If your family is traveling in the car this summer, keep boredom at bay and hone your kids’ academic skills with these innovative suggestions.
1 Fortunately, unfortunately. Create a story that goes back and forth from good to bad. The first person may say, “There once was a girl who lived in a castle…” The next person continues with, “Unfortunately…” and comes up with bad news such as, “The castle was attacked by a dragon…” Then the next person says, “Fortunately…” and adds something good to the story, and so on until it reaches a happy ending.
2 Animal amusements. Name an animal, then have the next person think of a different animal whose name begins with the last sound or letter of the proceeding animal. For example, if the first person says, “Tiger,” the second person could say, “Rhinoceros,” and the third person could say, “Snake.” This activity could be done with sports teams, music groups, movies — whatever your child’s interest is.
3 Practice makes perfect. Buy a small white board with an attached marker so your kids can practice writing letters and numbers, drawing pictures or playing simple games. These boards are magnetic, so bring along magnetic letters and numbers for little ones to practice counting and spelling words. Also, put one letter on a page that corresponds to the place you are traveling to, then add short words and pictures that begin with that letter. If you are going to Tennessee, make a “T” page so your children can trace the letter and color the page. Give them pipe cleaners to try to shape letters, too.
4 Count me in! Put a new spin on the “Twenty Questions” game by including numbers. Pick a number, then have your kids ask: “Is it odd or even?” or, “Greater than five?” For younger children, choose a number between one and 10; for older ones, up the ante with larger figures and more difficult questions: “Is it a factor of two?” or, “Divisible by five?”
5 Tally it up. Watch for numbers on road signs and write them down. After you’ve found five different figures, add them up. Or, have two people put both hands behind their backs, then quickly bring them forward to show any number of fingers they want. The first person to add all the fingers correctly and shout out the answer wins. For older children, step up the challenge by incorporating subtraction, multiplication or division into these games.
6 Writing reflections. Encourage your children to write a journal entry for each day of the trip and include superlatives: the best part of the day, worst part, something unexpected, etc. List them as bullets, or write them in sentences and paragraphs. Punctuate certain items through illustrations. If you have preschoolers, record their words and let them draw corresponding pictures. Make it into a scrapbook by including small items they collected or purchased along the way.
7 Book discussions. Listen to a book on tape or CD and discuss the plot, characters and setting. Turn off the CD at critical points and discuss what will happen next: “Are you feeling uneasy about this?” “What do you think of that character?” “How do you think the story will end?” If you are visiting a historic site, find books with the setting in that location.
8 Simply stated. Print out a blank copy of a map of the United States with the states outlined. As you travel, look for license plates from each state and color that state in. Or, attach points to each state. Ones local to this region could be worth one point. Further away, five points. Hawaii or Alaska, 15 points. Whoever has the most points at the end of the trip wins. Also, find a map of the region you are visiting and draw the route for your kids to follow along. Maps can be printed off at www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas.
9 Scavenger hunt. Divide the game into three parts: city, suburbs and rural. Under each section, write or draw pictures of things for your children to look for. Then, they can check it off as you travel. For the city, it might be a bus or a red light. For the country, it could be a cow, barn, pond or forest. For the suburbs, a Walmart, post office or delivery van.
10 Rhyming ramble. Play rhyming rounds by starting with a word such as “ball.” Everyone comes up with words that rhyme until the list is exhausted. Then, move on to a new word.
11 Word scramble. On a piece of paper, write the city and state of your destination and see how many words your children can make using those letters. Offer incentives for words that use more than three letters.
12 Science savvy. If your children are interested in a particular facet of nature — such as rocks or birds — pick up a small field guide before you leave home. When you stop at a rest area, look for those types of nature items and compare it with what’s in the book: “Is this an igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic rock?” “What kind of bird did this feather come from?”
Denise Morrison Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.