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5 Ways to Have an Awesome Road Trip with Your Preschoolers

5 Ways to Have an Awesome Road Trip with Your Preschoolers

Road trip! Sounds so fun, doesn’t it? I’m always up for a road trip until I remember how much work it can be with preschoolers. Still, travel and field trips, getting out and experiencing something new, and broadening my horizons even if I can’t stop and read every placard in the museum make it worth it.

Have you given up the thought of putting your brood in the car and going somewhere without your spouse? It’s hard, isn’t it? I’ve learned a few tricks over the years and hope these might bless you too.

Be Prepared!

It is possible to be prepared for a spur-of-the-moment field trip, even though that sounds like a contradiction. If you take the time to make a “road trip” checklist now, you won’t have to think through what to gather every time, and jumping in the car will be that much more doable.

Here’s a starter list:

  • Diaper bag
  • Snacks
  • Water bottles
  • Car boxes (more about these below)
  • Extra clothes for baby and toddler
  • Music and DVDs (educational DVDs are like school on the road)
  • Blankets or toys your children sleep with (in case you want them to nap in the car)
  • Camera
  • Medicine or other necessary medical items

Add or subtract to the list above as it relates to your family. Keep it saved on your computer so you don’t have to think about what to pack every time. It’s the mental work that exhausts me.

Keep Your Expectations Low

You’ve probably come to realize as a parent that it’s often our unmet expectations that make or break our experiences with our kids. I remember hearing years ago, “Life wouldn’t be so hard if we didn’t expect it to be so easy.” My frustration level with my kids grows out of control quickly when I have unrealistic expectations of them in any given situation. So what does it look like to have realistic expectations in regard to our little ones during travel or field trips? For me, it’s expecting them to act like the little people they are. That means I expect them to have to go to the bathroom eight minutes after we’ve left a place. I expect my daughter who is prone to motion sickness to throw up. I expect to have to role play with them about how to behave in the place where we are going. I expect them to spill at least one drink on their shirts/laps/siblings/me. I expect to need to change a really foul diaper the minute we reach a stretch of road where I cannot stop.

If none of those things occur, I consider it a minor miracle. If they do occur, however, I don’t consider the trip a failure. It is what it is.

Having realistic expectations also affects where I plan to take them and how much I expect to accomplish while there. If we go to a hands-on museum geared to kids, I can expect the place to be noisy; the kids are going to want to see and touch everything. We’ll probably be able to stay there for an hour or two before they’ve exhausted the exhibits and grown tired, hungry, or bored.  If, however, I take them to a “real” museum, my expectations drop appropriately.

We recently visited a local museum with a storybook illustrations exhibit. It was lovely and caught the attention of both my little guys, as well as the young teens who were with us. We all enjoyed seeing rich illustrations of familiar stories, and we spent about twenty minutes in that gallery.

In the next room was an exhibit of the museum’s permanent collection, much of it landscapes and pastoral scenes with a Rodin bust thrown in for good measure. My expectation going in to that gallery was nil. I scooped up the 4-year-old and quickly looked at each painting with him, pointing to things I knew he’d appreciate. We finished the exhibit in about five minutes, but the older kids lingered. Because they were captivated, I walked the 4-year-old back out into the hallway and played a rhyming game with him.

I wasn’t disappointed. Someday I’ll be able to linger with the big kids, but because my expectations were extremely low, I enjoyed myself—and the 4-year-old.

Car Boxes

Because we have a large family, we have never traveled by airplane all together. We prefer to “divide and conquer” when it comes to big trips by air, but when it’s all ten of us we travel by car. Some families we know travel hours upon hours, but because my husband can’t leave his business for more than a week, we rarely drive distances more than eight hours away. Still, any travel from three to eight hours with preschoolers can be very taxing.

Years ago we gave each child a plastic box (the larger size, not the shoebox size) and filled their boxes with little things we had collected to keep them busy. You can put anything you want in those boxes, but here are some things that have made their way into our kids’ boxes over the years:

  • Pencils (No pens! I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate.)
  • Notepads
  • Coloring books
  • Individual servings of snacks
  • Little metal cars
  • A sandwich bag with a small number of army men (Trust me when I say six or eight is enough.)
  • Stickers (if you don’t mind them being stuck to the windows)
  • A disposable camera for slightly older kids
  • Wikki Stix

The car boxes slide nicely under seats, which is great for kids who are not strapped into a car seat. For the littlest ones, it’s helpful to give them one toy at a time from someone within their reach or to allow them a few items in a smaller plastic shoebox.

Full Tummies Make Happy Toddlers

You’re a mom. You know how cranky and awful little people can be when they are hungry, thirsty, or tired. It probably goes without saying that you need to plan for these things while out and about, but just in case, I’m going to be the big, bossy sister who reminds you: Pack some high-protein snacks that travel well, such as granola bars, almonds, and apple slices with a swipe of peanut butter. Other healthy suggestions include carrot sticks, graham crackers, and cheese sticks.  And as a dentist’s wife, I just have to share that gummy bears are better for little unbrushed teeth than are raisins.

Create Lasting Memories

All by themselves, road trips, vacations, and field trips are educational without even trying. However, if you’re so inclined, there are some great ways to reinforce what was seen and experienced and many fun ways to preserve the memories.

Have you discovered lapbooks yet? Lapbooks are a cheap and fun way to chronicle nearly anything. Say, for instance, that your family just made a trip to the Jelly Belly factory. While there, you can take pictures, gather free literature, and soak up information. When you return home, you can make a lapbook that incorporates your pictures, handouts, and miniature books about how the factory works and what it produces. Likely that lapbook will be pored over by your little ones and shown proudly to anyone who will take the time to look.

Photo albums and travel journals are great too. If you’re a crafty mom, go for it! I had to eliminate scrapbooking from my life quite some time ago, but my kids still take down those old albums and enjoy them regularly. Yours will too, and everything you experienced and learned together will be chronicled and remembered for a long time.

Getting your littlest homeschoolers into the car and on the road is so totally worth it. Just remember to keep your expectations realistic, your supply bag stocked, and your camera battery charged. And then have a ball!

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Kendra Fletcher is a homeschooling mother of eight, aged 18 down to 3. She has never known what it means to homeschool without the presence of little ones underfoot. Her website and blog can be found at