for seeing a new VW Bug to the jackpot of five hundred points for an old, hippie painted VW Bus. We included PT Cruisers and a couple of other random models to keep the game interesting and doled out extra points for convertible models and the color red. For example, a new VW Bug equals one point, a new red Bug five, a new red convertible Bug ten, an old Bug twenty, an old red Bug twenty five, and an old red convertible fifty. The scoring system developed over time and is by no means the only way to play; each family can put their own spin on the game for things like spotting a similar model to the car that is being driven. This game, like the license plate game, forced our focus to the road rather than on our boredom or annoying each other.
  3. Dealing out Roles

    Another tradition that made road-trips entertaining were roles. For each stage of the road trip our parents would assign us tasks that we were responsible for. Rather than seeing them as chores we looked forward to these new "assignments". They could range from helping out with the map as navigator, finding hotels or restaurants in the AAA book as the concierge, or choosing meals and setting them up at picnics as the "culinary master". We all enjoyed our little tasks and would mix them up on different trips. I remember always looking forward to sitting in the front seat with the map in my hand, telling my mother every five minutes to continue driving straight for the next hundred miles.
  4. Music

    We always had a set list to play for long road trips, and it was always music that we liked but did not regularly listen to. We each had one CD that we begged to be played. The music ranged from Italian Hits, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Oldies Mix, Aqua, and the Beatles' 21. We all threw in our own changes as we grew up and developed our tastes, but to this day my sisters and I can still sing along perfectly with those forty or so songs.

While these traditions are all based on personal experience they are perfect for any family. These traditions are great because they make the time in the car the children’s favorite part part of the trip, rather than the boring part. We had fun. We played, we talked, and we fought. But most importantly, we created hundreds of special memories that run deeper than the sites we saw and the history we learned. It was during those drives that we built family bonds, bonds that we still have and cherish today.

Thanks to our friends at Tearjerkers for giving their own traditions as well. Matthew M told us how his family likes to bring a gnome on trips. Arne says that kids love geocaching and Pam Wright counts Windmills. All of these sound fun!

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