Traveling With Kids: Car Travel

How to keep your children happily entertained and learning as they ride in the car, even on long trips.

My sister and I grew up riding in the back seat of cars. I moved across the country with three children and later took five of them on vacation across the U.S. and back. We all share wonderfully happy memories from those days together in many different cars and trucks.

My sister and I each had a metal lunchbox we were allowed to pack for long car trips. The contents varied over the years, but were likely to include pencils, paper, crayon, a book, a doll or toy car, clay, empty film canisters for storing treasures such as the beautiful dead Junebugs found at my granddaddy's ranch in east Texas. Our cameras didn't have to live in the lunchbox, but we took those with us, too.

My children also had containers for traveling. Boxes, bags or backpacks, depending on the year, were stuffed with treasures to keep them happily occupied while cooped up. With six of them, there could be a wide variety of activities and interests.

Some of our favorite things, though, weren't packed into boxes or backpacks. They were the car games.

The Alphabet Game is the earliest game I remember playing. It can be played using only license plates, or using everything except license plates - signs, mailboxes, names of cars, even sky-writing if you should be so lucky as to drive past planes doing that.

Each person must find every letter of the alphabet, calling them out (not shouting, though) as they find them. The winner is whoever finds all 26 letters, in order, first.

Of course, there are many possible sidetracks in this game. Interesting colors of cars, birds on the fence that spark discussion of birds in general or which ones sit on fences. Morbid talk about why the hawks and the buzzards along country roads are quite so fat.

There are variations, too. License plates can be limited to those on red cars. Or on green cars. Or on out-of-state cars.

A side game we enjoyed on longer trips was seeing if we could - as a group - see a car from every state in the country. We had a list with us so we could check off each one as we saw it. There were years when we spent three weeks driving back and forth across the U.S. and still didn't see license plates from every state.

Back to the alphabet game, when looking everywhere except on license plates for the letters, sometimes we'd assign sides of the road and even set up teams. Left side of the car versus right side of the car. When driving in unfamiliar territory, there's no way to know ahead of time which side might have more signs.

Another variation on the alphabet game is to find something that begins with each letter of the alphabet as we were driving along. In order, usually, though sometimes we'd made a list of the alphabet and cross them off, if we were out in the middle of nowhere.

"A" could be apple tree, antenna, arrow pointing somewhere.

"B" might be barn, biplane, bush, bull.

"C" was not allowed to be car, as that would be too simple. All others were fair game, though, such as cat, candle (often seen in windows driving through towns), couch, chipmunk.

"X" was almost always a railroad crossing sign, because there just weren't other things out there with an "X" on them.

As the children grew older, other games evolved. Word games that could be played even in the dark were popular. Twenty Questions, based on the television show, gave an initial clue of animal, mineral or vegetable for the category. Sometimes this was the toughest part of the game and required help from a parent to determine the category. Then the other children would ask questions to be answered "yes" or "no" until either they guessed or were stumped.

There was name a geographic location when the next person had to name one that began with the letter yours ended with. The sequence might begin with Afghanistan, Norway, Yemen, Minneapolis, Sweden, New York, Korea and continue until the last person was stumped out of the game.

Or that same idea could be applied to words in general. Pick a word, any word, and the next person picks a word that begins with the letter yours ended with.

Or the Alphabet Game could be done with proper nouns.

Then there was "I'm taking a trip and I'm taking with me a "¦" which could be alphabetical or, to make it much tougher, in random order. Some of our trips would have required entire trains to carry everything. For example, "I'm taking a trip and I'm taking with me an aristocrat." The next person would add one item. "I'm taking a trip and I'm taking with me an aristocrat and a banana." Then, "I'm taking a trip and I'm taking with me an aristocrat, a banana and a chimney."

No matter which games we played, someone nearly always dropped out to read after a while. Nobody minded. One advantage to all those children was that there was usually still someone to play with.

Happy travels to you and your children. Hope you enjoy these games.

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