There are many advantages about car travel – the chief one being that you are in charge of your own timetable. Plus there are plenty of opportunities to learn together and bond as a family. A road trip provides opportunities to sing, tell stories, share thoughts, and practise turn-taking (like, who sits in the middle and who gets the window seat). And it is uncanny how children will often use a car trip to raise the big questions. “Journeys can be a time for warm connections and important conversations,” says family psychotherapist Jan Parker. “The distractions of travel can also help adults and children feel more at ease with thoughtful pauses and silences, too often lost in our fast-edit culture. These can help children form their thoughts, find their words, and allow conversations to unfold.”
When it comes to what entertainment to pack, less is more, there are loads of games specifically designed for journeys, but for our children, paper and pencils win every time. Packing too much can create back-seat bedlam, and anyway, you need to leave space for staring out of the window, daydreaming, and cooking up make-believe games. Bring along music and audio books and remember that earphones are essential if you don’t want to listen to Harry Potter for the millionth time.
A bit of back-seat squabbling is par for the course. But if World War Three threatens to break out, pull over and stop the car as soon as possible. Be firm about the fact that if an argument starts when you are on the move, you won’t be able to tell who started it, so everyone will be penalised in some way. It’s a good idea to keep a ‘treasure bag’ full of unexpected stuff that you can pull out in an absolute emergency – to divert a quarrel, or stave off boredom if you are stuck in a traffic jam.
Snacks are always a useful diversion, but what should you pack? Fruit and vegetables, cut up into bite-sized portions are ideal, as are little yoghurts in handy tubes or sachets; crackers; water, rather than sticky juice; bread sticks and small sandwiches. It’s a good idea to sling a rug over the seat to catch the inevitable spills and crumbs and have a capacious bag at the ready so that when your journey is over you can quickly scoop up the debris.
Before you set off, plot out your route with lots of stops. Generally, children need to use the toilet every couple of hours and, if you are travelling with more than one child, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to coordinate all their restroom needs. The safest bet is to plan for a stop every hour-and-a-half, but be prepared to make additional ones as well. Remember your pit stops don’t always have to be at service stations. If you’re not pushed for time, it’s really nice to drive off the motorway down a country lane and stop for a picnic. Pack balls and bats so you can all let off steam. Or check out some of the towns en route and stop for a stroll round the park followed by a trip to a café.