Travelling with Kids

A very wise person once gave valuable advice regarding travelling with kids:  DON’T!

However, since I never had any intention of sitting around at home until my kids turned 21 or moved into their own homes, I’ve had to make the best of a bad situation and learn how to make a car trip a pleasant, memorable experience for all concerned.

I don’t remember much about travelling with Nicole (my now 8-year old daughter) before she was 3.  I know we did it and I know we survived unscathed (apart from an episode where she threw up in the car just outside Riversdale because of the heat – we didn’t have air conditioning in those days.)  But when Philip was 16 months old, and Nicole just over 3, we decided it was time to take Philip to Durban to introduce him to the family there.  We live in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, and at the time we were unable to travel the 25km to visit grandparents in Stellenbosch without Philip screaming the whole way, so naturally I was very, very apprehensive about the upcoming trip.  We planned to leave early in the morning and travel to Colesburg, just under 800km from home.  800km of Philip screaming would make this trip excruciatingly long.   However, I doubt he yelled for more than 10 minutes during the entire trip of 3800km!  Since that trip to Durban we have done a tour of the country – Kimberley, Johannesburg, Kruger Park, Maluti mountains, Beaufort West, home.  We have also done another 2 trips to Durban and numerous visits to the Garden Route and family in Somerset East and Prince Albert.  And always by car.  Flying is just too expensive when you have a family of 4, and still need to hire a car when you get to the other end.  And in spite of all those kilometers, I’m still sane.  Well, as sane as I ever was.

Wisdom of Experience
So what wisdoms have I managed to come up with over the years?  Here’s what works for me.

Firstly, your holiday usually costs a small fortune (even if all you’re paying for is petrol!), and you don’t want it ruined just because your kids are unhappy travellers.  So prepare to spend a few rand on making the journey more bearable.  As soon as you start planning your trip, start visiting all those cheap-and-nasty toy-selling places you never set foot in because the toys only last a few hours … In the car, a few hours are all you need, and variety is the spice of life.  We’re looking for quantity rather than quality.  Small children get bored easily.   Build up a supply of new treats for the journey.  Things that work for me are those “water arcade games” where you press a button and the water pressure forces balls through a hoop or rings onto a stick.  My kids had some of these in the shape of a cellphone, so that served a double purpose.  They could pretend to be phoning Granny or Grandpa or Mommy and have looooong conversations to pass the time.  Another gem is a drawing board.  You know the ones I mean?  The small magnetic ones which wipe clean.  The kids loved drawing on them, or handing them to Mommy so that she could “Draw Pooh-bear please!”  Then they would delight in wiping out my masterpiece and handing it back to me so that I could do it again.  As they got older, they would start drawing their own pictures.  I also had a couple of hand-puppets, which I would hold over my shoulder or in the gap between the front seats and entertain them with a puppet show.  Something else which worked wonders was a “slinky”.  I really never expected it to be such a hit, but it was!  Many, many happy kilometers were spent pulling the spring apart, and watching it spring back together.  You know what they say about small things and small minds …  A cheap calculator will also perform miracles.  Small children all seem to like pressing buttons and seeing things happen, and calculators allow them to do this without the sound effects that accompany so many children’s toys and could be distracting to the driver.

Power of Music
Don’t underestimate the power of music.  Children happily singing along to their favourite tunes will pass hours in the car without realising it.  Just a word of (general) advice – whatever cd you buy for your child, screen it before you play it for your child!  Do YOU like the music?  If you don’t, throw it away!   There is plenty of good children’s music out there.  Keep searching till you find some you like.  The idea of making the journey enjoyable for your kids is so that you will have an enjoyable trip too.  I’m sorry, but I won’t enjoy the trip if I have to listen to “Old MacDonald had a Farm”, but we have a number of other children’s cds which I would even consider listening to without having the kids around!  (Pooh’s 40 Funtime Favourites comes to mind.)  Stories on cds also work well for the slightly older preschooler or young child.

