Cross-country trips were a regular part of my growing up, thanks to my mother’s large family scattered from coast to coast. While the trips were primarily to visit relatives, my parents always incorporated outings to local landmarks. Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Pike’s Peak, and the Carlsbad Caverns are just a few of this Massachusetts girl’s summer travel memories.
As an adult now with my own children, our family travel has been more focused on the East Coast, but we’ve still enjoyed some great family field trips. Whether you bring school books with you or invite the kids to learn and explore more informally, the following ten suggestions can help you turn your family road trip into a fun and educational family field trip.
1. Research Your Destination
State websites offer loads of information ranging from historical sites and natural landmarks to cultural information and specific seasonal events. Thanks to some research and planning, our family has watched fireworks over Niagara Falls, witnessed a Kennedy Space Center rocket launch, and taken part in an Easter Sunrise Service on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Homeschooling offers the wonderful flexibility to travel when most schools are in session. This increases the variety of options available and decreases crowds in places where there could typically be long lines.
2. Explore Your Route
A road trip offers a world of opportunities between the starting point and destination, so research your chosen route. If they’re old enough, encourage the kids to help plan elements of the trip. Have them look up the states you’ll drive through and suggest stops that interest them. This will help them build research skills and ensure they are personally invested in the trip. For example, my son was fascinated by the Civil War as a preteen. One year, on our way to visit the various Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC, our family detoured slightly to Gettysburg, PA, so we could visit some Civil War sites.
3. Build Map Skills
In modern day travel, Waze and other GPS programs direct us step-by-step from point A to point B, but a road trip is a great opportunity to teach your kids some basic map skills. Before the trip, begin by familiarizing them with a bird’s eye view of all of the states (or provinces, or countries) along your route. A globe is helpful here, but country or world puzzles are also great geography tools.
Next, focus on the specific regions you’ll be traversing. Atlases can provide hours of fun exploring for curious kids. Spend time introducing the kids to map keys and the symbols for boundaries, capitals, mile scale, etc. Point out topographical features like mountains and bodies of water. Once the kids understand these map basics, focus on roadways. Challenge them to choose the best route, either for your whole trip or for one part of it.
Once you’re on your journey—even if you’re using Waze–pull out that atlas, or regional paper maps, from time to time. Have the kids follow your progress by matching road signs to exit numbers on the map. This is also a great opportunity to practice some mental math. How many miles to the state border? How many more miles to our destination in that state? Total miles to go until we get there? About how long should it take given our current miles per hour?
4. Spotlight Life Lessons
Trips rarely go 100% as planned. Use each day of your trip, including the “hiccups,” to teach appropriate life lessons. For example, travel is the perfect opportunity to reinforce good manners. Make sure your children use “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” as they interact with others. If you’re staying with family or friends along the way, have the kids help prepare a small gift for each host as well as design, or at least sign, a thank you note to leave behind. Help the kids clean up before you resume travel with the goal of leaving your surroundings even neater than when you arrived.
I remember a small “hiccup” on one family trip from Massachusetts to Florida. A hotel washcloth got mixed in with one child’s pajamas and discovered the next day when we were a couple of states away. We returned home along the same basic route and walked the laundered washcloth into that hotel, apologizing to the person behind the front desk. The man was surprised we would do that, but it was a practical lesson to our children that honesty and respect of other people’s property are important.
A more serious “hiccup” that trip occurred on the way home when our car broke down. As parents we were obviously frustrated at the timing and repair expense. But as we continued our trip we affirmed to the kids that God was clearly watching over us. We were all safe, we were near a good repair facility, near a family member’s home where we could wait out the repair work, and the transmission could be fixed versus replaced.
5. Ask the Locals
You’ll see a lot if you plan carefully, but make sure to leave some flexibility in your schedule. Why? The people you meet along the way are often happy to direct you to destinations known mainly by the locals. On a trip to Texas we visited some great, non-chain restaurants based on one local’s recommendations. When visiting the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, we had some free time and were encouraged to check out Niagara-on-the-Lake. We discovered a charming historical town that we’d never heard of filled with gorgeous lake views that we’d like to see again one day.
Talking with people from other parts of the country, or world, can be a great education in itself. Each person has a unique story to tell and a distinctive way of telling it. One personal delight is hearing the various regional accents on cross country trips. Beyond that, your children will learn that it’s often a “small world.” Well-chaperoned conversations with strangers can reveal shared tastes, experiences, and even acquaintances.
