When we decided on a family road trip throughout the Southeastern United States this summer, I purposely researched plenty of outdoor activities — something the whole family loves to do. We hiked to waterfalls, went river rafting and tubing, and had dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant where we sat on floor cushions instead of chairs. Everyone had a blast. I could have planned an afternoon shopping excursion that the kids would simply have had to endure, but I decided it wasn’t worth it. I wanted to max out the time we had with our boys, who are 9 and 11. Our lives are so busy that each day at home can feel like a marathon between work, school, chores, and activities. Vacations are the only time when we can all just enjoy each other’s company without distractions and try new things together. With that in mind, here are more ways to connect with your kids on your next family vacation.
1. Plan one-on-one time with your kids. Rather than doing everything together when we vacation as a family, we let each child enjoy one-on-one time with each parent. The dynamic is different when it’s just two of you, and that special time can go a long way towards building bonds as well as memories.
2. Buy each family member a colorful journal. Write about vacation adventures as they happen, then swap journals with each other at some point. It’s fun to see the unique way each family member describes the same activities and landmarks. Cut the journal pages out and make a scrapbook with them later, if you want to.
3. Fill your vacation with quirky adventures. Besides the usual landmarks, there are tons of off-the-beaten path discoveries to be made when traveling (consult apps such as Roadside America and Road Trippers for inspiration). On our recent family road trip, we stumbled upon the Asheville Pinball Museum. Everyone got a kick out of the vintage video game consoles, even the adults (hello Ms. Pacman, it’s been a while). This quirky, unexpected break from the summer heat turned out to be one of the trip’s highlights.
4. Unplug — and that includes you, too. Set up rules for when and how you use phones, tablets, and gaming devices can be used on the trip (or leave them at home). When you’re on the phone together or the hotel room at night, for example, play hangman or Tic Tac Toe, or simply start talking, instead of automatically opening a laptop or gaming device.
5. Stick to your normal bedtime routine. “When sleep schedules are off and routines shift, kids can become exhausted and cranky,” says Katie Hurley, a child psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook. Solve the problem by mimicking the bedtime routine you have at home, to help them doze off more easily, she suggests. Whether you curl up with a book or simply snooze together, you’ll be taking advantage of precious family time, which is what vacas are all about.
6. Give your trip a hashtag. If your kids are old enough to be on social media, giving your family its own vaca hashtag, such as #SmithFamilyVaca2015, is a fun way to connect everyone (tweens and teens, especially). For littles who aren’t old enough for their own social media accounts yet, explain the idea behind a hashtag — a phrase or word that connects people to one idea — and turn it into a verbal thing. Every time the fam shares a special moment or even a hilarious vacation mishap, someone can call out the hashtag.
7. Don’t overschedule your vacation. While it might be tempting to see every landmark in a new city, Hurley suggests leaving some vacation time unscheduled. This way if you stumble across a fun park or an ice cream shop, you can take time to explore without feeling stressed. “I try to remind myself that I’m there to make memories and bond with my kids, not to complete a travel checklist,” she adds.
8. Let kids in on the planning. Let your child choose, say, one activity each day. “That will help make the trip more fun and memorable for them,” Kelleher says. “As your kids get older, you may be surprised to see new interests replace old ones!”
9. Don’t be afraid to do something you can do at home. On our recent family trip, I booked a hotel next to go-cart racetrack. The kids loved having it right next door, and while it may sound weird to do something you could feasibly do at home, how often do you actually race cars alongside your kids? The fact that we were on vacation meant the adults got into the fun, too, instead of just being spectators. The boys still talk about how they smoked us on the racetrack!
10. Make family dinners a priority. While you may want to have dinner with your kids every night, work schedules and extracurricular activities can wreak havoc on good intentions, but all of those distractions disappear on vacation. You’ve heard all the research that highlights the importance of family mealtime, and there’s no better time to break bread with your kids than when you’re on vacation together!
11. Pack conversation starters. They’re perfect for road trips and airplane rides. (Need inspiration? Try these cards.) You can ask funny questions that will have everyone cracking up (What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever smelled?) or go for more emotional ones (What’s your favorite thing that Mom/Dad/Sister does for you?). We played this on a family road trip this summer and it made great use of our time together stuck in the car — plus it was way more rewarding than listening to them play on their iPads.