Planning a road trip with tweens and teens? Two words—be prepared. It can mean the difference between an enjoyable road trip and concluding that whoever said “getting there is half the fun” must have been childless. Here are some tips I’ve gathered together for managing a road trip with tweens and teens.
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1. Engage Your Tween or Teen in the Planning Process
Anyone is more invested in a trip that will include their interests, including tweens and teens. Do some research about the place you’ll be visiting and make a list of attractions. Teens could even help with this step. Give each person a copy of the list and have them rank the top three things they would like to do or see. Then make plans that include everyone’s top choice. The traveling portion of the trip will be more tolerable to kids when they’re excited about some fun at the destination. And talking about the upcoming fun stuff might help to steer them back to a better mood if they start to slide into a funk.
You know that you’ll have to make at least a few stops along the way. See if you can make them interesting. Map out your route and look up attractions, parks or scenic areas in the areas you’ll be passing through. Are there any spots that you think will coincide with needed breaks? Using the same method as above, tweens and teens can help choose where to stop. Roadside America and Atlas Obscura are two sites we like to use to find unusual things to see. Even a ten or fifteen minute diversion can help lift everyone’s spirits.
2. Discuss Your Expectations
Talk about any limitations or relaxation of rules before leaving for your road trip with tweens and teens.
For kids, the big concern will probably revolve around phone and/or electronics use. Decide how much screen time you will allow during the car ride (as well as once you’ve reached your destination). While parents look forward to quality time with our unplugged kids, it can be helpful to keep in mind how kids today communicate and connect with their friends. It may be worth allowing some time for them to text, send Instagram photos, check Twitter, etc. Electronics can also be great for occupying kids in the car. Whatever you decide, knowing the rules beforehand will help your kids adjust and plan accordingly.
3. You’ve GOT to Have Snacks
Chances are, just when someone is starving there won’t be a restaurant or convenience store around for miles. Pack plenty of snacks, maybe even sandwiches or wraps, for munching in the car. We usually pack fruits, nuts, granola bars, trail mix and sandwich crackers, and then I throw in some snacks that I don’t usually have at home, like fruit snacks or licorice, as a special treat. Wholefully offers some great ideas for super healthy road trip snacks that will banish any guilt about empty calories, and you can find recipes for healthy car snacks at Julie’s Treats and Eats.
Don’t forget to pack drinks. Beverages in disposable bottles are convenient, but if you’re looking to cut down on trash, a filtered water bottle can be used both in the car and at your destination.
Keep cleanup easy on your road trip with tweens and teens. Pack some moist wipes, hand sanitizer, paper towels and a few grocery bags for trash.
4. What’s a Road Trip without Music?
You—or better yet, your kids—can make playlists or burn CDs which include some of everyone’s favorite songs. Again, including everyone’s interests will help to keep the peace.
For a different spin, turn on the radio and play “Name That Song.” If one station makes it too hard because of everyone’s different musical interests you can hit the seek button for the next station after each song.
If naming the songs is too easy for your crew, play “Name the Band” instead. (Just be sure to cover up the stereo display if it gives away the answers.) In case it comes up, “Incense and Peppermints” is by Strawberry Alarm Clock.
5. Electronics Can Keep Them Busy
Years ago, watching a movie in the car for our family meant bungee-strapping a portable TV/VCR player to the armrests. It wasn’t the most convenient arrangement, but it bought us an hour or two of relative peace. Movies can still be a great way to pass the time in the car and these days, watching a movie on the go is easy. If your vehicle isn’t equipped with an entertainment system, download movies onto phones, tablets or laptops before you leave home. Or take along a portable DVD player. You can bring favorite movies from home or borrow some from friends or your local library.
Besides movies, kids can download YouTube videos, podcasts, games, music and apps onto their devices or play games on their portable game consoles to help keep them occupied in the car. The subject matter can be educational, just for fun, or a combination of both.
Once you’ve traveled far enough from home, the stars will look different. For nighttime sky gazing, your tween or teen can download an app that will identify stars, constellations, planets, and satellites. I like Sky Map (free) and SkyView Free (SkyView Lite in the Apple Store) but there are many others available. Because you can enable a night-vision red screen, the app isn’t too bright to use in the dark (and won’t irritate others in the car).
Make sure to bring along headphones and charging cables. Yes, tweens and teens can pack their own stuff. But for me, it’s worth reminding them of these necessities to help ensure peace on the road. If you’re bringing a laptop, a power inverter will allow you to charge the battery from the car’s 12 volt power point.
6. Encourage Creative Endeavors
Coloring isn’t just for little kids anymore. Pick up an adult coloring book and colored pencils and let your tweens and teens engage in some coloring therapy. If you’d rather, you can print out some coloring pages. Faber-Castell Super Coloring and Art is Fun offer free PDF downloads without signing up for or installing anything.