6. Incorporate Classic Pit Stops
If you’re running on empty as you travel, fill up at the nearest gas station, but you can add some fun flavor to your family trip if you aim for classic road trip pit stops. As we drove from New England to Florida every few years, we made a point to stop at a few Stuckey’s along the way. If anyone has ever enjoyed their classic pecan log roll you’ll know why! South of the Border, in South Carolina, was another occasional stop. Distinctive for its over-the-top Mexican-themed décor, food, and shopping, this notable pit stop—and the many clever roadside billboards advertising it—has provided a memorable experience for millions of travelers.
On a visit to Texas, a friendly local suggested we refuel at a Buc-ee’s. He said it would be a fun experience and offer the cleanest restrooms we’d ever find. Sure enough, we now aim for Buc-ee’s whenever we’re near them. After filling up the car we head inside to browse the extensive merchandise, enjoy a hot bar-b-que sandwich with sweet tea, and purchase a treat for later from the bakery. Two Buc-ee’s even hold current world records—world’s largest convenience store (Braunfels, TX) and world’s longest car wash (Katy, TX).
7. Journal Along the Way
While I remember the highlights of most family trips, the details fade over time. For this reason I have each child old enough to write record the events of each day in a personal notebook or journal. An entry could simply include the date, your starting point and ending point on that date, and any stops along the way. Or add in descriptions of people, impressions of different parts of the country, facts, and lessons learned.
Journaling can be a before-bed-each-night activity or something done in the car each morning as you start the next leg of your journey. If you have a young artist, choose a journal with unlined pages and encourage them to draw something they see each day of the trip.
8. Visit State Welcome Centers
Also called visitor information centers, these stops offer much more than the opportunity to stretch your legs or use a restroom. Many provide educational displays on the history of the state, brochures describing area attractions, and transportation maps. Some even have food and souvenir shops. You could task each child with sharing a new, interesting fact about the state once you resume your journey. For example, what is the state bird, flower, or crop?
These centers also serve as mile markers for long trips. As a youngster I always looked forward to stopping at the Florida Welcome Center on I-95 when my family made its Massachusetts-to-Florida drives. Not only did it mean we’d reached our destination state and would see my grandparents soon, it also meant there would be a free cup of Florida orange juice to enjoy.
9. Mix It Up
Driving all day is tiring, and driving for multiple days straight can be a recipe for exhaustion. When planning your route, alternate long driving days with shorter ones where everyone can swim, explore, or simply rest. Mix up the riding time as well. Listen to audio books as a family. If individual school work needs to be completed and kids don’t struggle with car sickness, specify each day’s travel “school” hours. This ensures the entire family is free at other times and able to linger at that beautiful overlook or fun restaurant.
Pull out books to read aloud or have kids read to themselves. Turn on a favorite road trip play list. Supply healthy snacks and car-friendly games. Simple games like “I spy…” and “Find a license plate from every state” keep riders engaged and help to pass the time more quickly. If your vehicle has a DVD player, set aside a time on the longest drive days for a family-friendly movie.
The best travel vacations in my memory offered great variety–time with family, time with friends, time to explore area attractions, and time to simply relax. And don’t forget to honor the Sabbath while on the road. A simple family church service in a unique setting can be sweet, but so can visiting local churches along the way. Just do a little research to make sure you’re comfortable with a church’s theology.
10. Document Your Trip
Is mom, dad, or one of the kids a great photographer? Try to visually capture the highlights of the trip as well as some of the everyday moments. Do each of the kids have their own phone with camera? Set up an informal family photo contest where each person shares their favorite few photos once you’re home and everyone can vote for a winner.
If photography isn’t your thing, collect postcards from each state you drive through and each attraction you visit. Combine photos and postcards with a printed itinerary and brochures to assemble a family scrapbook documenting your trip. Or if your children are old enough, have each of them assemble their own scrapbook once you are home. Include their personal journal pages. Just as reading a good book can transport you to a different place and time, reading through the trip journal or flipping through that scrapbook years later will make it feel like just yesterday.
Learning Along the Way
One of the joys of homeschooling is experiencing more of life together as a family. We learn together at home, both students and parents. Trips broaden that learning arena to the world, engaging our senses as we see new places, taste new foods, hear new accents, and touch objects we’ve only read about in books.
These ten suggestions are not exhaustive. Add to them or adapt them to fit your unique family and situation. With just a little planning, that upcoming road trip can go from long and monotonous to fun and educational. Your kids can emerge with new map skills, writing skills and life skills. They may discover a new fascination with art, photography, or a specific historical era or geographic region. Even if you leave the textbooks at home, your family will be learning, having fun, and making special memories on your very own family field trip.
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