"Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go," may be beautiful song lyrics, but often the reality of traveling with family during the holidays is less picturesque and far more frantic.
If you're hitting the road this holiday season — whether for an hour or six — there are tips for how to make travel with children more enjoyable for everyone in the car.
Marie Hartwell-Walker, a marriage and family therapist at Psychcentral.com, writes, "Young children can be taken on very long car trips with minimum stress and a maximum of family togetherness. The secret is simple: To travel with kids, travel in the 'kid zone.' "
How exactly does one travel in the kid zone?
"Traveling in the kid zone means accepting and working with your children's developmental ages and stages. With good planning and pacing, car trips can become the stuff of happy family memories."
■ Do as much as you can before the trip begins. If you do nothing else, plan so that you can leave calmly, which sets the tone for the trip, she suggests.
■ Travel when the kids are asleep. Put the kids in pajamas or sweats and leave late in the day. Drive for a couple of hours, stop for dinner, then settle everyone in to sleep. Most kids are lulled by the darkness and the hum of the car. Bring comfort toys and a favorite blanket or pillow or stuffed animal to make your children comfortable.
■ Plan to take longer getting there. You need to stop every two to three hours depending on your kids' temperaments. Plan on at least 20 minutes per stop. If you plan it, you won't resent it.
■ Plan stops that will break up the trip. If the trip will take 8 hours or more, identify some interesting sights to see at the halfway mark. Stopping for an hour to check out a roadside attraction will do wonders. Teresa Plowright with About.com suggests stopping to play at schools with playgrounds. Or stopping for a family picnic in a park where kids can run and play.
■ Engage with the kids. Forget about having adult conversation along the way or playing your own music. Kids travel best when adults are involved with them. Play age-appropriate games. Sing together. Playing with kids makes the miles go fast for everyone.
■ Bring food and drinks. Children need to eat more frequently than adults. You don't want to stop every time someone is thirsty. You don't want to spend the inflated prices at roadside stops. Bring along a supply of juice boxes, granola bars and dried and fresh fruit.
■ Bring activities to keep boredom at bay. Pack a bag with books, crayons and coloring books, a few toys and a few things that are reserved for car trips such as an inexpensive pair of binoculars or a kaleidoscope. Dole these items out at a time when the kids are getting restless.
Books on tape, as long as they appeal to all the young people in the car, also can be helpful.
If you have a car with a built-in DVD player, or if you have a portable player, bring a batch of DVDs. The secret is to use them judiciously. Save them for when you've run through other options or make a rule of a half hour of video every couple of hours. If movies are on constantly you'll miss out on all the other fun.
■ Realsimple.com also suggests bringing reusable bottles filled with water; a bag to collect garbage in, first-aid items and an easily accessible change of clothes in case of accidental spills.