Old-Fashioned Road Trip Entertainment (Video-Free!)

I’d always thought a day-long roadtrip with my kids would be awful. My active girls and I don’t particularly enjoy cars; in fact, I do most everything I can to avoid driving. So initially, when faced with a four and a half hour road trip to visit friends deep in Colorado’s Gunnison Valley, I was worried.

I know it doesn’t seem like that long to a lot of people, but it seemed long to me, so I planned to bring our computer and let the girls watch videos for the trip. It would be two-year-old Chloe’s first chance to watch a video, and because five-year-old Jasmine rarely watches them, she’d easily be happy for most of the journey.

But then I decided I wanted to do something different. With hours of close, prolonged close contact on the horizon, I wanted to connect as a family.

We had a fantastic time.

Chained to our seats, we were also free from many of the distractions that make it harder to fully engage with one another as a family. We sat in the car and focused on one another.

We started our journey with an old-school game. I created a chart listing various vehicles and animals we might pass along the way. RV’s, Trucks, Cows, Horses, Motorcycles, Birds… I taught Jasmine how to keep track of items using hash marks, and we began. The excitement buzzing in the car was palpable, and I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed the game. We noticed tiny details in the landscape, and even started announcing other interesting things we spotted on the way – butterflies, ponds, and even school buses pulling trailers.

Jasmine tracked the things we saw.

After about forty-five minutes of this game, we transitioned to some car singing. We began with a favorite song that predicts what various creatures say first thing in the morning.

When [cows] get up in the morning, they always say “Good Day.”
When [cows] get up in the morning, they always say “Good Day.”
Moo moo moo moo that is what they say.
Moo moo moo moo that is what they say.

We repeat the verses again and again, including the children, their pets, their friends and family members, all of us becoming very creative bringing in new creatures to mimic. Sometimes, we’d go back to our initial tracking game, singing the creatures into our song.

Around hour two, as two-year-old Chloe began to get sleepy and cranky, we brought out the treats. I held a fistful of small gummy fruits in my hand, and Chloe had to list the colors and select one by naming the color. Jasmine had to count the sweets and then select her color. And then she needed to spell it on her notepad. Because I normally reserve sweets like this for airplane rides, the girls embraced the math and spelling with zeal. And because each candy took at least five minutes to receive, they ate less than ten each.

Then we brought out sticker books. Each child had selected a book of stickers to bring on the journey. We drew a scene in a notebook and they spent twenty minutes arranging their stickers.

When Chloe finally fell asleep, we began to invent stories together.

After about three and a half hours, we made one stop – a dinosaur museum. Despite Jasmine’s exhaustion afterwards, the remaining hour flew by. Yes, there was some whining and complaining, but overall, the girls were pleased and animated and I felt like we could have driven even further. Not at all what I’d expected.

Our road trip gave me a fresh perspective on our daily lives. Sometimes, a weekend is so filled with activities – adults trying to accomplish tasks, children working on projects, we spend more time juggling activities than we do sinking into one particular thing until we simply cannot enjoy it any longer. Sitting still near one another for so long pushed each of us to dig deeper into our creative selves, keeping each other in mind. As a result, we connected more profoundly than I’d ever expected.

I would never say we should all hop in our cars just to connect with our families. As an avid environmentalist, I prefer to bike, shuttle, or jog to a destination. But, for me, this trip was a reminder that joy can be found when we immerse ourselves in the present and connect with the living world right before us, rather than reach for the easy entertainment today’s technologies make so easy.

Below are some other ideas we’ve employed for homemade family travel entertainment. Please add your own too! I’m also interested in ideas that might keep young children entertained in baby joggers and bike trailers.

- Make homemade playdough and sculpt it on plate with small butter knives, cookie cutters, small creatures, rocks, etc.
- Recite poems together
- Listen to music and sing together
- Make and use origami fortune tellers
- Make pipe cleaner creations
- Make aluminum foil creations
- Pack travel bags with lots of pockets that the children can hold. I’ve used old fanny packs or purses. Insert small objects and treasures into the purse that can be removed and placed back in after the kids have discovered and played with them.
- Listen to books on tape


Santa C.
Santa C.7 years ago

My situation was a bit different but with similar results. I had my teenage daughter in the car with me. I handed her the road map. She was the best navigator I ever had. She followed our course right through Vermont, right down to telling me what town we would come to next and approximately how many miles it would take to get there. I think you should really Learn Spelling Games

Lucasul L.
Lucasul L.7 years ago

hey this article really made my day(actualy night). Now this are great ideas i will put in action asap. kids spelling games

Donna Crane
Donna Crane8 years ago

Growing up in a Navy family, we had plenty of road travel. We played "white horse". We had to find a white horse, and whoever saw one first got a nickel...inflation might make it worth more today. You could probably substitute something else, like a barn or a silo or a Best Buy store.

