You've probably all played the license plate game or the ABC game. I have, countless times. I don't recall ever getting bored with them. I DO recall being able to read. My family does a lot of traveling by car. We visit relatives in New Mexico at least twice a year. We drive, during the winter months, through Los Angeles so that we don't have to deal with the Moab weather, and we visit friends and family there and near there. We do as much night driving as we can, but obviously it's not possible only to drive at night. Since Rainbow is four (and not yet reading because I want her to develop that skill at her own pace) and the others are younger, I've had to search for other ways to entertain them. I refuse to use any digital devices (like DVD players or digital game consoles), though I hold no judgment for those who do use them. I remember driving from Michigan to Mexico happily as a child without them, though, and I know my kids, partner and I can do the same. Since the kids don't read yet, though, the license plate game and ABC game are not nearly as fun. So I've come up with a list of things that have really helped us over the years. If you have more ideas, leave a comment. I'd love to read what you have to say.
The Trip Clip This is a new one for us. I was looking, initially, for a customizable shopping list, and found one here. Exploring the site I found it's mostly activities for being out and about. Several versions of Bingo, VW Bug counting by color (boxes can be colored in, no writing or reading skills necessary), a packing list, driving directions and many other activities were available for printing that were age appropriate and fun! So we bought five activities and have used them all and plan to buy more as the kids get older.
Photo album with pictures of people you're going to visit or that your kids will meet for the first time. This is great, because kids can flip through, talk about memories, and ask for your memories. You can tell stories about people they've never met before, and those stories can be used as ice breakers for kids who are hesitant to make new acquaintances.
Board you can draw on with water, like H2-Whoa. This thing is awesome. It's got four little drawing utensils that you fill with water, and two sides to draw on, so when one side is drying, the other is available. When one little utensil runs out of water, there are three more! The drawings don't last long, but the fun does. Ah, the ephemeral nature of art...
Magnadoodle Ours has lasted and lasted and lasted. After four years it has a small dent which prevents that area from taking the doodle, but it still erases easily enough for the littles to do it themselves, and they still have a blast with it.
Finger puppets I don't love finger puppets. Or even puppets. But these little things don't take up much space and they're GREAT for when you just have a little bit of time left, you really don't want to stop, no one has to pee, no one is particularly hungry. If you don't want to act anything out with the puppets, you can just put some music on and have the puppets dance silly dances to the music, bonk into each other on your fingers while they're dancing. On that same note, you can make stuffed animals dance silly little dances, and that's pretty amusing, too.
New snacks I try to find at least one kind of snack each time that the kids haven't had before...or haven't had in a long time. My rule for the car concerning food is that it has to be able to be vacuumed up and water only unless it's a strictly supervised treat like a milkshake. I'm a control freak about this.
Tiny notebooks Isn't anything tiny kinda cool? If you can find tiny markers or pens or something to accompany these, even better. My kids can go through a tiny 80 page notebook in about two sittings.
Mess-free markers They really don't make a mess. It's the paper that makes the color. Pretty neat, even though you have to buy the special paper. The special paper is exactly what makes it just for traveling (great for car AND grandma's house) and keeps it novel.
I Spy and Searching Books This trip I realized I need to keep it simple. When the book is too complicated and detailed, then all I get are a lot of requests to find it, find it, find it!
Night light stuffed animal We got, for this last trip (which included as much night driving as we could fit in) a light-up stuffed animal. We now LOVE this turtle that makes soft colors of stars on the ceiling when a button is pressed. Rainbow was able to reach it for Dragon and keep it going. It turns off after a while, so when Dragon would wake up and it'd be really dark, she could reach over and turn it on and he'd calm down and be in a state of wonder almost immediately. There are three color options to mix it up a bit, and all of the kids love everything about this little guy.
Magazines I have a couple of different subscriptions to magazines I know my kids like, but I don't let them read them as they come in. I save them, put them in a baggie, and then bust them out for trips. All new, all wonderful.
