In the privacy of your own car, you can laugh as loud as you want or shout out the answers to questions. So don't hold back when you play these games — laugh, yell, or sing your hearts out. The ideas are well suited to driving as they don't involve writing.
Eating an Alphabet
Let your half-starved brood describe how hungry they are in this game, best played about half an hour before you make a pit stop for food. This version of the "I'm Packing for a Picnic" game begins when you announce "I'm so hungry I could eat an aviator" ("alligator," or "apple"). The next player adds on with a B word. She might say, "I'm so hungry I could eat an aviator and a bunny rabbit" ("belly button," or "bologna slice"). See if you can keep it up until your family is eating zoos, zippers, or zigzags.
Take turns picking out four words from road signs. Give the words to the other players who have 1 minute to turn the words into a four-line, rhyming poem using one word per line.
One Minute of Words
Everybody gets a pencil and paper. Someone has to be the timekeeper (a good job for a grown-up). The timekeeper picks a letter, tells it to everyone else, and shouts "Go!" Players write as many words as possible that start with that letter. When a minute is up, the timekeeper says "Stop!" and all the players put down their pencils. Whoever has the most legitimate words wins. Decide in advance whether you can finish writing a word you've already started when the game ends. Now, give yourself one more minute to write a sentence with as many of the words as you can.
Give your child a word challenge by asking her to make as many words as she can from the letters in a phrase such as "Are we there yet?" or "When will we be at the zoo?"
Race to 20
Two players take turns counting to twenty. On each turn, a player can say one or two numbers. (If the first says "One," the second might say "Two, three.") Try to force your opponent to reach twenty first.
This is a team effort to try to reach 100 without making a mistake. Take turns counting, beginning with one. Every time you get to a number that's divisible by seven (7, 14, 21, . . .) or has a seven in it (17), say "Buzz" instead of the number. If one person forgets to say "Buzz," everyone has to start over. If this is too hard, say "Buzz" for every number divisible by 5. If you want a real challenge, try Fuzz Buzz. Say "Fuzz" for every number with a three in it or that's divisible by three, and "Buzz" for every number with a seven in it or that's divisible by seven.
Someone says, "I spy with my little eye something green." Whoever guesses the item correctly goes next. You could limit the items to what's in the area. Or you could get tricky and play I Spied, selecting items that you've already passed.
Name a guess master -- the person who poses a guessing challenge. He or she could ask passengers to guess the color of the next passing car, or how long before you get to the next town. Or, with three clues, what it is that someone else sees.
The House on the Hill
Invent stories about people in the houses you are driving by. What do you think they do for work? What's their favorite food? Where do they go on vacation? Get into lots of details, such as whether they snore loudly or are afraid of spiders. Give them names, hobbies, pets, and so on.
Guess My Name
In this acting game players imitate the motions, habits, and expressions of a famous person, such as an athlete, politician, musician, or actor. The clincher: No talking allowed! Players can ask Yes or No questions (which are met by a nod or a shake). The correct guesser does the next impression.
Two Truths and One Lie
The first person makes three statements about himself or herself. Two are true; the other is a lie. For example, you could say, "I had a dog named Puddles. My sister cut off my hair once when I was asleep. I won the school spelling bee when I was in third grade." Everybody then holds up one, two, or three fingers to show which statement they think is the lie. Reveal the answer and let the next person fib away.
Six top games to beat the fidgets: leapfrog, four square, spud, tag, Frisbee, wheelbarrow races.
Here's an easy activity while you wait for restaurant food to arrive. Grab the sugar packets on the table and try these sweet games: Arrange 12, 16, 20, or 24 packets on the table in straight lines of four. Now have two players take turns removing one, two, or three packets at a time. The player who picks up the last packet loses. Or, hide an even number of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters under the packets and take turns trying to find matching pairs.
On a paper restaurant menu, take turns crossing out key words. Then have your kids read aloud the new and often grotesque combinations they've created. Anyone for Pepperoni Cake with Strawberry Lettuce?
Car Scavenger Hunt
Hand your kids a pack of index cards and ask them to write or draw pictures of 50 things they might see on a trip. Keep the cards for scavenger hunts when players vie to match what they see with the cards.
When you crave an active car game, pack up the books and puzzles and thumb wrestle. Two players sitting next to each other hook the four fingers of their right hands together so both of their right thumbs are sticking straight up. The object is to pin down your opponent's right thumb using your right thumb.
This all-ages game is easily adaptable to your kids' attention spans and the amount of time you have to play. All you do is agree on a basic color — such as red, blue, green, or yellow — and challenge your kids to 100 items that are this color. Younger kids can play a shortened version — counting items to 10 or even 25; older kids will be challenged if you set a time limit and make them race against one another. You can also give each player a different color to search for.
Start with A to Z anyplace in the world: Kansas, say. The next person has to think of a place that begins with the last letter of Kansas, such as South Africa. Whoever goes next needs a place that starts with A. It has to be a real place — and no using a map!
Secret Highway Messages
Pass out the pencils and paper, and keep your eyes peeled for official road signs. Each time you spot one, write down the first letter. When you've passed five to seven signs — and have five to seven letters — you're ready to crack the code. Here's how: each letter stands for a word. So the letters D, S, C, S, and A could stand for the secret message "Drive slowly, construction starts ahead." Of course, others in your family may interpret it as "Dad, stop, candy store ahead."
On a rainy day, each player traces the course of a raindrop down the car window. The first drop to reach the bottom wins.
Give your kids 25 cents in pennies at the start of the trip. Each time they fight or whine, charge them a penny. Offer a reward, such as doubling or tripling their money, if they haven't lost a cent during the ride.
Wager and Win
Kids are natural wagerers — they love to bet how much, how long, how far, how many. If you're in a bind for a moment's entertainment, ask them to guess the number of French fries on your plate or to estimate how many steps it will take to walk to your airport gate. The key here is to be able to verify the guesses — you'll need to wear a watch with a second hand and carry a calculator.
Kids love challenges. Need to get rid of the trash in the car? See who can smash the trash into the smallest paper ball, then toss it in the wastepaper bag. Want quiet time? Hold a five-minute silence contest. Need to get through errands in a hurry? Challenge your kids to a race against time. You may feel that your motives are transparent, but your kids won't care.
Strap a shoe bag to the back of the front seat and stuff it with your small kid-entertainment supplies: crayons and coloring books; kids' magazines; craft supplies, such as pipe cleaners, markers, glue sticks, and construction paper; songbooks; paper doll kits; a deck of cards; and a cassette player with story tapes. And don't forget a Frisbee, jump rope, and chalk (to draw hopscotch grids) for rest stops.