Have you ever threatened to pull over and make a child get out of your car because she began one sentence too many with the words “I spy”?
I’ve come close to snapping like that during family road trips. Maybe it’s just me, but I needed some new car games, or at least twists on some old ones. My kids deserve better choices during long drives, and so do yours.
Give props to the license plate game.
Yes, this game’s been around as long as the automobile itself, but for good reason. It’s got what video game aficionados call “playability.” The basic alphabet version involves “finding every letter in order on license plates,” and if traffic thins you can extend play to road signs, notes editor Lisa DeLisle, a mom and the sixth of seven siblings.
Trying to spot license plates for all fifty U.S. states is the variation mother of two and travel writer Kathryn McKay began playing years ago, keeping track of them on scrap paper until the day her husband gave her the book "Nifty Plates from the Fifty States", which comes with a pad whose every page lists all the states, a check box next to each “so when I'm riding with a car full of kids, each child can have his or her own sheet to fill out,” McKay says. During one particularly long drive the kids were “amazed at how easy it was to ‘collect’ plates on I-95. Within an hour, their sheets were almost half full,” she says, adding that spotting Alaska and Hawaii plates on the mainland is not as hard as you might think, though finding Nevada and North Dakota plates has been an issue. “It usually takes me a year to get them all,” she says.
A twist on the game is to give each kid in the car a map of the United States. “But instead of writing down the name of each state as we'd spot it, my kids would color that state in on the map. It was super for teaching them geography,” says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, mother of three and editor-in-chief of family travel site WeJustGotBack.com.
Play with the radio.
Do you have one of those new-fangled scan functions on your car radio? Then fasten your seat belts and prepare to play “Catch That Song,” included in the iPhone app "Family Car Games" created by Ruth Greenwood, her husband, and their two teens. The object of the song game is to start “at the bottom of the dial and count how many songs anyone in the family can identify,” Greenwood says, adding that “when we play, there's a lot of exasperated ‘Oh! Oh! I know that! I know that!’ before the scanner moves onto the next song.”
As for the rules, “tune the radio to the bottom of the FM dial [and] push the 'scan' button,” explains Greenwood. “Every time you hear a song that you can name the title of, call it out and award yourself one point; every time you know the singer, band or composer, award yourself one point.
If you know both the song name and artist, you get three points.” She suggests appointing a point counter, “usually the most cool-headed contestant.”
Dry-erase boards and portable magnetic games are fine to pack, but their playability is somewhat limited, and age-specific mini-board games in particular can be a challenge when you have a wide age spread among your children. If the driver and passenger seats are backed with fabric, kids up to the age of seven might enjoy sticking cut-out felt shapes on the backs of the seats. No felt handy? Pack a few pads of different-sized sticky notes. You’ll be surprised at how quiet the kids are while they’re scribbling on every sheet or mindlessly sticking notes on every available surface or sibling.
Another handy item: pipe cleaners. On a recent road trip, Traveling Mamas blogger Beth Blair says, “it was the best thing I could have brought along. The kids played for hours with them, creating everything from flowers to monsters. I even made them eyeglasses.” By the way, I never knew as a kid that smokers actually used pipe cleaners to clean pipes, which is a question you might incorporate into some homemade trivia cards, a highly portable and economical diversion.
Make the kids think.
Put your older passengers to work. “For the past few car trips, I've designated my two oldest kids our navigators and put them in charge of the GPS, a map, and directions,” says Kelleher. “Then I literally let them get us there by telling me when to watch out for turns, upcoming exits off the highway, how much further on Highway X, and so on.” Bring an extra set of directions for yourself, she says, just in case.
The best car games sometimes involve cars themselves. Recalls DeLisle, “When I was a kid we used to have to identify all the car models--my dad was a mechanic, so he schooled us on that stuff, and we had to make him proud - not just the manufacturer, like Chevy or Ford, but Camaro, Chevelle, Impala, Bel-Air, Nova, Mustang, Fairlane, Corvair.”
And yes, even “I spy” can be tolerated with a few twists. “Last summer we hauled the kids on a 12-day road trip up the California coast,” Blair recounts. “Because they were so little we…played a ton of ‘I spy’ but not with colors. We looked for things like flags, animals, boats, trains, surfers, and bridges.”
Work in all these games when you hit the road and the next time someone asks “Are we there yet,” you just might be.