Road Tripping Mama

My husband may as well have been driving us through the construction lane, dodging orange barrels and steamrollers, quaking the tires over unfinished asphalt, and slamming the brakes every 30 seconds, because that’s what my brain felt like it was doing with the barrage of demands from the backseat.

I’d reach into the toy barrel and grasp for anything to calm the kids, to buy myself just a few minutes of that open road feeling…and then they’d drop the toy. I’d either have to pull a neck muscle trying to fetch it, or grit my teeth and listen to them gripe. Finally, I’d muster up the energy to go for the toy and two minutes later they were yelling for something else. And, you know, yelling can be contagious.

I’ve heard it said that an introvert needs up to seven seconds of pause before responding to a request. So, by the time I’d strained myself to address one of the passengers’ complaints, we were on to a whole new bump in the road. The mental brakes would slam again and there I was with whiplash.

In her lovely little memoir, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, “Woman instinctively wants to give, yet resents giving herself in small pieces….giving herself purposelessly.”

And that is how I tend to give when my mind is spinning. With over-stimulation we are at the mercy of centrifugal force. Sensory overload flings us to the outer reaches and leaves us stuck in another object’s motion, unable to respond, unable to rest.

Parent and child both need a way to find peace and purpose in the whirl of look-at-me color coming at tired eyes, rough textures chafing the skin, raucous noise overwhelming sensitive ears. Overload comes when we are in a passive position, receiving input without an active outflow of energy.

I had thrown together a barrel of toys with no particular plan on how to use them best. I was flinging myself out in small purposeless pieces, like the road debris that clinked against our wheels.

I knew it was against all southern sensibility, but I had to do it. I opened the window and stuck my head out into the wind on our detour through the back roads of Alabama. My hair plastered itself across my eyes, a blindfold to the scenery. Rushing air rattled over my ears, washing out the sound of whimpers, whines and wails from inside the car. Mile markers and magnolias zoomed past me, but I myself felt still for a minute.

Lindbergh suggested that we women need solitude to pull ourselves together and to find our center, seeing as we serve as the center of a “whole web of human relationships.” She went on to quote writer Charles Morgan whose words encourage us to be still “as the axis of a revolving wheel is still.”

On this year’s drive, I was determined to be still like the middle of that wheel, calm in the middle of commotion. And so, I spent weeks mulling it over, brainstorming with friends and relatives, borrowing from neighbors and even taking notes while watching Mary Poppins. I gathered the tools for fun activities. I spun the wheels of creativity. I revved up ideas for meaningful interaction. I prayed for stamina and reminded myself of the importance of finding some sort of solitude on the trip, even if it was just with earplugs. This drive wouldn’t drive me crazy. I was road ready….



1. TURN YOUR ROAD TRIP INTO A PARTY: Grab a couple of balloons (I filled ours with helium we had leftover from a party). With a Sharpie in hand, chat with the kids about your destination and draw silly faces on the balloons. We used sunshine eyes, a fishy nose and an orange slice mouth to coordinate with our Florida fun in the sun destination. To add even more to the festivities, we decorated the van with window clings for daytime driving and glow in the dark stars for the night.

2. KEEP THE EXCITEMENT CONTAINED: Get a metal lunch box and call it a looney binit may just help keep you out of one. Use the bin for every toy, every activity, every snack. Every half hour or so, have the kids hand in the bin with the previous toy or activity. Clean out the bins and put in the next item. The element of surprise really worked for my kiddos. They couldn’t wait to see what new thing waited inside the bin. To make things easier, I packed groups of activities in separate zippered envelopes so that I didn’t have to have the whole barrel of toys at my feet. And when the kids got a little too demanding, I set the timer and let them know they could ask me to help out with two things during a 30-minute time-frame. Boundaries like that helped bring a bit more sanity to our road trip.

3. KEEP THEM MOVING: To keep the circulation flowing, lead the kids in nursery rhymes or songs with motions like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”. We also did other activities like pretending to swim by moving our arms and legs in different strokes. Simple squeeze toys (and even baby teethers) have also helped my kids get through stressful moments on the road. And from the looks of that bumble bee, it seems one of my kids was a little more stressed than the other!