Making friendship bracelets from embroidery floss can keep kids busy for a long time. If they’ve never made them before, you can search and print out instructions from the internet. Here’s a how-to on Instructables.com. If you’ll have WiFi in your car, this tutorial from wikiHow is easy to follow. All that is needed to make these bracelets is embroidery floss, scissors and a pin or tape to hold down the ends.
Building with Legos or K’nex can be fun, even for older kids. Pick up a small set or, if you still have them hanging around your house, dump a few handfuls in a sandwich bag to take along and challenge your kids to engineer something cool.
7. Play Games
Have some family time during your road trip with tweens and teens with classic car games such as 20 Questions, Two Truths and a Lie, or Would You Rather. And of course, the license plate hunt. Even though we’re all adults now, my kids and I still like to keep track of all the different states we see represented when we travel. If you want to incorporate a geography lesson for your tweens, print out a black and white map of the US and have your kids color in the states as you see their license plates.
For more traditional games, look for magnetized or travel-sized versions of some of your kids’ favorites. A deck of cards or other card games like Uno are also handy for entertainment. Besides keeping car passengers occupied, games can be fun to have on hand for down time at your destination.
For one of our long road trips, I bought a card game called Rubberneckers that was a huge hit with my family, adults included. Players earn points by getting people in other vehicles to do something like waving, or by spotting things along the road.
Some older kids really enjoy Mad Libs. One person can ask the others in the car for the required part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and fill in the blanks. When they’re finished, read the stories out loud so everyone can benefit from the goofiness. There’s even a road trip version of Mad Libs available, or you can download some free printouts at teach-nology.com.
8. Get Lost in a Book
Books, including comic books, can help your kids escape the cramped confines of the car, and pass a lot of time in the process. Visit your library and let your tween or teen pick out a few books they’re interested in. Although it’s tempting to just bring along books that your child is required to read for school, they may not be his top choices. This may end up causing irritability—counterproductive to a harmonious road trip with tweens and teens. Compromise to get your kids to make a dent in their required reading. Make a deal with your child that he read some of the required book before reading the ones he chose for fun. Chances are, once they get started they’ll actually start to enjoy the “homework.”
Audiobooks are great for people who get carsick from reading in the car, or if you’d like to share a book as a family. One of my family’s favorites was the Harry Potter series. The kids were thrilled to bring their non-reading dad up to date with Harry’s latest adventures. For a list of title suggestions, visit Travel+Leisure or School Library Journal.
Don’t forget about magazines! A magazine focused on one of your tween’s or teen’s interests can keep them contentedly flipping through the pages while the miles roll by.
For night drives, a book light can light the page for your readers. I’ve found they are much less annoying than flashlights and the car’s overhead lights.
9. Let them nap!
This is one time tweens and teens can get away with being lazy. Allow them to bring a pillow to lean on and let the drone of the tires lull them to sleep.
10. Work on Projects
The car ride can be the perfect time for kids to get school work done (or at least started). When my son was in 7th grade, he wrote his first research paper during a 10-hour drive. Although at the time he would rather have had more video game time, he sure was happy that his homework was done when we got home!
Tweens and teens can create travel journals of their trip in a notebook, binder or journal. Let your child add to the journal in her own way—writing, drawing, pasting postcards or photos, etc.
A photo journal or movie about your trip can be a great project for tweens and teens. They can take pictures or videos of the passing scenery, antics inside the car and places where you stop. Maybe they’d like to choose a theme for their photo journal. They could focus on signs, animals, landscapes, or everyday life at places along the road. Or maybe they would be happy just snapping whatever catches their fancy. Either way, it will help to keep them occupied.
11. Incorporate Life Skills
Even though our electronic devices provide us with GPS and all sorts of clever traveling tools, there is still value in knowing how to read a map. Using a map, atlas, or printout of your route, highlight the roads you’ll be taking and encourage your tweens and teens to follow along. Or let them highlight the roads you take as you go. They can check the map to see where you are and how far you still need to go. They can also watch for towns along the way, route changes, rest stops and attractions.
A road trip can be perfect lesson in budgeting for tweens and teens. Have them write down the cost of gas each time you fill up, stop for food, etc. As they add up the amounts they will get a real life lesson in traveling expenses. And if you’re allowing electronics, they can download the GasBuddy App and help you find the best deals on fuel.
Want to learn a new language? A quick google search will lead you to many sites which offer free language lessons you can download. Open Culture offers an extensive list of free language courses. Who knows, you could all be conversing in German by the time you get back home!
12. Have a Chat
Some of my family’s best discussions have taken place in the car. Something about a car ride seems to encourage a lot of kids to open up. Maybe it’s the limited eye contact or the captive audience factor. Either way, a road trip can be a great time to catch up with each other, share stories, or kick around ideas. And since no one has anywhere else to rush off to, the conversation can be relaxed.
Properly prepared for your road trip with tweens and teens, getting there really CAN be half the fun!
Do you have other ideas for managing long car rides with tweens and teens? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear about them!