"No laughing, and no having fun!" This is one of my favorite games for anytime, and it works like a charm in the car, too. It's kind of like saying the word 'poop'--it just works. I like to remind the kids, after we start this game and the mood is up, that we're in the car in order to get someplace they want to be, and that helps a lot, too.
Magnetic dressing doll My kids like these so much I'm going to invest in another one before our next trip (that makes this sound expensive, and they are NOT). It's a hinged tin container with magnetic clothes that fit on people. There are many, many variations, and a search on Amazon.com showed there are a bunch of different concepts like building airplanes and robots, which really excites me. I can really only get into dressing girls for so long... "Yeah, what an interesting outfit, honey. How about you put another one together?"
Lacing boards There are so many different versions of these that can be bought, like animals or shapes, and they're pretty easy to make, too. Get some heavy cardstock, make an outline of a picture, leave it blank, color it in, or have your kids color it in! Then punch around the outside and use a shoelace for the string. They store nicely in baggies and they don't take up much space.
Map When in a document protector, dry erase markers or crayons can be used to trace the route. The maps could be of the entire trip, like you'd see on a google map with directions put in. It could be of just one state at a time. It could be much more detailed. My kids end up tracing rivers and mountain ranges and putting grassy areas in deserts and all sorts of stuff. This one can be messy, so it's best (for us, at least) when they're calm, well-fed, and not fussy. When they're feeling a little crazy, we give them laminated maps to look at and play with.
Help look for exits or gas stations Although neither child reads, they now recognize symbols and they can match numbers and letters. So if they really want to get out and run around, I'll pick a rest stop that's about 20 miles away and ask for their help looking for the blue signs, for the exit number, for the restroom symbol. Both big kids love to help with stuff like this. I guess it's a kind of backseat driving. It's fun.
Scratch off books These can be messy, especially if your child is more prone to scratching off every bit of the black surface than actually drawing. But most of it goes into the carseat and it can be vacuumed out. We've had the same two books for a couple of years. Each car trip the kids like to go back over old drawings and elaborate on them. It still amazes me. Most of the black is gone, however, so we'll be getting a couple more of these soon, too.
My Quiet Book These are nice for restaurants and times when your child is in a new situation where they should be quiet. I don't like putting my kids in places where they have to be quiet because they're children. I really try to make 'yes' environments for them, but sometimes they just need to be quiet. For instance, this last trip to New Mexico included going to Christmas Eve Mass. The in-laws' church is very different from the one we attend, and my kids usually go to nursery and to the youth program at our church, so they're not sitting in the service having to be...quiet. I was chiding myself as I stood at the back of the church holding Dragon while Rainbow and Cloud tried to figure out the best ways to climb over and around and under the pews, jumping on the kneeling bench and all in all being the normal kids they are. They did calm down when everyone got silent, but I was nervous in the beginning, wishing I had remembered the Quiet Book.
Car yoga Rainbow loves doing yoga, and the last couple of trips I challenged her to try to figure out ways she could stretch her body and calm her mind while still in the carseat. She did Cat on Her Back/Cow on Her Back, Butterfly, Reach for the Sky, and made up some fun, goofy ones, like Paint the Windows and Reach for the Lights (the lights on the ceiling of our car have switches the kids love to play with when they're not buckled in, so they get really giggly trying to reach them from their carseats.)
Scented pillow Before we left on our trip, we were gathering our toys and books and activities that we'd be taking with us, and I found a scent pillow we had made for the fall season. We'd sewn three sides of a rectangle shape for a pillow, stuffed it with some old t-shirt bits in which we had rolled up some whole cloves, allspice berries and green cardamon pods, we finished sewing it up, then smashed it in order to release more scent. We use the pillows when we need a little change. We took the pillows with us, but I forgot about them and we intend to make some more for the next trip that are seasonally appropriate. We'll be using lavender and other things we come across at farmer's markets and fairs.
I hope these are helpful to you. A fun car trip is REALLY fun. A bad one... well, makes you wonder if you'll ever want to get in the car again. Better to keep the option of car tips in the future wide open. :)