4. KEEP THEM FOCUSED: One of our favorite little toys is a row of tiny wooden blocks you can turn and twist it into different shapes and then undo to try it again. It’s called a fidget and it can keep my kids happy for more than half an hour. The kids also loved the rubber band board we borrowed from our neighbor, the heirloom fabric activity book that my mom made, and the transportation lacing cards. Then there were the robot bugs that my little boy had his eye on for months. He almost flipped out of his booster seat when he opened the bin to find the little critter. Finally, to get the most out of our metal bins, I brought magnetic blocks, magnetic numbers, a magnetic car and a magnetic dress up kit…all big hits.

5. FEED THEM WELL: Pack healthy snacks to keep your roadies feeling good. Clementines were easy to peel and were a fun way to celebrate our drive to Florida. I soaked and roasted raw pecans (Nourishing Traditions method) and mixed them with preservative-free organic raisins for our drive through Georgia. I brought along applesauce squeezers and cheese sticks (kept in a cooler with ice packs), which are regular favorites around our house. One of my kids’ favorites came from a neighbor’s idea for a wearable snack. On long trips, she has her kids string their Cheerios into necklaces before they can eat them. With my young children, I opted to use pipe cleaners with one end curled under to make Cheerios bracelets. At the end of snack time, they would hand over the bins so I could wipe them clean before the next activity.

6. PROMOTE INTERACTION: When kids’ eyes are glued to a little screen, they miss out on the the fun around them. While movies at first seem to have a tranquilizing effect, the more we watch, the more irritable the kids seem to get. To help them interact with their environment, we gave the kids old digital cameras and encouraged them to take pictures of each other or the scenery. A set of binoculars and a prism helped them to look around and take in the sights big and small. With finger puppets, the kids can put on a mini puppet show with their bin as the stage, or their characters can interact with their siblings’ finger puppets. You just have to watch that it doesn’t turn into a heated game of thumb war. ;) I also did a read-aloud with a book we had multiple copies of. The kids enjoyed following along, looking at the pictures as I read.

7. PLAY UP YOUR DESTINATION: For the Florida stretch of highway, I put sea creature sand molds and Play-doh in the bin. Then there were the beach and coral reef sticker book scenes. I also made color copies of a sea turtle page from a coloring book and then another one of sea shells, folded each page up and, for an extra element of surprise, hid the ocean-themed coloring page in an envelope and put it in the bin alongside some colored pencils. For craft time, I brought along some construction paper cut into shapes, scrapbooking scissors (won’t cut fabric!), tape, and toilet paper tubes (with slits cut for positioning the construction paper) to use in designing a toilet paper tube fish.

8. MAKE SOME NOISE: To balance out the times we found ourselves shushing the kids, we set aside some time for purposeful noise by bringing along percussion instruments and some fun kids’ songs for them to play along with. And when the noise was too much for my sensitive ears, I put on our trusty drummer’s noise-cancellation headphones or slipped in a pair of earplugs! Somehow having the sound muffled made things a little more manageable for this noise-sensitive mama.

9. MAKE THE MOST OF STOPS: While you want to make stops as efficient as possible in order to get to your final destination in a timely manner, doing something active and fun at your stops can make all the difference in your travelers’ moods on the next stretch of the drive. One friend of mine takes a soccer ball for the kids to kick around at rest stops. I brought along bubbles to give the kids something to chase. And we used some of our stops to decorate the van with window clings and glow in the dark stars. And sometimes stops will lend themselves to an impromptu activity, like hunting pine cones or socializing with fellow travelers and their puppy dogs.

10. MAKE THE NIGHTTIME SHINE: I don’t know any other kids who are like this, but mine didn’t sleep one.single.minute of our 19 hour drive back from Florida this year. Luckily, when dark came and they still refused to shut their eyes, I had plenty to keep them happy until we got to our hotel. They loved the glow bracelets and had fun linking them together to make a circle the size of a hula hoop. We put on calm music to promote an atmosphere of rest and used book lights, something completely new to them, for some reading time. Another option is to use kids’ hand-squeeze flashlights. And then there were the glow in the dark stars that we’d used to decorate the car earlier.



Alright, Message in a Mason Jar readers, here is your chance to win your own Road Trip Looney Bin ($55 value)! I’ve put together a fun collection of some of my favorite items for keeping the kids happy in the car. This metal lunchbox includes your own aromatherapy play clay, hand-squeeze cow flashlight, Indestructibles book, fidget, flying pig finger puppet with magnetic snout, prism, shaker, glow bracelets and Cheerios bracelet kit.

Just subscribe to Message in a Mason Jar by entering your email in the box on the sidebar (or let me know if you’re an RSS subscriber) and comment on this post by 11:59 pm on Monday, May 28, 2012 for your chance to win. For extra entries, share this post on Facebook, tweet this post tagging me (@darcywileywords), and/or pin this post on Pinterest. Be sure to re-comment here for each extra entry and let me know where you shared the post. Ready, set, go!

Thanks to all who participated in Message in a Mason Jar’s first-ever giveaway! The giveaway is now closed, but feel free to keep sharing your road trip sanity ideas in the comments section as others may continue to stop by. The winner was chosen at random from this post’s eligible comments listed in the order received. And, without further ado, the winner is…Tristi! Congratulations and thanks again to all who’ve chimed in.

55 thoughts on “Road Tripping Mama

  1. Darcy,
    This is BRILLIANT!!! I’m really learning that giving Tucker activities is better than letting him run wild! I can’t wait to try this…or the one I win! :D

    • I hear you! Things always go better (on the road or around home) when I have a plan. Even if we don’t end up perfectly following the plan, it gives momentum to the day and then I’m not fumbling for words when my “little man with a plan” asks me what fun things we’re going to do today.

  2. I’ve got visions of a trans-atlantic flight with a 1.5 year old next year going through whatever portion of the brain promotes panic….*crossing my fingers* for a win here! :)

    • I’ve flown many overseas flights myself, so I know how grueling it can be (especially the jet lag!). A looney bin or a “Mary Poppins” bag would be a good start, plus lots of snacks (and gum for popping ears) and talking with the kids about the destination. Also, some of the motion activities listed in this post could work for keeping circulation flowing. And here is a blog post that specifically addresses air travel with kids: Where are you hoping to visit?

      • Thailand in the fall and back to the US next summer. Like you, I’m starting to compile my ideas early (maybe more for me than for M). thinking a countdown with something tactile would be fun…by weeks, then days, then hours on the flight. Checking out the blog recommendation now. Thanks for motivating me to get organized!

        • That’s a fun idea…sort of like an Advent calendar but leading up to travel day rather than Christmas. I love it! And have you ever been to Thailand before?!! My sister and I went with my study-abroad team mid-year when I was studying in China. We island-hopped for about three weeks after spending a few days in Chiang Mai. My favorite place of all was Koh Phi Phi, which, sadly, was later hit by the tsunami. Thailand is inexpressibly beautiful and nourishing to the soul.

  3. Love, love LOVE your ideas! And you’re making me realized I’m not prepared at ALL for our trip. :) Going to go work on getting more organized today. I’m going to make an “I spy” bottle for Marcus (And maybe even the older boys), with little trinkets and rice for him to try to find things. As well as many ideas similar. I love the TP roll craft! :) AND, I’m following you on Google Reader. :)

  4. I shared this on facebook before I even saw that would get me an entry. :) And man am I “smiley” today!

  5. Thanks for the ideas, we r headed out on a 14 hr trip with my 3yr old who does not travel well…I repinned on pinterest also!

    • Oh, you have one of those, too?!! With very alert kids it seems we parents have to do a lot more planning to keep them happy on the road. I tried to do a variety of things, engage all the senses, provide some times of fun/upbeat activities, and other times of soothing/quiet activities. I even gave the kiddos a pillow and blanket during some of those quieter times…but alas, their fear of missing out won the day.

  6. Your creativity amazes me! The kids certainly seemed to enjoy your efforts. I can’t help but wonder how much effort must have gone into that (because it would require great effort on my part to accomplish such a task). Then I remember how God has always blessed you with a creative mind. I love reading what you write… I love you, too. :)

  7. I also pinned this on pinterest, on my “travel” board. :) Thanks for the tips. I’m also thinking how I can have the older boys help me prepare before we go, in those days when I’m cleaning and packing. Who said EVERYTHING needs to be a surprise? I like the idea of having them make cheerio necklaces and bracelets for them and their brothers the day before. :)

    • I’m sure I’ll have to do another version of this a few years down the road when my kids are older. I’ve tried a couple of times to do a road journal or have them keep track of our progress on our route, but I think that’s one that will work better in a couple of years. I think it would be really fun for the kids to use old digital cameras to keep a visual travelog.

