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10 screen-free ways to entertain kids in the car

There are lots of ways parents can keep their children entertained on a road trip without resorting to TV and computer screens.
There are lots of ways parents can keep their children entertained on a road trip without resorting to TV and computer screens.
Allison Laypath

We have a DVD player in our van and we love it for road trips. However, we won't play it non-stop to pacify our children on long drives. Here are some other great ways to entertain the kids when you don't have a DVD player or don't want to use it.

1. Mad Libs — Throw in a bunch of silly adjectives and the occasional bodily fluid and everyone will crack up. With frequent reminders of what nouns, adjectives and verbs are, my first-grader could provide the fill-ins while the passenger parent wrote them down. My preschooler could give colors and numbers. Dad came up with the really creative stuff.

2. License Plate Game — Print a list of U.S. states here and give everyone their own list or play as a team. When we did this in the Black Hills, we found ourselves wandering the parking garage at Mount Rushmore and successfully found some of the small and distant states we needed. It can be addictive. My husband and I were playing the game at home long after the kids lost interest.

3. Guess the Animal (aka 20 Questions) — We use animals because they are known to young children and ours love animals. You could use any category — cartoon characters, famous people, dinosaurs. One person chooses an animal and everyone takes turn asking questions — we don't limit them to yes/no — until someone guesses it correctly.

4. When I Go to London — There are lots of variations of this memory game. The first person says, "When I go to London, I am packing (fill in the blank)." The second person says, "When I go to London, I am packing (first person's item) and (new item)." The items can be silly. Play goes around the van, adding a new item to remember every time. See who can remember the most!

5. Pick the Song — We have a "family" iPod that has 6,000 songs and playlists for everyone that we play through the car stereo on every road trip. To keep everyone happy and interested, we take turns choosing songs, and the passenger parent finds and plays them. Everyone gets a little of what they like and we get to introduce our kids to some of our favorites. Variation: Play Name that Tune and see who can guess a well-known song first.

6. Teach a Song — This is a great time to teach your kids a funny camp song or family favorite from your youth. When I was young, my grandma taught us a song she sang when she worked at the Grand Canyon before World War II and my cousins and I sang it over and over as we drove to the Grand Canyon.

7. Books — Hours of uninterrupted reading were something I loved when I was growing up, and a road trip is the perfect place to do it (barring motion sickness). For major road trips, I often surprise the kids with a new book for each of them. For shorter trips, they can bring what they have. Books are becoming an even better option now that my oldest can read on her own. I do not allow library books on road trips because I have a hard enough time keeping track of those without losing them in another city or state.

8. Coloring books — Every year, I buy a bunch of 24-packs of crayons at the back-to-school sale for 25 cents or less per box. One of those boxes makes an appearance on every major road trip, often with a new coloring book. I buy those at my local supermarket for $1.25 each. We have had problems with melted crayons in the van, so plan accordingly.

9. Toys — Again, on a big road trip I might buy a small surprise or two. I also let the kids pack their own, and I give the final approval or recommendations. I can usually count on collecting new fast food meal toys along the way, too.

10. Audiobooks — Eventually, you and/or your children are going to get tired of all of these activities. You can't do them indefinitely. If you don't have a DVD player or if you want to delay using it a little longer, audiobooks are the ticket. Borrow them from the library (I keep them up front so I don't worry as much about losing them) or purchase and download them. We have enjoyed the Dr. Seuss collection, Junie B. Jones and the Magic Tree House series on audio. Soon, our kids will be ready for Harry Potter, and I am looking forward to it.

Allison Laypath is an expert on family field trips and travel. With her husband, they took their first child on a two-week road trip at 4-weeks-old, and they have been traveling as a family ever since. Email