Parents of children with special needs must always work harder than most parents even for the simplest things. A road trip, which is fun for most families, is a nightmare to many special needs families. How can a special needs family enjoy a road trip without meltdowns and upsets for all passengers? A successful road trip begins long before the departure day. Plan, prepare, and pack carefully so that all chances for a pleasant day or a longer road trip with kids are on your side. Road trips with kids can be a wonderful experience and you do not need a limousine.
However, to be realistic, sometimes no amount of planning can make everything go smoothly. Parents should mentally prepare themselves and their children that IF a hitch in their plans prevents the trip, shortens it, or makes it almost a fiasco, there is always a next time. Everyone must feel that they did their up-most to make it work and that it is NO ONE’S fault. You are a family and family members forgive, forget and forge ahead.
An alternative to family outings that works well for some families is to take trips separately. Have the child with special needs go alone with a parent or both parents while the others are cared for at home. Then on a separate occasion, perhaps when grandma babysits the child with different needs and interests, the others have their turn.
Planning Road Trips with Kids
You will be surprised how successfully your family can play tourist just a few hours’ drive from your home. It is a good idea to try a day trip before attempting a long road trip. Planning is KEY but it needs to be done months ahead of time.
- Gather information, web site addresses, maps, schedules, and order the free handouts most areas have about visiting their sites.
- Check the hours of operation of places you want to visit.
- Find out the price breaks, family days, and special perks at the family attractions you will visit.
- Read up on Geo-caching in your area. Or check their site here. Geo-caching is a great, free family adventure.
- Decide where most of your stops will be and check to make sure you know the addresses to quickly find them.
- Decide where meals will be eaten. If you will be picnicking, know where picnic sites are located.
- Know the location of kid friendly restaurants along your route… for plan B in case of rain.
- Use Social Stories to prepare your children with a change in routine and to know what to expect during the trip. New life skills as well as speech and language skills can be developed during such a trip.
- To be on the safe side you can have identification bracelets for each child with contact information. This is especially important if you have a “runner” or “wanderer”. SafetyTats – The Tat That Brings Your Kids Back! are easy to use and not expensive.
Preparing for Road Trips for Kids
Involve the children in planning the trip. Besides assuring a more patient passenger crew, your kids will learn map reading skills, how to search the internet for spots of interest, and learn to read for a purpose. Let them locate on a map a different route to return by so they can use their map skills and it will be a more interesting ride home.
Plan together the departure time and where to stop to eat, rest, and let off steam.
Have the kids pack each a bag with their favorite car toys or distractions. It is also a good experience to have them pack what they might need for the trip like sweaters, change of clothes, swimming gear, water bottles, sun screen, hand sanitizer, running shoes… this is a valuable life skill.
It is important to make kids comfortable too. Let them bring a pillow, a blanket or snuggy toy for quiet time and when they are sleepy. Our KidCompanions Chewelry or for your aggressive chewers our SentioCHEWS can comfort and calm anxious kids while travelling. If chewing or biting is not their thing, these pendants double-up as efficient hand fidgets.
Parents should also pack a bag of tricks with new gadgets, games, and even their list of car activities for when the kids are tired of their own things. Include a first aid kit, medication, wipes, snacks, and don’t forget all those pamphlets of the places you want to see. Remember the cell phone charger!
Be sure you have good air-conditioning. A pull-down shade is also very much appreciated and can be a great solution on sunny days.
When To Leave on a Road Trip with Kids
If you have a child who is carsick (motion sickness) talk to your family doctor or pharmacist for the latest remedy/medication/suggestions for this unfortunate child. Follow their instructions; bring the medication you will need for the return trip, a change of clothes, and something this child might need if she gets nauseated and feels she will throw up. Have this child sit where she feels better and reassure her that you will stop anytime she wants if she feels sick.
