There is nothing that strikes fear in the heart of a parent quite like a long car trip or plane flight with children. You can plan for temperature fluctuations by throwing a favorite hoodie in your bag or attacks of the “hangries” by stashing extra snacks, but you can’t make the travel time shorter. This summer, be prepared when you create a “Beyond Bingo” toolkit with some of the items described below. If you’d like to add a dose of learning to your fun, incorporate an “educational twist.” You’ll keep the kids engaged, learning and having fun, whether they’re trapped in row 24 or your own back seat.
- Surprise bags
The dollar store is your new best friend! Create surprise bags to pass out during various points of your trip by filling several brown paper sacks with inexpensive toys and treats. I always tell my kids when to expect the bags to build anticipation – every hour and a half or with every state line crossed, for example. You can keep distribution spontaneous or based on when fidgeting reaches a crescendo too. Consider opening the items ahead of time so that you don’t have to deal with a packaging mess while traveling.
Educational twist: Connect your goodies to the trip to deepen kids’ knowledge of the places you’re going. Headed on a road trip through Oklahoma? A great starting point for a conversation could be a little deer figurine (for the state game animal) and a honey stick to snack on (for the state insect, the honeybee). If you’re flying, a chart of cloud types and characteristics along with a blank journal for recording observations and some colored pencils can turn your passenger into a budding (and occupied) meteorologist.
You can also tie the bags to specific destinations on your trip. Mark several spots on a map to encourage your children to practice their map reading skills as you drive. Or, if flying, mark your layover and destination cities so that your children will see how your trip fits into the geography of our country.
- Beyond bingo
My kids always got super frustrated with pre-printed bingo boards. It’s impossible to find a skyscraper while driving across west Texas, and good luck finding a cow or a lake on a plane! Instead, download a free, blank bingo board from the internet and fill it in with items that will guarantee success. A small prize like a lollipop increases the excitement factor; and, if you need the game to last longer, the payout could come with a “blackout” (when every square on the board is marked off).
Educational twist: Teach concepts like landforms if you’re on the road; for plane trips, you can fill the board with challenging math problems.
- Felt boards
Felt boards work some form of magic on little kids! You will be amazed by how long they can stay engaged by simply moving small felt figures around a felt board. The boards are easily purchased online, or, if you’re feeling crafty, you can create one yourself.
Educational twist: Purchase or create a set that will spark learning, such as an abundant underwater scene or a zoo-themed board. If you make your own board, you can incorporate objects from your destination. Either way, there are rich conversations to be had about the items on your board.
- Travel size games
There are many games that offer travel sizes, making them perfect to stash in your bag. Games like Connect Four, magnetic checkers and tic-tac-toe can help the time fly by.
Educational twist: Up the brain power by choosing a more complex game like chess or one that your child has never played before like backgammon or Scrabble. Game playing has been shown to boost mathematical abilities. So, not only will your kids be happily occupied, they will be strengthening those neural pathways at the same time.
- Audio books and podcasts
The library is a great place to stock up on books on CD for long drives. If you have a device that plays audible books, you can also download some for the flight or drive, allowing your child to listen independently. Choose ones that are slightly below your child’s reading level so that they are easy to follow despite food and bathroom breaks. Podcasts are another option that the whole family can enjoy. Try an episode or two ahead of time to ensure that it is one your child will actually like.
Educational twist: Choose a podcast or book designed to educate as well as entertain. For example, “Wow in the World,” a top-rated podcast for kids and families, shares stories about the latest news in science, technology and innovation in cool and exciting ways.
- Arts and crafts
Pipe cleaners. Time will fly while your child makes bracelets, necklaces, figures and crazy sculptures out of pipe cleaners.
Paper clips. A box of large paper clips will keep your child busy stringing them together. Older children might try to spell words out of paper clips or create interesting structures. Choose a box of colored clips and you can incorporate pattern practice into the fun.
Origami. These folded works of paper art can look intimidating, but they can actually be easy and fun to make. Their small size makes them great for the car or plane, and free, simple instructions can be found online.
Educational twist: While your kids have fun crafting away, they’ll also be strengthening the smaller muscle groups in their hands. Better fine motor skills translate into improvements in writing stamina as well as into clearer, more controlled handwriting.
With just a bit of planning, your next trip will be nothing to fear. When choruses from the backseat of “are we there yet?” and “I’m bored” strike, you’ll be prepared. Your kids will be happy, learning and engaged, and you might just get a moment to read that book that lives on your nightstand. Happy travels, parents!
Alison Bogle is a writer living in Austin with her husband and three children. A former fourth-grade teacher, she now enjoys writing about children and education. You can also catch her talking about articles from Austin Family magazine each Thursday morning on FOX 7 Austin.