Picture yourself, twenty years ago, in the back of the station wagon. You’re stretched out and fighting for foot space, no seatbelt because nobody cared, and eating all the Doritos and Twizzlers from the gas station that you convinced your road-weary mother were necessities. The sugar’s kicking in and with it, the whining, the questioning, “How much longer?”
This is usually when somebody launches into “I Spy” which takes about another thirty seconds down the road before you’re bored again. Sure, “Twenty Questions” is fun when you’re smarter than everybody else in the car, but it can only last so long. In an effort to avoid déjà vu despite your new perspective from the front seat, here are 10 car games you haven’t played ad nauseam. They’ll help the kids work off the sugar, give you a break as the entertainer, and get you just a little closer to your destination.
1 | I’m Punny
We’ve all played the license plate game, the one where you have to find as many states as possible, winner takes street cred for the rest of the ride. Has anyone ever found Hawaii? If so, my hat goes off to you. This one takes the game up a notch. Instead of states, how about first prize goes to the one who spots the best pun? License plate and bumper stickers are fair game.
You know the ones I mean – the one that reads “not poor” on the back of a Mercedes or “Y U Hatn” on that low-riding Camaro with the runner lights. Or how about this bumper sticker: “If you can read this…I’m not impressed. Most people can read.” This game has lasted us hours, or years really since we can’t stop ourselves every time we’re in the car.
2 | Story Time
This one can be an extension of the first one. Want to exercise your kid’s imagination and laugh a little bit at your fellow travelers? Have a little story time. One person picks a car and begins the tale. “See that guy in the suit yelling into his Bluetooth? He’s actually a car salesman who just stole the Audi he’s speeding away in. He’s making a run for the coast where he’ll shed the suit and meet a girl and sell kayaks instead.”
You can spin these tales as long as they last, letting each person add to the saga. Fair warning, it might make you paranoid at what every other driver is thinking about you, but at least it’ll keep you entertained.
3 | I’m Going on an Adventure and I’m Bringing…
This one’s great to continue the storytelling, but with the alphabet. Someone, perhaps your current favorite child, starts the story with an “A” word or phrase and then everyone takes turns filling in the rest following the alphabet trail. So, for example, “I’m going on an adventure and I’m bringing an angry husband because we didn’t leave on time and got stuck in rush hour traffic,” and so on and so forth.
4 | Bird on a Wire
This is when you want to listen to music on your satellite station instead of kid tunes and maybe check Facebook or Instagram on your phone. It requires little parent brain power. Have the kids count how many feathery friends they can spot on telephone wires. One point for the little guys and the crows and five points for the hawks. Winner gets… the satisfaction of first place and the “hawk eye” award. And you get five minutes to yourself.
5 | Food Master
Do you have picky eaters in your house? Silly question. Do you have children in your house? If so, you’ve fought your fair share of food battles. Vacations bring more challenges than most because you’re not going to find that one brand of chicken nuggets or the plain hotdog at the taco stand.
That being said, this game will help them exercise those tentative taste buds. The title, Food Master, goes to the most adventurous eater who can find and try the most regional food along the trip (this includes gas station picks, farmers’ markets, local restaurants – anything on your path that isn’t the norm). I’ve actually tried Moose Poop in Maine in the flurry of competition. They were chocolate covered almonds, but I didn’t tell my kids that.
6 | Fortunately/Unfortunately
This one gets funny fast. It will also help you identify your glass half empty/glass half full progeny. You kick this one off with a positive statement like “Fortunately, Susie found her lost purple shoe under the bed” and someone else follows it with a negative like “Unfortunately, Susie’s purple shoe had been chewed by the neighbor’s pet monkey” and you continue. Just a heads up: Susie has a doozy of a day by the time it’s all said and done.
7 | Name Association
Want to find out if your kids are well-balanced or little sociopaths like you suspect? Play the name association game. It goes fast but the outcomes are hilarious. It also helps them practice categorizing, a skill that is harder than you’d think in those early years. It’s almost more fun when it flows erratically, though. I once threw out “moldy raisin” as our starting point and we ended with “that slide at the park that always gets too hot in the sun.” Kids are weird.
8 | Splatter Game
This one turns an annoyance into a competition. It also might turn your kids into gamblers, but if these are the highest stakes, I think they’ll be okay. Before you even leave the house, everyone picks a number of bugs they think will splatter the windshield. At each stop and squeegee clean up, you count the splats and award the closest guesser with the next pick of song choice once you hit the road again…and round two begins. I’ve actually caught myself rooting for more mosquitos in Florida. Sometimes the mind meld works in reverse.
9 | Rest Stop Pit Stop Race
This one is one hundred percent for your benefit. Remember those commercials with the owl licking the Tootsie Pop and asking, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?” Same principle, but with speed. How many minutes does it take to get to the end of a pit stop? If you have more than one kid, the answer is infinite.
To add some incentive to quicken the pace, make it a race. Award a prize to the first one who is back in the car with bladder emptied (in the restroom… boys will try to cheat). We’ve actually done a pit stop in less than five minutes. It was miraculous. The winner, ironically, got a Tootsie Pop.
10 | The Quiet Game
An oldie but a goody, the quiet game will never get old. When all the toys are boring, all the car games have been played, all the snacks eaten, all the allotted screen time used up, and all you can hear above the radio is whines of desperation and fighting yelps, it’s time to play your last card. The longest to be silent wins the prize of their parents’ undying love and gratitude.
Bonus: sometimes they’ve worn themselves out so much by now that we’ve had quiet time slide seamlessly into nap time when the silence lulls them into unconsciousness. That’s a game everybody wins.
So, before you default to “I Spy” and all the Elmo’s World DVDs, try one of these games for the long hot ride to wherever the road takes you and see if it can’t make it go just a little faster, or smoother at least. One thing’s for sure, it can’t hurt. And you might just find yourself forgetting to ask, “Are we there yet?”