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5 Ways to engage small children on long trips this winter

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Cecilia Pigg - published on 11/24/21

Heading somewhere for the holidays? Keep your little ones occupied with these screen-free ideas.

Traveling to Uncle John’s for Thanksgiving this week? What about Grandma’s for Christmas next month? The older the child, the more adept he or she usually is at entertaining or distracting himself from the monotony of travel. However, little kids have a harder time and even screens don’t always hold their attention for long.

Here are some screen-free options to try on your next long trip with little ones…  

20 questions

This game is the one where you think of something and the other person asks yes or no questions until he or she guesses what you’re thinking. And then you can switch roles.

To help pull your child into the game, decide on an appealing category. Maybe your daughter really loves school, or your son loves Paw Patrol. “Things you can find in your classroom” or “your favorite snacks” might be good options for categories. Try this card game called Guess in 10 to engage kids with pictures as you or they guess. 

“What’s your favorite…”

When I’m driving with another adult and one of us is tired, we usually try to find something lively to talk about to stay alert and focused. You can do this with children as well, it just requires starting a different kind of conversation.

Some topics to try: name things in different categories (how many zoo animals can you think of?), create lists of rhyming words, see who can come up with the silliest story. When you find something that clicks, kids are entertained for a long time and it squashes all the bickering or “are we there yet?” questions. So, don’t give up if the first topic doesn’t work. Keep trying! 

Audio books

Often, audio books interest a wide variety of ages, including Mom and Dad. Plus, when you pause a book on tape you usually don’t see the screen withdrawal grumpiness that happens when you pause a movie. 

Not all kids are ready for audio books when they’re young, however. Some books and casts or narrators are harder to follow than others. Here are a few audio books that seem to engage even little kids well (always rent or buy more than you need in case one falls flat):Paddington, Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Web, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Boxcar Children, Adventures in Odyssey, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle Adventures.

Singing 

A trip is a great time to practice Christmas carols. If you’re excitedly singing along, it might just inject everyone with a happy mood to while away the hours. This might also be a great time to have your kids teach you songs from school or songs from television shows that they love. Kids get stir crazy when they’re bored. Empowering them to teach you something keeps them happily engaged AND getting the adult attention and interest they crave.

Intentional snack time

Snack time in the car is a great time for learning games. I remember fondly the car trip where I practiced speech therapy homework with my 4 year-old. Every time he enunciated a sound correctly he got a small piece of an animal cracker (like a leg, or an ear). He loved seeing what animal body part he would get, and I loved how few animal crackers were actually consumed by the end of the game. Learning games with snack rewards help make the inevitable munchies session educational and intentional. If there is a concept your child is struggling with, be it colors, shapes, numbers, etc. Google a few ideas for games to play in the car before you go.

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