You can hit the road with your family this summer without hitting the car roof.
The family road trip is legendary for meltdowns and grouchy parents. But the open road is actually a great place to disconnect all of those iPods, BlackBerrys, Game Boys and PDAs, relax and reconnect with family.
Instead of gadgets, the keys to a peaceful journey are relatively simple: a little planning; a lot of feedback from your kids; a handful of CDs; and a few old-school games.
“The process should really be more important than the destination,” says Bonnie Michaels, a leader of “Take Back Your Time,” a campaign dedicated to fighting overwork and over-scheduling. “Listen to what kids say, what they want to do, what they want to see.”
The road offers another payoff. In this era of hyperscheduled childhoods, kids need time to stare out car windows and become bored, experts say. Boredom spurs their creativity — maybe even conversation with their parents in the front seat, says Seattle-based psychologist Linda Young.
“They have forgotten what it’s like to do nothing,” adds Michaels, who also runs the Illinois-based company Managing Work & Family Inc. “You can’t be creative, you can’t be productive, unless you let your brain rest.”
Of course, no one suggests that parents let their kids stare out a car window for too long.
Road trips are a great time for parents to revisit their childhood with their own kids. Start a trip with a game of I Spy, 20 Questions or Buggy Punch. If you want a few more ideas, check out “Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games and Activities,” according to Seattle Public Library’s child development expert, Betsy Kluck-Keil.
“Don’t be afraid to go old-school — I’m talking Mad Libs,” says Andi Buchanan, author of the popular “The Daring Book for Girls.”
If you’re a quieter parent, audio books can get a family rolling. Plenty of titles are both kid- and adult-friendly, including the “Artemis Fowl” series, “Rabbit Ears Treasury of World Tales” and “Pippi Longstocking,” Kluck-Keil says. (Check age guidelines before playing.)
An audio book is a cheap road strategy because parents can download titles directly from Seattle Public Library’s Web site (www.spl.lib.wa.us), or check out books the old-fashioned way.
The one thing the road doesn’t offer, however, a chance to catch up with your spouse, says Christine Stepherson, a 41-year-old Seattle mother of two and veteran of dozens of family car trips.
“You don’t get to sit in the car and engage with your spouse,” says Stepherson, co-founder of Team Soapbox, a public relations firm. “You have to be engaged with your kids.”
Or, you might wait until your kids engage you.
“I have always found it’s in the silence that kids find the opportunity to talk to parents about important things on their minds,” Michaels says.
At some point, though, the conversation will wane or the audio book’s plot will drag, and that’s a great time to slap “kindie rock” — They Might Be Giants, Smoosh, Kimya Dawson and other bands kids love and parents enjoy — into the car stereo.
Kidcentric pop music is exploding these days, and one of the fresher offerings is “Wonderstuff” by Seattle’s Recess Monkey. At 81 minutes long, the rock opera offers both a story and music.
If parents want something familiar, they can pack “Schoolhouse Rock,” a collection of classic Saturday morning cartoon songs about everything from the number 8 to Wall Street.
For a change of pace, Stepherson rotates her traveling soundtrack, playing two songs from each traveler.
“Of course, it’s selfish. I don’t want to listen to the same one over and over again, even if they do,” Stepherson quips.
Videos remain popular with road-tripping parents, but Michaels recommends setting limits. Plus, once Dad plays a movie, the kids may clamor for DVDs the rest of the trip, Kluck-Keil observes.
“If you’re going somewhere of historical or natural interest, why not watch a documentary about it in the car? Say a National Geographic special on the Grand Canyon,” says Stephany Aulenback, who runs the craft and literary blog Crooked House (crookedhouse.typepad.com).
Aulenback also recommends creating picture books starring your child’s favorite stuffed animal. Snap digital photos of Teddy pumping gas, checking out the world’s largest ball of yarn, at the steering wheel or snoozing in the back seat, and create a picture book when you return home.
Picture books, scrapbooks and journals are great road toys. For example, your kids can collect postcards, and instead of mailing the cards, they can draw pictures, notes or stories from their trip.
Or, they can mail postcards to themselves and have mail and a story waiting for them when they get home, Aulenback said.
The list of car games is as long as the highway. But, there is one recurring piece of advice.
“For keeping your sanity as well as the kids — don’t try to go too fast or too far. Stop early, stop often, welcome the unexpected. Try to slow down and see things from your kids’ perspective,” Aulenback says.
ROAD TRIP SURVIVAL TIPS
Looking for ways to make your next family road trip more enjoyable? Asha Dornfest, who runs the popular parenting Web site Parent Hacks, suggests: