Things to Keep Children Amused on Long Journeys Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Things to Keep Children Amused on Long Journeys

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A boy and girl about to get into a classic car
Are we nearly there yet?

It's the nightmare of every parent.

You've planned everything down to the last detail; leaving time, arrival time and places to stop and eat. However, it is always far too easy to forget the kids. On long journeys - be it plane, train, car or other - you have to find a way to keep the cherubs occupied for hours on end.

Well here are a few suggestions...

Mind Games

The games in this section deal with those games for teenagers and adults that will help while away the hours on excessively long trips. They require some brain power and general knowledge and, as such, they are not really appropriate for young children.

The Question Game

You get a couple of people who are with you and the first person asks a question. For instance 'Why are we playing this game?', and the following person has to respond with a question, such as 'I don't know, didn't you start it?' and so on until someone answers with a statement.

I Went to the Store

In this game, the first player will start the game by saying 'I went to the store, and I bought...', followed by something that starts with the letter 'A'. The next person says the same thing (including what the previous player said), and adds something that starts with the letter 'B'. If you manage to keep a game going to 'Z', you can start a new alphabet.

An example of a short game would be something like this:

  1. I went to the store, and I bought an apple.

  2. I went to the store, and I bought an apple, and a banana.

  3. I went to the store, and I bought an apple, a banana, and a cookie.

  4. I went to the store, and I bought an apple, a banana, a cookie, and a doormat.

  5. I went to the store, and I bought an apple, a banana, a cookie, a doormat, and an envelope.

If a player forgets what one of the letters is supposed to be, they are out. The last player remaining wins.

The Name Game

Quite simply, you have to come up with the name of a celebrity, (or literary figure, cartoon character, etc) that would be commonly known to at least two of the participants, whose first name begins with the first letter of the previous person's last name.

An example game would run as follows;

  1. John Cleese
  2. Clive Anderson
  3. Adam Ant

The third answer reverses the order since the first and last name begin with the same letter

The Kevin Bacon Game

Slightly older children might wish to take part in the Kevin Bacon Game. The theory is that every living actor in Hollywood can be linked to Kevin Bacon in just five steps - plus some of the dead ones, too.

An example - Vivien Leigh.

  1. Vivien Leigh.

  2. Marlon Brando starred with Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.

  3. Al Pacino starred with Brando in The Godfather.

  4. Robert de Niro starred with Pacino in The Godfather Part II.

  5. Kevin Bacon starred with de Niro in Sleepers.

Of course, this does require that you have something of an encyclopedic knowledge of films.

Alphabet Games

The games in this section deal with those pastimes that use the alphabet as the essential element. The games here are also educational.

Alphabet on Signs

This is a fairly common game for car travel. Each person on their own tries to find every letter of the alphabet, in order, on signs, car number plates, etc. If more than one person is looking for the same letter, the first one to spot it out loud gets the letter. Usually, even if someone gets far ahead, they get stumped trying to find a particular letter and others soon catch up.

Alphabet Song Game

This one is generally for older kids or adults who also need something to occupy their mind, and works well to keep the driver alert when driving long distances at night. You rotate through the alphabet and the first person has to think of a song title that starts with 'A' and then sing the first line or two. The next person has 'B' and so on in rotation. If you play this game, here are a few songs that may help: 'Que Sera', 'Xanadu', 'Zippity Doo-Dah'.

You can vary this game by using band names and film titles.

The City Alphabet

One player names a town/city eg London. The next person has to name a town beginning with the last letter of the previous town/city in this example Newcastle would do.

No repeats of towns are allowed, and the adults can join in as well, either in teams or as separate players. Towns ending in Y are particularly mean.

The Car Alphabet

Another word game involves number plates on other cars. What you do is take the three letters on the number plate and try and make up a sentence/phrase/name that these letters could be an acronym for. There are no real winners, but it takes up a good bit of time, and even parents can join in.

Alternatively, take the letters of the car number plate and attempt to make a funny phrase out of it, using the letters as the initials of a phrase. For example car number plate M238 AMD becomes 'Mandy Ate My Dad'.

I Spy Games

The game of I Spy and its variant I Can't Spy are well known and are all too often ignored. However, below you'll find some more interesting variants on this old favourite.

