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The Early Years: Road trip vacations start with fun in the car

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With the rising cost of flying, many of us here in Lake County are opting to hit the road to get to our destinations this summer. Car trips with kids can be a nightmare, or with a little planning, an enjoyable part of the whole vacation experience.

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Planning for our upcoming car trip, I have been remembering some of the great car trips we took when our kids were little. We had some creative ways of making the long ride more enjoyable for all of us. If you have long road trips planned for this summer, I hope you find these ideas useful. I have used some with my kids and some were shared by others. A quick Google search will yield more.

Long drives can be difficult for small children. It's helpful to do some advance planning and map out places to stop during a long day of driving. Historical places, state parks, beaches and interesting towns are all great. If there is a playground, even better!

Google Earth can be a helpful tool in locating parks and playgrounds. We used to drive to Willmar often. When the kids were little we always made a stop in Mora so they could spend 20 minutes stretching their legs at a school playground. This was just the break they needed to be able to finish the 5 hour car trip. If there isn't a playground on your route, pack a bag of rest stop activities -- frisbee, football, jump ropes, chalk (to make a hopscotch grid or play 4 square), bubbles, or a stopwatch to time the kids as they run to a tree and back.

While driving, have a scavenger hunt. Make up the list of items to "hunt" before you leave. They should be things you know the kids will see on the trip. They could be animals (cows, horses, dog, cat, etc.) or other vehicles (ambulance, motorcycle, train, school bus) or structures (church, white fence, red barn, bridge). The first one to find all the items wins.

Another standard car game is the license plate game. Print a map of the U.S. and when you see a license plate for a state, cross it off. My kids are older and we still enjoy playing this game as a family.

A cookie sheet with sides can be a great lap tray for coloring, as well as a surface for magnetic toys or letters. If you are traveling when it's dark, give the kids glow sticks, mini flashlights, or book- lights so they can draw, play or read. These types of lights are not too bright and should not bother the driver.

If the kids sitting closest to each other tend to squabble, try giving them each a roll of masking tape to build a "wall," or some colored pipe cleaners to create creatures or structures.

Several years ago in preparation for a drive to New York, my mom gave each of my girls a "car bag" with a new box of crayons, coloring books, some small toys, and a box of Band-Aids. The Band-Aids were a hit and kept them busy for a long time. When we stopped at a gas station, the girls got out of the car and we discovered why they had been quiet for so long. They had all covered their fingers and arms with the bandages! We did get a few strange looks.

Packing your own snacks and drinks is a great idea. Plan for some healthy snacks and pack them in bags for each child. Eating healthy snacks is easier on the stomach, especially while driving. The last thing you want on a road trip is a child with an upset stomach from eating too much greasy fast food.

Car trips can be fun. Don't just think of them as a way to get to your destination. With a little planning and a few supplies, they can be fun part of the whole experience.

Deb Archer is a licensed teacher, parent educator and the owner of Kickstart Preschool.

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