My parents love the American West, thanks to all the Wild West movies they watched as children. When my sisters and I were children, my family took many road trips throughout the American West. Endless vistas of rocks, highway, and tumbleweeds, which to my elementary-school eyes were. . . boring.
I now realize that my steeped-in-Western-movies parents found this same scenery INTENSELY exciting. Desert scene? Nothing happening but cactuses and tumbleweeds? We were bored, but for my parents it meant that a party of people on horseback chasing SOMEONE was clearly about to crest a ridge AT ANY MINUTE—and they had to remain on the alert!
Now that I’m a grownup, I hate hearing whining from my travel mates. When our family plans for trips now I include a lot of context in our keep-busy material for Junior so that he understands more about where we’re going—and the places we’re going through. We do still hear “Are we THERE yet??” but much less often than my poor parents did.
What’s the Setting?
The first step is to look up whether there are any books or movies set in the places you’ll be visiting. Are there any movies set in the locations that you’ll be visiting? Book a few and plan a few family movie nights. PRO TIP: If the area you’ll be visiting has a distinctive regional accent, screen a few movies ahead of time so that your kids will get used to it and be able to understand the locals when you get there.
Can you get an audiobook for the trip? If you google “Books set in [insert your travel location here],” quite often the Internet has a handy book list. You can also work with the geography of your area or your planned activities—for example, downloading Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea if you’re planning to see a submarine on your trip.
Audiobooks for younger children many times include both a book and an audio portion, which makes the audiobooks illustrated—and hence much more interesting. Children’s books are short, but you can find collections or prepare to listen to the books again and again. We loved the Magic School Bus audiobooks because we learned something new every time we listened to them. If your car has movie capability, definitely pack some—but carefully screen the content. You don’t want to have to take a break because emotions are running too high to continue! Note that you can also get documentaries related to the places you’re visiting.
Get Some Activity Books
I like Highlights’ Which Way USA series, which issues an activity book and map for each state in the U.S. Pro tip: skim the content before you buy any activity book or set—some contain games for multiple people. If you’ve only got one child, avoid those books or adult naptime during your journey will be compromised.
A Geek Daddy recommends the National Geographic Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas: Maps, Games, Activities, and More for Hours of Backseat Fun, which is great if you’re traveling through multiple states. In addition to kid-level maps of each state, Washington, D.C., and the entire United States, it contains activities, fun facts, details on state symbols and road attractions.
Usborne publishes everything from travel activity books to wipe-on/wipe-off activity card decks. The card deck theme options include everything from keep-busy options (100 things for little children to do on a trip) to sets that could actually provide some context for your trip (Visiting museums? Try the Famous Paintings deck. Camping? Try 100 Things to Spot in the Night Sky).
If your child loves a particular TV/movie character, it’s worth looking to see if there’s an activity book available. Activity books have gotten a lot better in recent years. Junior loves the Lego activity books, which contain stories, comics, mazes, word searches, puzzles and more. Unfortunately, I can’t get confirmation that any Lego Movie activity books contain the “Old West” theme from the movie. Disney Junior’s Sheriff Callie would be a good activity book choice for a Western trip if he were younger: Sheriff Callie, a cat, and her deputy, Peck the woodpecker ride herd over Nice and Friendly Corners, making sure that everyone abides by the “Cowpoke Code.”
For younger, non-reading children, I recommend sticker activity books. Look up your child’s favorite TV/movie character and there will be a sticker activity book to keep them busy. I’ll provide more detail about what we put in our activity kits in Part 3 of this series.
Stay tuned for Part 2!