I think it’s fair to say that kids have a lot more options these days to stay entertained in the car on a road trip. What did we have? Books. Pen and paper. A Walkman, if we were lucky. And eventually, a boredom that ran deep enough to make the alphabet licence plate game sound like a good idea.
Now our kids have tablets and portable DVD players and gaming devices to help pass the time. But there are many reasons why screens still aren’t the be-all-end-all road trip saviour. Little kids won’t be on electronics as much as older kids. Screens in the car might make your kid carsick (if so, I feel your pain). Or maybe you just don’t want to start a trip off with seven straight hours of screen time.
Even so, no parent looks forward to answering “How many more minutes?” when you’re only 17 minutes into a 600-kilometre trip. Rachel Garlinghouse writes for Scary Mummy that she does let her four kids (two tweens, a first-grader and a preschooler) have electronics in the car on road trips—but not the whole time. She wants them to alternate their screen time with some screen-free time, too.
So Garlinghouse came up with a new plan: There would be “screen time” and there would be “backpack time.” She picked an old backpack for each of her children (these were old school backpacks that had been replaced over the years) and stuffed them full of a variety of activities. To start: colouring books, spiral notebooks, stickers, and an assortment of markers, crayons and pencils.
Next up—books. I raided each kiddo’s room. I grabbed old favourites as well as ones that had fallen behind their shelves that they’d forgotten about. I also found a few magazines. Additional hack: toy catalogues that come in the mail this time of year are amazing for occupying children.
She also added some travel games, fidget toys, action figures and other car-friendly toys. She topped the backpacks off with a new surprise or two, which you can wrap to make it seem extra special. To delight little kids, stick in a $1 package of holiday window clings to decorate their car window (over and over) while you drive.
Garlinghouse has become a pro at this; most of what she packs are items the kids already own—they’ve just been forgotten or overlooked long enough that they seem fresh again in the context of the road trip backpack. And while some kids might think they’d rather pack their own bag—usually with the most random selection of items or whatever happens to be nearby when it’s time to pack—you know what is most likely to hold their attention in a car for more than a few minutes. And kids like to be surprised.
My kids anticipate them—every single trip. It’s like Christmas morning, in the car, with their own (forgotten) items. And they require little from me. Yes, I clean them out once in a while, maybe adding in something new or taking out something they no longer are interested in.
Plus, it’s more pleasant for everyone involved to replace “OK, turn those screens off!” with “Hey, it’s ‘Backpack Time!’”