Surviving the Family Road Trip With Fun, Surprise Envelopes!

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Apple pie.  The American flag.  The family road trip.

All long-standing American traditions, and this summer the Paranoid Dad and I decided to maintain the tradition of the road trip.  It was our turn to pack up the kids and head east to a family wedding in Texas.  We would be driving some 2,400 miles, round trip, with a 7 year old and a 10 year old and two 40-somethings whose first question upon arriving at a hotel is, “Are the beds any good?”   If we planned well enough and were organized enough, what could possibly go wrong?

In order to save money, we decided to eat out only once a day, if that.  I did some research on the internet and came up with a list of foods that travel well.  You can read about those here.

My main concern wasn’t food, though.  It was the sanity of my two kids.  Their sanity directly impacts my own, and I searched for ways to keep them busy during the 32 hour round trip.  Here is what helped keep the kids occupied and happy:


The Tahoe became a veritable Las Vegas for kids, and I’m only slightly joking.

The most popular idea I came up with was four large envelopes marked, “Surprise!”  I planned on two of them being opened on the trip to Texas and the other two on the way home.  I hadn’t put anything fancy in the envelopes.  It wasn’t like a rabbit was going to pop out and perform a magic show for the kids, but they loved it anyway.  I’m willing to share these top secret ideas with you, but you have to promise to let me know what worked for you and what didn’t!

Surprise Envelope #1:

Remember back in elementary school when you learned how to make all sorts of designs using just your fingers and a loop of string?  Well, directions for making all sorts of String Figures can be found on the web.  I printed directions for several different designs and put them in this first envelope, along with two loops of yarn.  Each loop was about 28″ long.  The kids LOVED this!  Although they had some difficulty following the directions, they ended up inventing their own designs off and on through the entire trip.

Surprise Envelope #2:

My kids only knew two card games prior to this road trip: Go Fish and War.  I figured that another simple game or two might keep them busy for a while, and I was right.  I tracked down written directions for Crazy Eights and Old Maid and put them in the second envelope, along with a new deck of cards.  Ha!  I hit a second  home run with this one!  My son kept whipping out the deck of cards at the hotel, the rehearsal dinner, just about anywhere and asking, “Ya wanna play Crazy Eights??”

Surprise Envelope #3:

By this time, the kids couldn’t wait for their third surprise.  This time it was Cootie Catchers!  They had seen these before but had never made their own.  I printed out a template, along with a list of suggested “fortunes”, and they got busy.  The only tools they needed were a pair of children’s scissors, which I had packed, and a pencil.  They had a lot of fun creating their Catchers and playing with them.  By this time, I felt like I had hit three home runs!  I was nearly SuperMom!

Surprise Envelope #4:

A few months ago, out of the desperate need to keep my kids from arguing in the car, I started a “Family Favorites” game.  I began asking about their favorite board game, their favorite color, and their favorite pizza restaurant.  For this trip, I formalized the game a bit by creating a list of Family Favorites questions.  This list was their Surprise #4.  It took about an hour for us to get through all the questions, but it was time well spent.  Everyone has the chance to voice their opinion, and it opened up some fun discussions.  If you’d like to make your own Family Favorites, here are a few of the categories on my list to get you started.

What is your favorite…

Movie?   Superhero?   Book?   Water park?  Flower?   Season?   Pizza place?   Sports mascot?

Dessert?  Color?  Website?  Holiday?  Vacation?  Mammal?  Vegetable?  Wii game?   Sport to watch?

Sport?   Bird?   Soda?   School subject?   Home we’ve lived in?   Field trip?   Cartoon character?

In addition to these Surprise Envelopes, I created Activity Binders for each kid.  The binder contained coloring pages I printed from the internet, word searches and other puzzles, travel games, a map of our route, blank paper for drawing, notebook paper for journaling, math fact quizzes, workbook pages from various school workbooks, and a checklist in the front of, “Things To Do.”