      • (This is Tina, I’m too lazy to switch over right now!) That is a great idea! I know we’ll have small maps for each of the older two, and I’m going to give them blank journals with desert stickers to decorate the front. The teachers really want them to work on writing over the summer. I might try to come up with a few “starters” for them as well for the drive out there. Both boys love to write about the cool things we have done. I have thought about getting them disposable cameras, but then its hard to see the picture right away–but that might still be cool. When they’re older they love to listen to books on tape and read so you don’t need as many things. We shall see, I think they’ll be the easy ones, its the 1 year old I’m most concerned about!

  8. Love the metal lunch boxes! I will definitely use these ideas for our drive to Colorado next summer! Thanks for posting this Darcy!

  9. I, too, love these ideas AND how you expressed them! I never really think to officially subscribe since I check often for your posts, but that’s a good reminder. I have been thinking of doing a giveaway too to “drum up traffic”, but haven’t figured out what yet. I will cross my fingers that I win your due diligence for my own road trip!!! I’d also like to feature this as a guest post on my blog… whaddya think??

    • “Drum up”. :) You make so many beautiful things that you could give away a whole bag full! Or if it were just a local giveaway, I’d say Jazz Kitchen tickets. And I’d love to share at “The Table”. We could maybe work on an edited version and get the word count down to a normal level. I think I broke some blogger rules on this post. ;)

  10. Thanks for your ideas! We live 6+ hours from any of our family members, so we often have long car rides. I’ll have to put these ideas into practice on our next trip!

    • I wasn’t so creative the year before…and I paid for it. ;) It really was a lot of fun seeing the kids light up at all of the surprises. There were way less meltdowns this time around. Do you do an annual trip?

  11. You’re a genius, Darcy! What great ideas. Now I just need to find some kids to travel with . . . NOT! I wouldn’t wish that on myself after that first part of your post! But with the activity box, maybe! I think a lot of parents will benefit from your wisdom.

  12. Really excellent job! Sooo many great ideas in here! I love, of course, that many of the items came from My Toy Garden! :-) We love helping families make road trips full of fun DVD free memories connecting. Congrats! Off to go brag about you on the My Toy Garden facebook page!

    • Thanks, Janet! I am thrilled that My Toy Garden moved into the neighborhood. As you know, I’ve become quite obsessed with the place. By the way, if the winner is local, I’m tucking in a coupon.

  13. I love the loony bin idea! Were you ever tempted to add an extra 5 or 10 minutes to the timer, just to give yourself some extra quiet time?! Or is it just me who takes advantage of kids who can’t tell the time yet…!

    • Funny. Have you heard the phrase, “don’t mess with happy”? Like you were saying, if the kids are calm and happy, I leave them be. As soon as I hear them start to squirm, I go for the next thing.

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  16. When my girls were young, we would travel 10 hours to visit my grandparents in Arkansas and I used this idea, but called them busy bags. Each girl got their own which I made out of fabric and it hung on the back of our chairs in front of them. They were allowed to reach into their bag only if they were good the last 30 minutes. I had coloring books, little etch-a-sketches, card games so they had to play together, and so on. I am making one now for my grandkids as we are getting ready to travel with them. Thanks for the updated idea for the younger ones.

    • Smart idea to allow them into the bags when they had been good the last 30 minutes. I will keep this in mind for when my kids are older! Thanks for reading and chiming in, Gina. :)

  17. Oh, I needed to read this. Thanks for leaving that comment that led me here. Practical advice aside (which is fantastic), there is something to be said that the emotions of mothering children (and husbands) on the road is such a tricky balance and I sometimes find all my mothering fruitless and pointless and leading to resentment…and this reminds me of why I keep doing all the work to prepare for these trips and I think on top of this I need to prepare a bit more “stillness” for myself. Thank you for the reminder.

    • Becky, Not that we didn’t have our “moments” (how could you not with kids that don’t sleep in the car?!!) but this trip went so smoothly with all of the planning, that I’m thinking how much better my regular days at home would be if I would be so intentional! Thanks not only for stopping by, but for speaking up. Hope to see more of you around here. :)

    • Glad to help another mom! Let me know what works for you…and if you have any new ideas to throw my way. I’m gearing up for another one this spring, this time with my two big(ger) kids plus my newbie 1-year-old in tow. I’m seriously thinking of putting in one of those makeshift pulley systems that I read about another parent trying out. :)

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