My friend Heather is moving across the entire country with children aged almost-3 and almost-5. If I were her I would say that as “ages 2 and 4,” to maximize the Pity Factor.
She is looking for ideas to keep the children entertained on the trip. If your first suggestion is “OMG don’t do it at all! Fly instead!! With the children in animal crates!!” you can save your breath because I already tried it. They will be in the car at least six days, and that is final.
I suggest we see if we can make this easier for her in any way. Donations of prescription medications would be excellent too, but I was thinking more along the lines of travel tips and toy ideas.
My tip, based on taking two much-shorter trips (1.5-days in the car each trip) with a 2-year-old and a newborn, is to plan to stop at places that have a play area or a grassy run-around area, and include in estimated trip time the amount of time it would take for the kids to run/play/climb for 15 minutes or so at each stop. Plus assume triple the number of stops needed with adults. This makes the entire trip take much, much longer.
My second tip is to save some stuff aside and not bring out everything on the first day of travel, or else the children will play frantically with all the toys on the first day and be bored for the rest of the trip. (This is a pointless tip, because if it were me, I’d be desperate enough on the first day to bring out anything, ANYTHING I had.)
Now for things to buy:
1. Fresh TV/movies. Heather tells me that they already have a DVD player for the car, so I suggest buying several new DVDs. …This doesn’t seem like it’s brilliant enough to suggest, but that didn’t stop me from suggesting the kids could run around at rest stops. Blue’s Clues (photo from Amazon.com) is one of the ones I got for the just-turned-2-year-old on my own trip, so it may be too young for the 2- and 4-year-olds—but anything, ANYTHING they would like that wouldn’t be intolerable for the adults.
2. Water-drawing thingie. The H-2 Whoa is the one we had. It’s two-sided, so by the time you finish drawing on the second side, the first side is mostly dry and ready to use again. But if I were buying now, I’d buy the travel-sized Aqua Doodle (photo from Amazon.com). (In fact, I DID buy it, and we still keep it in our car. I like it less because it has pre-printed rainbows/grass on it, which can kind of ruin an outer space drawing. But it IS more sensibly compact.)
3. Findy thing. We have a Find It (photo from Amazon.com) and it’s one of the few toys we still own because it still gets played with. There’s also a pillow-type version by Iplay. Crafty people could find instructions online for sewing one themselves, or making one out of a soda bottle.
4. Brain Quest cards. I like these flashcard/activity sets because they’re all in linked bundles so the cards don’t get scattered everywhere, and because I’ve found that I can do them with a child for a surprisingly long time without wanting to leap from a moving car. Here are links to the age 2-3 set and the age 3-4 set and the age 4-5 set.
5. Coloring stuff. (Photos from Amazon.com.) There are a lot of travel-coloring options. Some are the Color Wonder type, which work great but have so few pieces of super-expensive paper. Some are dry-erase with bad reviews. My own favorite is a notebook or sketchpad: the pieces stay together, and they’re cheap, and they can be a novelty to a child accustomed to loose sheets of paper. Colored pencils are least likely to end up all over clothing or melted into the upholstery, but they’ll need sharpening so remember to bring a sharpener. I’ve given the Melissa and Doug triangular ones as gifts (with coloring/activity books) because they look so cool, but I don’t know if they’re any better than a set of Crayola.
6. CDs. Choose wrong (i.e. an album you end up hating but the children end up wanting on endless repeat) and you will want to remove your own ears. But choose right (i.e., an album you don’t mind and the children like) and you will buy yourself, if not peace, at least a CHANGE in the KIND of noise. We bought this Phineas and Ferb album (photo from Amazon.com) last summer, and it mostly kept the children from bickering when we spent an hour in the car each day driving to and from one child’s summer day camp.
7. Active stuff for the hotel. There isn’t a ton of space for running around in a hotel room, but it’s more space than in the car. I brought an inflatable beach ball (photo from Amazon.com) for the hotel: nice and small when deflated, and can be kicked or thrown into the side of your face while you’re trying to lie down for just a minute after a long day in the car.
8. WaterWow. WaterWow is a reusable paint-with-water: the picture colors itself in as you “paint” it with plain water, and then when it dries it’s uncolored again. I’m linking to the Thomas the Tank Engine WaterWow (photo from Amazon.com) because I know Heather’s son loves Thomas, but I’d look for it in the store: on Amazon, that one is nearly twice the price of some of the others, and then shipping on top of THAT. The Hero Squad one and the princess one are less expensive and have free shipping.
9. Hand-held gaming thing. Heather has a kid iPad with games, and that may be enough (though she anticipates arguments about whose turn it is to use it). I very reluctantly recommend a Leapster, too (photo from Amazon.com). Setting that gol-danged thing up made me cry and want to break things (starting with the Leapster itself, and ending with whichever employees at Leapfrog designed and tested the set-up procedure), but ONCE THAT WAS DONE it has become a great toy and the kids use it a lot. And since the toy is a little older, a lot of the games are really cheap now: Up for $7, Ni Hao Kai-Lan for $6.50, Ratatouille for $8.75, and so on. (Some others are nice and low but have shipping charges—but if you found several from the same seller and could combine shipping, it would still be a good deal.)
10. Pretty much any electronic toy they don’t already have and aren’t too old for. There’s usually a whole aisle at the store of toy laptops and electronic instruments and story-telling stuffed animals and learn-to-write pads and so forth, and I would just LOAD UP. (Also load up on replacement batteries.) Henry has played with this dog guitar (photo from Amazon.com) in the shopping cart more times than I would have suspected possible, and I can report that it is (1) kind of annoying but (2) not as annoying as when he’s NOT playing with it.
11. Book of travel game ideas.. I think I’d look first at the library: it’s hard to tell which of the “car games” search results are good. If the library didn’t have any to read-before-buying, I’d read the reviews of each book to see which sounded like the best fit. It looks like the main trouble is that a lot of the ideas/games are for older kids. You might have better luck looking at books that aren’t specifically meant for car travel, but just have a lot of ideas for entertaining toddlers/preschoolers. (All three linked photos from Amazon.com. I think I’d need to tear the cover off that last one because it is giving me a little bit of a headache just looking at it. Let me guess: it contains instructions for singing “99 Bottles of MILK on the Wall!”)
Okay, I think that is all my ideas. All I can do now is send wave after wave of panicky empathy in Heather’s direction—and also send her all of you, to give her more tips and ideas. (SIX DAYS in the car. SIX.)