The checklist included the game, “Is there a town in Texas?”  Yet another invented game, it’s one of my kids’ favorites, and they beg to play it.  Did you know there are towns in Texas with names like Joy, Lawn, Earth, and Melissa?  Neither did my kids, and that’s how the game began.  Using the list of towns on a state road map, I find unusual town names and ask, “Is there a town in Texas named _____?”  Each person votes either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and a point is given for each correct guess.  Every so often I make up a town name of my own to really keep them guessing.  This time around I had glo-sticks for the first and second place winners, and coincidentally, that’s exactly what we ended up with!  This game requires only a road map of any state and paper for keeping score.  Cheap, fun, and easy.  Just like their mother!

To fill in any possible empty hours, I checked out an audiobook from the library, and each kid brought two or three books to read.  Having a DVD system in the car also helped, although surprisingly, they watched only a total of five videos.   All of this, combined with their favorite pillow and blanket, made for a couple of happy and content kids.

The best thing about these car activities?  Everything was virtually free.  I used three-ring binders we already had around the house, loops of yarn from my knitting stash, and purchased only the deck of cards.  Six hours of my time prior to the trip bought over thirty hours with happy kids.  I’d say that’s a bargain, any way you look at it!

9 thoughts on “Surviving the Family Road Trip With Fun, Surprise Envelopes!”

  1. pay cash advance

    Sounds like you were preapred for the trip. I have been itching to get out of town, but I cannot think of my husband and our 4 year old behaving in a car for a road trip. You have some great ideas mind if I steal some of them, I'll go insane in mu house any longer.

  2. These are GREAT ideas!

    We take hymnals and sing some each day… not just hymns, but that usually gets us started (it's a 3 or 4 day trip to Grandma's). We like to play the ABC game (first look for an "A" on the signs, then a "B", all in alphabetical order). Because we have such a variety of ages, (17, 16, 13, 9, 6 and 4) we all play together instead of 'against' each other. Four of our children are avid readers and all pack a couple of books (or so) for trips. Most everyone is content watching out the window some time each day–especially if we can point out sights to see. Or something interesting. Everyone packs a pillow for nap time and we either walk or swim in the evening to wear everyone out for a decent night's sleep.

    I NEVER thought we'd watch videos on the road, BUT our last long trip, my dad had given us an old laptop, my husband needed an A/C adapter/inverter?, so he got it early for the trip and our then-11-year-old son bought a set of Cisco Kid DVDs in in the $5 bin at Walmart. It was fun to listen to the children giggle together during 'movie' time!

  3. I like those ideas. I may use some for an upcoming trip to the beach.

    We have one other I made. (We have two boys.) Car BINGO! I went online and got pictures of all different car logos and a bunch of street signs. I made an Excel grid with big more-or-less squares and put the pics in them. I made some squares just a block of color for, say, and "red" vehicle, and some were generic pictures like "truck". I put them into the plastic "presentation pages" or "sheet savers" that go in three ring binders. The kids like them. They haven't really played them yet, but they can mark on the plastic sheets which will then be cleaned (hopefully) and reused. I made six different pages so they can both use different ones. Obviously, you can personalize for your trip and your families age and interests.

    Also, you know those clipboards that contractors use – the metal ones with storage space for papers and a few pens when you open them? They work well to hold art supplies on long trips, and make a good base for Bendaroos projects. (You can buy Bendaroos at Bed Bath and Beyond, and use their 20% off coupon from the mail.)

  4. Reading out loud is good, too, especially a book about the area you are traveling to or through.

    Pencil and paper Battleship (google it for printouts and instructions).

  5. Hi Lisa, I just read about the Wilderness Survival For Kids class. Where is this class held? What day? What time? When I clicked on the "registration" link, I was taken to a blank page.

    1. Thanks for letting me know. I'll take that link out. I used to teach those classes at a Cabela's a couple of years ago. It was a lot of fun.

  6. What other kinds of things did you put on your "things to do list"? Just curious! I am planning on doing all of these on our next road trip in May. Thank you for posting!!

  7. We travel with our 5 kids all the time, and believe me, keeping them occupied is a priority. Not having more kids is another priority. We make sure we have lots of audiobooks on their ipods. It’s so much better than having them watch a dvd. There are lots of great sites to download them, but we use this site a lot because it’s free and the stories are all original. This is the link if anyone is interested.

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