“Are we there yet?”
“How much longer?”
“Stop kicking the seat!”
“Leave your brother alone!”
“But he's sticking his tongue out at me!”
“I’m soooo bored!”
Car rides, whether they're five minutes or five hours, are notorious for causing upsets.
It’s not surprising when you think about it. Once strapped into their seat, children are restricted from the movement they need, they can sense the loss of our attention as it drifts away (sometimes toward the road, but often into our own thoughts), and they lose the physical closeness that can also provide reassurance.
This combo of restraint and disconnection is the perfect recipe for frustration!
It's easy to turn to screens to distract our kiddos at times like these but often their feelings of disconnection remain, lingering under the surface, waiting to come out once we park the car or get back home.
If you're bored with alphabet and license plate games, and are stuck for what else to try, these fresh ideas to make car rides (of any length) a time for connection and bond-building for you and your children.
It's not too hard to get laughter going, engage your child's creativity and attention, and even strengthen your relationship all while in the car.
Try this before you head out
Take some one-on-one time or rough and tumble play time with your child(ren) before you head out the door. You might offer a five-minute Special Time if you have just one kiddo, or a quick game of “fill up your tank” where you chase your kiddos around the house or yard trying to plant kisses or offer hugs to fill up their connection “tanks” before going. Some exercise and laughter can help children feel more settled getting into the car.
Get the giggles going
Once they’re in the car, Hand in Hand Instructor Lauren Fine, of Parenting for Joy and Justice, gets the giggles going by engaging her preschooler in fun sound effects when on the road. “We squeal when on hills and going around corners,” she says.
“On country roads we play a game called “criss-cross” where we say “criss-cross” whenever a car passes us going in the opposite direction. When it's a big vehicle, we say it in a deeper voice, and if it's a smaller car, we say it in a higher voice.”
Games like these can quickly become family traditions that help kids look forward to the special moments of being in the car together.
Add your own unique twist and see what gets your kiddos laughing on your next drive.
Roll on with roleplay
Young children make sense of their world and integrate new learning through their play. We often see this as children play make-believe games at home or school, but the car is no different. Fine adds, “In the last few months my daughter has started “helping” me drive. From her car seat, she asks about what I'm doing with the pedals and steering wheel, and pretends to do it too. And if it's a familiar route, she gives me lots of reminders!”
Hand over the power
It's not surprising that sitting strapped in a car seat can stir up a child's feelings of powerlessness.
To help counter that feeling, play games that bolster your child's confidence just like you would when you Playlisten at home. Adrianne Kmet, a Hand in Hand Instructor-in-training and the Neurodiversity Nurse at Discover Autism, takes familiar games like I-Spy and makes sure to be the “hopeless spotter” letting her kids be the best at spotting things. She says they get lots of good laughs at what mom “misses” along the way.
She also adds in collaborative games that bring the family together. She says, “We spent a few months counting from 0 to 100 by looking at license plates. We had to find the numbers in order and it led to hours of fun. We even drove around the block extra times knowing that we had spotted the number we were looking for! We also like taking a guess on how far we are from home and then count down out loud together. It builds really fun anticipation and we find it hysterical if we win or if we're way off.”
Car rides can also be a great time for sparking engaging conversations with your kids, where you all get to learn new things about each other. Hand in Hand Instructor Blake Adams says his family likes starting conversations with interesting questions like:
- “Do you believe in UFOs?”
- “If you had to give up pizza, hot dogs, or hamburgers which would you choose?”
- “Would you rather spend the day as a fish or a bird?”
“We also like improv games,” he says. “We tell a story together and each person takes a turn to add a set number of words (maybe five) before passing it on to someone else to continue. Other times we'll try speaking only in questions to each other.”
You can also try popular games that your kids may already know, like two truths and a lie. In this game you share two things that are true about you and one thing that's false and see who can guess what the lie is. This can be a fun way for everyone to learn more about each other and open up interesting conversations.
Burn off that energy
On really long drives, frequent stops can help to burn off excess energy and keep your children feeling connected. Adams says, “We play some version of tag during almost every stop we make. I think the physical activity and laughter helps our long drives go well.”
Children need breaks for movement and a chance to feel some closeness with their parents. A good game of tag or a vigorous snuggle can be just enough to refill your child’s cup before you get back on the road. Think about it; you wouldn’t expect your car to keep humming along on empty!
Plan frequent breaks into your road trip. You could even make your own list of connection activities where you choose a different, short game for each stop to keep things interesting.
To help beat the car seat blues closer to home Kmet says, “When we arrive in our quiet neighborhood, the kids love to get out of the car and run on the sidewalk to “beat” me home. It's really fun and helps the kids feel fast and powerful.”
Play off your child's interests
Priya Raghav, a Hand in Hand Instructor and Play Therapist at Play it Out! in Seattle, Washington use fun games that engage her school-age son's interests.
She says, “At one point he was so into planes, we filled up a full car ride playing word games with an airport theme. For example, someone says ‘plane' then the next person has to think of a word that has the “N” sound (or begins with an “E”) AND connect it to the theme.”
When they got stumped trying to think of a word they'd make up silly words to keep the game going.
“We also play number games where we count up from one, and at every multiple of four (for example) we say ‘poop' or something else silly,” Raghav adds. Or simplify it by inserting a silly word at every other number.
For younger children, it might be just thinking of all the words associated with what they love. For example, what are all the words they can think of that relate to horses, trains, superheroes or princesses?
Number games can also be simplified by inserting a silly word every other number.
If you’re playing along, be sure to “mess” up and see if this gets the giggles going for your child.
Create a laugh-out-loud playlist
A good playlist is essential for long drives, but if you’re feeling tired of the same old tunes, try some new ideas to create your own playlist.
For some good laughs try singing nursery rhymes with different emotions. What does a sad version of Mary Had a Little Lamb sound like? What about an angry Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star or an excited Baa Baa Black Sheep? Take turns picking songs and emotions to get the laughter going with dramatic flair!
Older kids can have a blast making their own parodies of popular songs. A couple years ago we watched the hours fly by as our eldest daughter worked on a parody to Katy Perry’s song Firework that went “Baby, do your tires work?!” It was perfect for the long drive as we brainstormed all about tires and driving and worked the ideas into the song.
So, when should you pull over the car?
Despite your best efforts to connect, sometimes hard feelings are going to erupt.
If things are out of hand, go ahead and pull the car over. But instead of disconnecting more with yelling or lectures, use this time to RECONNECT with listening, play, and affection. For inspiration you can read Hand in Hand Instructor Tara Brown’s story of how listening partnerships helped her tackle sibling fighting in the car.
Car rides don’t have to be a drag. (We promise!)
Remember these 3 simple tips and you'll hear less complaints and stay connected on your road trips
- Fill your child’s tank before you go (a little Special Time or Playlistening can work wonders!)
- The longer the trip, the more breaks you need to take for physical play and connection.
- While you’re on the road, try out some of the ideas here for connecting conversations, engaging your child’s creativity and attention, and most importantly, getting the laughter going!
Want more support for your work as a parent? Join Michelle in her upcoming Starter Class. In this six-week course you'll learn how to ease power struggles, navigate tantrums, and bring more fun into your parenting.
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