Many parents also say they take a portable dvd player and put on a movie for the children, or use handheld computer games.  This might work, but I don’t have the dvd player and my daughter suffers from motion sickness, so I tend to stay away from things like that which might aggravate her condition.  I have, however, taken paper and pencils and allowed them to be artistic while we travel.  This also keeps them occupied and happy for quite a while and doesn’t seem to make her car-sick.  Of course, my bookworm daughter (and son) would dearly love to be able to read a book while travelling, but I don’t feel like dealing with the car-sickness and headache this would cause, so we don’t take books in the car.  When they were toddlers, picture books worked well, but books stopped being an option once they started being able to read the words.

Something Old, Something New
Most kids like learning new things, so do your homework before you leave home.  Find out something about the areas you are going to travel through, get maps of the route, and as you travel your older children can read the maps (a valuable skill to learn) to find out where they are, what the next town will be, how far still to travel, etc.  Make it an adventure as you tell them stories about the history or geography of the area – better yet if you can link it to something in your family’s history.  Older children can play games involving the numbers on the licence plates of vehicles.  Add them up, or play “cricket” where you score “runs” according to the numbers on licence plates or colours of cars.   Google “car cricket” for more details on this.

As my children have got older, I’ve also invested in a few more durable travel-toys, such as Zoobs.  These funny building blobs (as opposed to building blocks) snap together and my kids have made the most incredible creations while travelling.  The Zoobs are bigger than blocks of Lego, so they don’t get lost in the car so easily.  They serve a double purpose, though – firstly they keep the children creatively occupied while the children make the toy, then they spend a while playing with it.  When the children get tired of the toy, they can make something new.

Never Leave Home Without …
Lastly, never leave home without a bottle of water for each child.  If the journey is going to be long, take along some snacks too.  I tend to avoid sugary snacks (last thing I want to travel with is a child on a sugar high!), but salty treats or fruit and salad veg can work wonders.  Make sure you have a pack of wetwipes.  Keep your child restrained in a car seat (no matter how much the child is screaming!  Rather pull over if your child needs your attention.)  Take some cash, not just a card.  And don’t forget the sunscreen.

Have fun shopping for car “sanity savers” as I call them.  Just bear in mind that in the event of an accident, anything unrestrained in the car could become a lethal projectile.  So don’t go for anything that could cause damage if it were to hit your head (or your child’s head) at high speed.  I also confiscate all toys that were given during the journey once we reach our destination.  That way, the same toys stay fresh and can be used again for your next trip.

Relax and enjoy travelling with your young ones.  It really is a special time.  After all, where else does the modern family get to spend so much time in each other’s company?


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mandy
    Mar 11, 2011 @ 08:55:32

    Hi Gayle & Caryn

    Great going on the blog! As someone who has done far too many international long-haul flights with small children, I have some suggestions for plane travel…

    In theory, crayons and colouring books are great. In practice, its no fun at all – the crayons get dropped and trying to squeeze down between those cramped aeroplane seats to find them is no fun at all! I instead recommend those small write & wipe magnetic boards that come with the “pencil” attached with string! Endless drawing, no pencil/crayons to lose, and added bonus – no “colouring in” marks to get off your and your children’s clothes!

    For older kids, the ‘advanced’ version of the magnetic write & wipe boards are things like the Nintendo DS or other handheld games. Biggest tip – make sure the battery is charged all the way before getting on the flight!

    Ipods or other MP3 players are good too – not only can you load songs, you can also load CD storybooks. Hint here – get your child their own kid-sized earphones! It keeps them occupied and doesn’t annoy the other passengers!

    And always, always pack a complete change of clothes for you and kiddy in your hand luggage. Not only will this help if the entire bottle of juice lands in your lap, its also helpful to have if the airline loses your main luggage!


  2. Caryn
    Mar 11, 2011 @ 09:15:45

    Do agree. Drawing board works wonders for Zoe – she has a coloured one for now (it may not last with her destructive tendancies).

    The clothing is important for my two little internal combustion heaters. They are soaking wet at our regular stops so I usually change Emma fully and Zoe gets a fresh t-shirt. Not fair on them to be uncomfortable.


  3. jenny
    Mar 17, 2011 @ 07:38:54

    We always travel with a bucket a few towels and wet wipes …..neck pillows …..and I have loaded stories onto MP3 players and (!)Chewing gum the ONLY time I EVER allow it but it works wonders in the mountains to help equalize (ears)and just before landing or taking off on the plane! Ofcourse my precious offspring don’t chew for long…..


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