School is out and many families will hit the road for a summer vacation trip. The trip might involve a visit to someone in the family—grandparents, siblings, or cousins—to a friend's home, or it might involve a long-planned nature outing or trip to a theme park. Whatever the destination, travel with preschool children doesn't always offer the happy camaraderie featured in TV commercials. Instead, it can be difficult and stressful for the parents and a real drag for the kids. The sheer necessity of sitting strapped in for long periods when they are used to moving around a great deal can be frustrating for kids. They feel the fatigue of a long automobile trip just as we do. And, when they arrive, their usual routine is likely to be drastically altered. Sometimes a trip can be so stressful that, when you finally get back, you wonder why you left home in the first place.
I'm going to offer some suggestions for what might be called "De-toxing Travel"—taking out enough of the hassle and stress to make the experience bearable and hopefully more enjoyable. In the first part of this article I'll talk about the trip itself; in the second part, I'll offer some suggestions for making the events at your destination go more smoothly. For both parts of the journey, planning ahead is essential. We actually need to give plans for keeping the children happy and safe equal priority with things like motel reservations and packing and necessary car preparations. Incidentally, I am assuming that, if you have young children, you will travel the great American way— by car. When our children are little, most of us cannot afford a total family trip any other way.
It seems to me that, during any journey with little kids, we have three challenges: keeping them occupied, keeping them clean, keeping them cool. Here are a few suggestions that will help:
Keeping occupied. This is your biggest challenge. Mandatory seat belt use has so improved safety that any inconvenience they cause is more than acceptable. But they can make it difficult to keep young children occupied for a long journey. Furthermore, the head and neck protectors that are now standard on front seats make it harder for the adult passenger to turn around and interact with children in the back seat. (It goes without saying that, if you have only one preschool child in the car, you can help keep him or her occupied by riding in the back seat part of the time.)
During the packing period, let each preschool child choose toys to take on the trip and pack a small basket or box with them. Realize that what you pack to use during the trip should not have so many small pieces that, if one falls on the floor, the toy is no longer appealing (for example, puzzles are a definite no-no). So don't be timid about making suggestions: "No, the fire truck is too big to play with in the car. But if you really want to take it, we'll put it with the luggage and you can play with it at Grandma's." Dolls that can be dressed and undressed (even if one piece of clothing falls on the floor) are great.
Furthermore, they lend themselves to little dramas the kids can act out together. Toy phones are great, especially if you have two. When the noise level gets too high, suggest that they talk to one another on the phone. Or give you one phone so you can talk. Simple art supplies are excellent travelers, too. Save any computer paper you would otherwise waste, punch holes in it, and make a simple art notebook for each child. A hard-side notebook can be purchased in the school supply section of any drug store and not only holds the paper but provides a hard surface for coloring and drawing. If your child's creativity lags, feel free to make suggestions: draw a bridge, a cornfield, our van, etc. Then be sure to say, "We're going to show those pictures to Grandma when we get there." And don't forget to stuff in somewhere a waste container for products that don't please the artists.
Another way to help keep your children occupied on a trip is to make certain you don't withdraw totally from them. There is something hypnotic about driving along an interstate; you find yourself withdrawing and thinking your own thoughts. Be sure to involve yourself with the children some of the time—sing songs together, play word games, talk about what you will do when you arrive, etc. And take some of their tapes to play on the car tape deck.
Keeping clean. I don't need to remind you that this is a big part of travel. Often restrooms aren't clean, and little hands always seem to touch forbidden spots. Keep a big box of wet wipes right beside you on the front seat. Use them to wipe off toilet seats and to scrub hands afterward. And make sure the kids wash their hands with them before eating. What's the first thing you do when your food comes at a restaurant? You pick something up (a roll, a sandwich), so you want to have those little hands clean before they touch a sandwich or a French fry and stuff it in their mouths. Set a good example for your children by always using the wet wipes yourself. (I never travel without a package of them and a bottle of liquid sanitizer in my purse.)
At stops for gasoline and restroom breaks, use the opportunity to pick up dropped toys and put them back in their basket—making certain you return the dropped red crayon to the correct box so one child won't have two reds and another none, because that's grounds for a half hour of whining and complaining! If you take a few minutes to reorganize at each stop, the car won't be in a total state of disarray when you arrive.
Keeping cool. Why do little kids always seem to fight when they're in the carâ€¦even children who usually get along with one another pretty well? Probably because of the long periods of forced inactivity. Preschool children stay in movement much of the time, and being confined for long periods in a car seat is hard on them. When we are on a car trip, it's easy for the adults to get into a hurry hurry hurry mode—we've got to reach a certain motel by 5:00; they're expecting us for dinner at 7:00. Allow some time in the travel schedule to let the kids move around a bit. At every gas stop, go the long way to the restroom. At lunch time, let them go out and play on the climbing equipment a little while. (Fast food restaurants are well aware of the appeal of such an opportunity as a way of influencing parents where to stop.) Save what they don't eat in a doggie bag and give it to them later in the car. Also, quite apart from restaurant left-overs, make sure you have plenty of snacks in the car: nothing soothes a cranky child faster than a favorite cookie, crumbs on the floor notwithstanding. Finally, try to keep cool yourself. If you get an edge to your voice, your kids will pick up on it immediately and raise their own noise level accordingly.
So, happy trails. But it's not all over when you pull the car into the driveway. In Part II of this article, "At Your Destination," I offer suggestions about ways to make the visit itself a happy experience for all.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.