Lorry Spotting

This game involves the spotting of various makes of lorries. The scoring is as follows:

  • Eddie Stobbart = 1 point (spot the name on front = bonus point)
  • Prestons of Potto = 5 points
  • Norbert Den Tresangle = 20 points (very rare)

This game is not limited to just lorries. Below is one Researcher's own variant but this example also highlights any potential pitfalls.

Being a caravan owner, I used to get my kids to count caravans. One day I was travelling south, spotted a northbound caravan and missed the turn-off for the M18. I was seven miles further south before I could turn round and rectify the error.

The Tractor Game

The Tractor Game is very simple and great fun, all you need to do is spot tractors from your car or train1 window and score points to see who is the winner. You can make up your own points system, but an example is as follows:

  • Red Tractor = 3 points
  • Green Tractor = 2 points
  • Blue / other coloured tractor = 1 point
  • Any of the above with a trailer attached = 1 bonus point
  • Any tractor moving = 1 bonus point
  • Combine Harvester = 5 points
  • Combine Harvester moving = 7 points

The person who sees and calls out the tractor first scores the points. Some examples are:

  • If you see a stationary green tractor in a farmyard, it scores 2 points.
  • If you see a blue tractor pulling a trailer across a field, it scores 3 points.
  • A red tractor with a trailer moving across a field scores 5 points

And so on until the end of your journey. If playing in the car, it may be easier to split into teams, for instance, left hand side v right hand side with each team scoring points for their side of the road.

Various Spotting Games

  • Pick an object ahead (say a lamp post), close your eyes and say 'Now!' when you think you are beside it.

  • Every time you spot a flag you make a blowing sound like the noise of a flag blowing in the wind. Keeping score individually or by teams.

  • Every time you spot an umbrella you say 'rain, rain'. Again keeping score individually or by teams.

  • The animal game is the one where you get a point for every live animal you spot on the roadside. In the countryside it can get kind of silly with all the cows in fields you'll pass, but it's amusing for about half an hour.

  • Pick an odd colour and keep a sharp eye out for that same coloured vehicle. It's amusing and surprising just how many purple cars there are on the roads.

  • Foreign car spotting is another favourite - the more you see the more points you get.

Activity Games

Keeping kids occupied in the car is easy, just make sure it's you've got more than one. Two or more children in a car will quite happily amuse themselves with a selection of the following games:

Arm Wrestling

Pull down the arm rest between the two back seats, then watch in amusement as the children battle it out, making sure their sibling hasn't managed to sneak a nanometre over the half-way line while slowly moving forward with the speed of an oncoming glacier to try and get that little bit extra space.

The Humming Game

For this you need one child who is the quiet, studious type, and one who is the loud, sadistic type. The first child is required to either attempt to read a book, or simply go to sleep. The second child's challenge is then to attempt a family sing along. The first child will attempt to silence the second by asking the parents to shut them up. The second child will continue to sing, at a lower volume. The first child will then repeat the process, and the second child will sing a little quieter, somehow becoming more annoying. The second child will have won when they don't need to sing to distract the first, they will be so busy listening for that mice-on-comb-and-paper voice that any hopes of sleep or reading are banished.

Getting the Last Word

This game requires patience and subtlety. The first player makes a statement, the second player must disagree by saying 'No it isn't' or words to that affect. The first player says 'Yes it is' and this continues until the parents intervene to shut the pair of them up. Then the game begins properly.

The aim is to wait as long as possible, then say either 'Is not' or 'Is so' depending on which side you are playing. This must be said so quietly that the parents don't hear you, but the other player does. The winner is the person to get the last word.

The Quiet Game

The Quiet Game is where you sit as quietly as possible for as long as you can. The last one to make a noise is the winner.

Computer Games

There's nothing better than a hand held games console for any child over the age of about five. For any child under that age the recommended way to keep them quiet is to allow them to watch the over fives playing the game. There may be the need to listen to the occasional update report on what's going on in the game, but that's about it.

Make sure you have a variety of games. It's pretty easy to find a video rental place that will rent them out. Also make sure you have many, many batteries, if you run out then you will be forced to either be annoyed for the entire trip or buy more at the ridiculous prices of gas stations.