Leave home when your children are rested, fed, and have had a chance to run around to use up their energy. Have each child use the bathroom minutes before you leave. We always traveled with a “pee pot” and other toileting essentials. Nothing like being prepared when the rest stops are miles from each other. Bon voyage!
Tips for Making Road Trips with Kids FUN
- Visit a farm and pick your own fruit or vegetables for an exercise break.
- Stop at an airport or train terminal for a break, washrooms are clean and whose kids do not love planes and trains!
- Have a family quest for one of your stops. Walk about a small town, park, or rest stop to locate and photograph a list of landmarks you have previously written down… during that valuable preparation time.
- Picnic at a park or road side tables. A small refrigerator that is placed in the car trunk and plugs in your car is handy to store foods safely. In the evening wherever we stopped we just brought it in our hotel room and plugged it there ready for another day.
- Stop in towns with public playgrounds with swings, slides, and monkey bars.
- Check if companies/manufacturers allow tours of their facilities. One of the best stops our family had was at company making cymbals.
- Locate Farmers’ Markets and walk about choosing fresh fruit, vegetables, fresh bread, and cheese for a healthy snack.
What to Do In the Car
- Use games, songs, mind games, guessing games, storytelling, and other easy activities to make the miles pass quickly.
- Play detective and learn about your provinces or states by checking the license plates and listing them where they are from. Better still add math to the mix and make bar graphs to show your data. A map of your country to find each place is a wonderful geography lesson.
- Have a kid friendly road map (or each one) so they can follow along and really know “are we there yet?”
- Have small notebooks with unlined paper for each child to make a trip-journal. After each stop and along the way announce “Journal writing/drawing times”. Motivate them with the promise of photos of your day that they will add when you return home.
- Sing your way to the next stop. Get CD’s of scout camp songs, campfire songs, day camp songs, and marching songs with lots of repetition so kids can join along in minutes.
- Bring hand held video games.
- Have a flat surface for each child, pencils, crayons, and markers for drawing, coloring, and filling in activity books with “pencil games”.
- Have individual magnetic games, packs of playing cards, string for Cats Cradle or String Loops, and fidgets for quiet time.
- Provide earphones, favourite music, audio books … for your sensitive child if the above activities are not suitable.
Remember road trips are for fun with your family. If you can add a few educational aspects to them, all the better. No amount of planning can cover all the aspects of a family trip. Sometimes the best thing is to abandon the plan and use it another time! A ‘spur of the moment’ idea or a stop at a wonderful spot where you spend the rest of the day can become the perfect trip!
This is an awesome post and web blog. I am very greatful to have people like you who share this great information and compassion for families with CSHCN.
Thanks Kathy Willits for leaving a comment. I am pleased you like our blog for Children with Special Health Care Needs (CSHCN).
Yes, yes and yes! This is an awesome article. We have been taking family camping trips for the past 5 years with our 6 children (including our 3 boys with special needs!). The key to success for us has been planning…plan ahead, plan for a diversion, plan for anything and everything!
Thanks Nicole for your comment on our post about Tips for Family Road Trips with Kids with Special Needs. It is great to read that your family enjoys family camping trips. My husband and I have also taken our three children every summer on camping trips. Enjoy your coming free time together!
My family has lived 600 miles from my grandparents for most of my life. Now as the mom taking my own children, I have used many of the same tricks that my mom used. We always had metal baking sheets for each child. This is a great surface for magnetic items and the turned up edge helps catch run away crayons. We also brought pillows and small blankets to allow for everyone’s thermal comfort level.
The suggestions above are great! You covered a ton of stuff that most folks won’t consider.
Thank you so much for your excellent idea and kind comment, Christy! Yes, metal baking sheets would be perfect for each child with its turned up edges to stop “run away” pieces/toys. Happy family travels!
Lorna D Entremont, thank you for sharing this very thoughtful post. This post is fascinating and is sure to help many parents. I like the tips you have shared on making road trips with kids fun. It is vital that the child stays entertained so that the trip goes well for all.