We also played "The Minister's Cat" where we started with "The minister's cat is a _______ cat". You start with the first letter of the alphabet and put a word in the blank...i,e, "The minister's cat is an ACTIVE cat" The minister's cat is an ACROBATIC cat" and so on. When no one could think of another "A" word, we went to the next letter and started again. The rule was you had to do it pretty fast, so we couldn't hesitate more than a couple seconds before you filled in the "letter" word. Always a lot of laughs.

We played "I spy", where mom would pick something in the car and give clues until someone guessed it. "I spy something in the car that is round and has spokes on it and a picture in the center" (a steering wheel)...or "I spy something in the car that is shiny and like a ball" (my dad's bald head).

I loved to travel, my parent's always researched where we were going and my mom always told us how much fun we'd have and what neat things were there for us to do. It made traveling and many moves exciting.

Mary Rick
Mary Rick8 years ago

My love of road trips today comes from the engaged trips with my family when I was young. We played all the games described in the article and by others and more. For us it was a natural thing to do. It's interesting to me that today the natural thing is to be disengaged and focused on passive entertainment like DVD's and Ipods. I do believe our road trips made me a much more aware and alert driver as an adult...and a really good navigator, too. Heading out on a road trip tomorrow down old route 66...can't wait to see what I might see!

Amanda M.
Amanda M8 years ago

Having grown up "unplugged," I remember lots of entertainment ideas from family road trips as a kid. We'd mark down license plates from different states and see how many of the 50 states' plates we saw on the trip, or we'd count "Herbies," as we referred to the Volkswagen Bugs. Playing Car Bingo was also a favorite, or we'd listen to classic radio shows on tape (to this day, Abbott & Costello, Bob Newhart, and Alan Sherman are among my favorite comedians).

But the one that sticks out on my mind the most is the game of looking for 18-wheelers with unusual loads. I don't mean "car trailers," or big box trucks; I mean the flatbeds that were hauling darn near anything. Military vehicles, a load of electrical transformers, livestock trailers, anything unusual like that. And then of course, there were the mountain views, especially going down I-77 into North Carolina (I even used to count the runaway truck ramps there for fun!). On a clear day, the view of the valley off the mountain is something unforgettable! We don't have DVD players in our cars and never will just for reasons like that! Kids today are perfectly capable of entertaining themselves without electronics and should be encouraged to do so!

Kevin W.
Kevin W8 years ago

Some other suggestions for entertainment for road trips: identify state licenses from as many states as possible, find the entire alphabet in order on signs (you can add rules like only on letter per sign to extend the game), count and tally the number of certain animals you see (antelope in the Western US, hawks in midwest, etc.) and there is always "I see something xxxx". We found that the last game didn't work well if items outside the car were selected.

Michele Helms
Michele Beckner8 years ago

I am going to be travelling with my nieces and they are accustomed to their parents mini-van that has a built in dvd player...my car does not, so thanks for the ideas!!

robyn w.
robyn w8 years ago

we'd travel from NY to Pa every week [about 2 hours each way] and from NY to FLA twice a year [2 days each way] my girls like to count port-a-sans. highlight was if they saw a truck transporting the port-a-sans! we also played tapes of kids songs, took turns reading out loud, making up rhymes, counting by 2,3,5 and making up stories for their favorite dolls. the'd also sketch outfits they wanted me to make. we'd make a point of stopping at a park or playground or even a big mall so they could run around for an hour or so and we could stretch at lunch.

Joanne Weinhardt
Jolene m8 years ago

My situation was a bit different but with similar results. I had my teenage daughter in the car with me. I handed her the road map. She was the best navigator I ever had. She followed our course right through Vermont, right down to telling me what town we would come to next and approximately how many miles it would take to get there.