If you're the one in charge of ensuring pleasant vacation travel for your family, there are a few simple rules to follow. First, don't pack too many toys. You shouldn't have to pull a trailer with a fully appointed playroom. Next, don't pack toys with too many pieces: They'll get lost, children will cry and tempers will flare. Finally, make sure the toys you bring are creative, entertaining and tailored to the child's age.
Here are some travel-tested toys and activities that can make your car trip memorable -- in a good way!
If you're traveling with infants, take a toy that doubles as a teether. Two inexpensive and very portable choices are Twisty Teether Figure 8 (Munchkin, Inc.) and Lanky Links Monkey (Lizzybee Toys). The Twisty Teether forms and maintains a shape no matter which way baby moves the curved plastic links. Lanky Links Monkey fastens to a car seat, crib or stroller, and its squeaky head and crinkly ears attract baby's attention. If rear-facing infants need an entertainment center, try the Lamaze Back Seat Fun Center (Learning Curve). Attaching easily to most backseats, it features colorful characters and a mirror.
For toddlers and preschoolers, small comforts are essential, so don't forget your child's favorite "blankie" or teddy. To keep their little ones giggling, some parents hold a Sound Contest, encouraging youngsters to imitate the noises they hear in places such as home, street, farm or zoo. After 20 minutes of that, you may want to try the Quiet Contest -- whoever can be quietest the longest wins a prize.
A moving car is probably not the best place to play lullabies, but it's a great place to hold family sing-alongs. The old standbys like "Puff (The Magic Dragon)," "The Wheels on the Bus" and the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" are still fun for very young children.
If you want to play prerecorded music, some exceptional toddler and preschool albums include A Cathy and Marcy Collection for Kids (Rounder Select, ages 3-8); Children's Favorites (Music for Little People, all ages); Dan Zanes and Friends -- Rocket Ship Beach (Festival Five Records, ages 2-10); Green Eggs and Ham (Koch International, ages 2-5); Shiny New Shoes (Susan Salidor, ages 3-7); and Toddlers Sing (Music for Little People, ages 2-6).
Even if you're making a trip you've made a hundred times before, kids in this age group still need a diversion to pass the time. Give them a map and a highlighter, and have them follow the route you take. Or create your own scavenger hunt, challenging young passengers to spot license plates identifying as many states as possible. For an educational boost, Kids' Road Atlas (ages 6-12) from Rand McNally is a colorful U.S. atlas offering a kid-friendly map, state symbols and games that describe each state's history, geography or folklore. Young travelers learn how to read a map by using a legend, scale and coordinates.
For the budding young artist, bring along a sketch pad and lots of pencils. If you want to get a little fancier, a laptop coloring desk is a great way for kids to keep occupied and make postcards to send to friends and family. Alex Toys makes a Car Valet with plenty of storage pouches and adjustable straps that attach around the car headrest.
Storytelling is a perennial favorite among children this age. I'll never forget my mother's tale -- she'd add chapter after chapter -- of Timmy the Gorilla, a mischievous character who had all sorts of adventures with his cousin Stanley. You might try telling a story of your own and have each family member take a turn. You may be surprised at how inventive -- and outrageous -- your children can be.
Certain word games are perfect for the car. Try the classic 20 Questions: You think of a person or object, and your opponent(s) asks you 20 yes-or-no questions to try to figure out who or what you're thinking of. Then there's the Memory Game "I'm going to the World's Fair, and in my trunk I packed ..." Players take turns adding a new item to the list. Beginning with A, the first letter of each new item must start with the next letter of the alphabet.
If you can't remember all the word games you played as a kid, Great American Puzzle Factory's A Box of Silly Word Games (ages 8 and up) is your answer. The cleverly designed cube box holds cards with 25 word games that can be played using only a pencil, paper, die and sand timer.
Self-contained travel activities are also passenger pleasers. A fun game for little hands is Tiny Tins: Bugs! Bugs! Bugs! (Patch Products, ages 5-7). Kids draw cards and collect as many colorful finger-puppet bugs as they can. If your survival depends on packing a hand-held electronic game, add an educational element with LeapFrog's Turbo Twist Brain Quest (ages 5-11). Choose one of four mind-challenging game modes, twist to select an answer and see how you stack up. Difficulty levels adjust automatically.
You can't go wrong by packing a deck of cards. Popular games like War, Rummy or Go Fish can keep kids busy for hours. For a new twist on cards, try Ten Awesome Card Tricks (Troll Publishing, ages 8-10). Clear instructions and illustrations show every step, and the tricks work flawlessly -- with a little practice, of course.If you're traveling with teenagers (Translation: Yours still allow themselves to be seen in the car with you), you're obviously doing something right. Encourage them to bring along books and magazines, an inexpensive camera and headphones with spare batteries. For sheer silliness in sing-along, try Pat Dailey Sings Shel Silverstein's Underwater Land (Olympia Records).
A great way to engage kids of all ages throughout the trip is to keep a family vacation journal. It doesn't have to be an elaborate production; in fact, the simpler, the better. A spiral-bound sketchbook or individual pages saved in plastic sheet protectors and kept in a loose-leaf binder work well. Bring along some crayons, colored pencils or washable markers. Along the way, collect mementos of your trip -- restaurant menus or place mats, ticket stubs from zoos, parks and museums (and hopefully not for speeding tickets!). Each day have the kids draw a picture of something or someone they saw. Older children can include written memories. The finished journal will make the vacation easy to revisit and share with friends and family.
We can't eliminate bumper-to-bumper traffic or roll back gasoline prices, but we can help you put the family back into family travel. Or, as your mother might say with a self- satisfied smile, "A road well traveled is a trip less frazzled."