If you have two youngsters to entertain, try getting two Game Boys and two Pokémon cartridges, a red one and a blue one. Have each child try and get to the end of the different games before the end of the trip. The neat thing about this is the competition will keep them busy and they will have to work together to win since the cartridges will have different Pokémon.

For overnight trips, when there obviously will be no light, but the kids can't get to sleep, or just want to finish the level of the game make sure you've remembered one of those Game Boy light attachments. You don't want to have to use the light in the top of the car, because that tends to cause a glare on the windshield which can be dangerous.


It is said that it is the little things in life that give the greatest pleasure. Here are some things you should include to keep the little cherubs quiet - very quiet.

  • Bring along an old Boy Scout songbook; it will keep them occupied for hours and the whole family can join in.

  • Let them have their own CD player/Walkman with headphones and an endless supply of batteries and munchies. Then they can all listen to their own stories/music at their own pace. Brilliant. For a long journey they get a fresh batch of story tapes that they haven't heard before. If they want to make a mess of the car, let them. You can always show the pigsty to Grandma and she will insist they remedy the situation.

  • Play The Beatles on your car stereo, of course, and let everyone sing along.

  • Get a map, some markers, and then let the kid find all the rivers and lakes, if there are any... have them circle them. Ask if they can find certain things on the map. Obviously, simple things like shapes made by the roads, then go on to graduate to more difficult things as the map is easier for the child to understand. They can make a big mess of it if they want.

    And in case of the dreaded question at the top of this entry, here's your answer:

    No, honey, we aren't at the park yet... but I'll show you where we are on the map and you can draw a park there!
  • The Harry Potter books in the car on long car trips are ideal. Absolutely silence. No fights. No asking 'Are we there yet'. They just listen to the story.

  • It is absolutely vital to bring your own cooler of drinks. Most roadside stops only have highly sugared drinks loaded with caffeine - a toxic combination for long, boring road trips with small children. You don't want a kid in the back seat bouncing off the walls when you're still five hours from your destination. Pack fruit juices and water. You'll be glad you did.

  • Always travel with a large 'snack bag' filled with munchies like raisins, crackers, chewing gum, pretzels, grapes and other fruit. A bored child is always happy to exercise his/her chompers for a bit driving down the highway. Prohibiting eating in the car at all other times makes this an extra special treat!

  • Outside of food, a deck of playing cards is a good idea - a game of 'War' can last for hours. A pad and pencils, pens, and crayons is a nice quiet activity for youngsters.

  • A small pair of opera glasses can be amusing for hours as the wee ones look off into the distance and marvel at how close those objects appear.

  • Wet naps! Whoever invented these self-contained pre-moistened napkins should be given a Nobel Prize. Nothing cleans up messes better.

  • Fill the backseat up with pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, and every other soft thing you are taking with you. The resulting pile becomes a special bed where the kids can curl up and doze off. Definitely more comfortable than the seats.

And here's one Researcher's tip if you are an only child or there isn't another sibling to annoy.

I was allowed to take a carry-on box filled with action figures, stuffed animals, miniature cars, dolls and so forth. Then my parents helped me to drape a thin sheet over the backs of their chairs and beneath their fully lowered head rests. I then proceeded to play fantasy games for hours with a mild but persistent belief that I was doing so 'in private'. I wouldn't recommend this for more than one child. But it was a super solution for an only child like myself.

In Case of Emergency

These are some tips that are meant to be used in extreme cases where the little loved ones just won't shut up.

Give the toddler a really large packet of plain biscuits to eat. But don't open the packet. It will take them ages to get to the biscuits, and then they'll take ages to eat the packet. Not recommended for every day nutrition, but in an emergency or in desperation it's ideal.

Children can be very loud when they want to - and very hyperactive. If this is the case, the best thing to do is pull off the road at a rest stop, or any likely looking field, and let the kiddywinks run and play for as long as they like.

It usually takes about an hour.

When they have burnt every last drop of energy, then let them shuffle back to the car. Within five miles, all you will hear from the back seat is snoring.

That extra hour will slow you down but at least the rest of the journey will be quiet - very quiet.

1But not usually played on a ferry.

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