“What am I going to do with my kids ALL DAY LONG when we’re living on the road?” is a question we get quite frequently from those who are thinking of becoming full-time travelers or from those who just started their adventures as ones. And I get it, back in the stick and bricks lifestyle, there were daily scheduled activities, endless play dates and babysitters available. And now, POOF! They’re gone. And your kids are staring at you. Looking for guidance. Whatever you do, don’t panic. You’ve got this.
Your camper might be small by today’s housing standards but it allows the outdoor world to become your ever changing backyard. Enjoying being outside is going to be key for your family to successfully live on the road.
Our three kids have spent almost their entire lives living on road. I can’t tell you how many times stepping outside of our camper has made the world of difference to their happiness. Just like in a house, it’s so easy to get sucked into a cycle of watching TV or playing games on their phones or acting out with their siblings. Your home is small but your backyard is now huge. Take advantage it. Send the kids outside. Below I break down all the different tips and tricks I’ve used with our children to get them to stay outside as much as possible as we travel the world together full time.
My kids’ most imaginative playtime comes about thanks to a magical word called boredom.
Kids don’t need a constant barrage of activities and interaction shoved in their faces. So many kids are over scheduled, especially in the typical sticks and bricks lifestyle. Let them get bored, trust me, and then wait to see the magic unfold. These moments of boredom during our travels has led to a lot of what I’m sharing next.
Whether you are boondocking alone on a dry lake bed or paying for a site at a campground, take advantage of your immediate surroundings.
The kids love to create their own scavenger hunts. They basically create a series of clues written on pieces of paper and hide them in different nooks and crannies outside for their siblings or friends to discover. The very last clue will usually have some type of special message or treat for the those who complete the hunt.
Another game you can play outside is bingo. Not the usual kind with numbers and letters but a custom self-made bingo card with things that exist outside. It could include: a bird singing, a piece of moss, something purple, an animal’s footprint, etc. The fun is not only completing the bingo card but creating one as well. And instead of plastic chips or stamps, you could use acorns or rocks to “cross” items off.
Similarly, you can also create custom tic-tac-toe cards using shells or other nature items as well. But if you don’t want to bust out the arts and crafts supplies, you could simply play iSpy or twenty questions.
Arts and Crafts
Since the early days of full-timing with toddlers to now with an almost teenager, we’ve always had an arts and crafts bin or bag for the kids. Glitter, glue, paint, the works. If you reserve the super messy items like glitter to be used only when outside, it motivates the kids to go outside and create artwork. It also gets the kids to be resourceful and incorporate sand or flower petals into their works of art as well.
Creating things from nature like fairy homes or race tracks is super fun for the kids. Hours can be spent collecting just the right sized rock for a road, soft moss for carpeting, small twigs for roofing or a beer cap for a teeny bath tub.
Depending on the age and ability of your child, you can also introduce them to more complicated crafts like whittling wood into a walking stick or a spoon or even a set of arrows.
If your kids are still very young, there’s almost nothing better than giving them access to some water. A cup of water could entertain all my kids when they were little. Actually it still does. Add some sand or pebbles or dirt and they are happy (and dirty) kids. They also like to take their sidewalk chalk, transform it into dust and then add it to water to make custom paint. It’s awesome because it’s washable and fairly cheap to keep on hand.
Finding a large piece of cardboard in the recycling bin or after you receive an Amazon package is also a treat for the kids. They create face masks or tiny homes from something that most kids take for granted. Since our homes are small and it’s almost impossible to keep with us, they view cardboard as a treat instead of trash.
It’s never too early to start identifying the natural world around you. We’ve always had some nature guides with us in our various campers but nowadays there are plenty of free apps that you can download on your phones or tablets for the kids to use.
For overall identification, we love using either of these two apps: iNaturalist and Seek. The iNaturalist app, allows you take photos which helps you to ID species via image recognition technology and your location and then upload your findings to the community where others can agree or discuss with your findings. The Seek app helps you identify species of plants and animals via image recognition technology and your location as well, but it’s a bit easier to use for younger kids without community interaction. In addition to IDs, they have monthly challenges that gives you different missions and ability to earn badges upon completion.
For bird identification, we have a variety of apps downloaded on our phones, but I think our favorite is the Merlin Bird ID app. It’s location based and works in two different ways: either by uploading a photo -or- by answering three questions about size, color, and activity. If you are interested in starting a life list for all the birds you ID on your travels, you can also download eBird app to keep track them all.
For all things in the solar system, check out the SkyView Lite app. The kids can point a phone towards the sky to identify stars, constellations, satellites, the space station and more. My kids get a kick at seeing where the planets are in the sky.
National Park Service
One of our favorite things about traveling the US with our kids is our National Park Service (NPS). We buy an America The Beautiful Pass annually and take full advantage of visiting as many park sites as possible. This not only includes the 61 major national parks (like Yellowstone, Joshua Tree, Denali, etc) but also smaller sites (like battlefields, lakeshores, historic sites, rivers, reserves, etc) that make up a grand total of 419 NPS sites.
If you are near an NPS site, go visit. Each one is beautiful and interesting in their own way. All these place have been protected for a reason. Go find out why. And as far as including kids, the national parks do an excellent job involving the children. Each site has a Junior Ranger program. The Junior Ranger program is an activity based program that involves a workbook typically with interaction with a Park Ranger. It also may include going on a hike, watching a short film, creating art and helping make the parks a better place by picking up litter. These programs are usually free and available to kids of all ages. Upon completion of the program, the kids are sworn in as official Junior Rangers and given a special badge (and/or patch). Each badge is unique to the specific park you visit so it’s a fun thing for the kids collect. Our kids have collected about 150 badges over the years and still love collecting them.
Besides the obvious activities like riding bikes or rollerskating, there are other physical activities that the kids can do while outside. My kids love to climb rocks, claim a section of it as their own and make it into their tiny home. Whenever they start asking for pillows and blankets, I know exactly what’s going on.
They like creating obstacle courses as well, which of course have to be timed. Run to that tree, spin around it 3 times, go to the little stream and scoop up some water, parkour over that rock and TIME! Phew. It’s tiring just watching them. And super fun to try out yourself too.
If we are camped at a spot with litter, it really puts a damper on the whole enjoying the outdoors. So instead of just accepting it, act on it. Picking up trash and properly disposing of it is not only good for our planet but also makes the kids feel good about themselves.
Hiking can be a tricky thing for some kids. I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone complain about having tired legs or wanting to be picked up. To make hiking with kids more fun for everyone, put together a hiking kit with them.
Our kids loved having a special lightweight backpack with their very own water bottle or built in water bladder. We also always include snacks and treats that get distributed once we reach certain goals. It’s also fun to bring a compass, notepad and pencils, whistle, bear bells and their favorite stuffed toy… on top of having sun protection.
Having the kids in charge of a hiking map can make a huge difference. It sets realistic expectations for them and they like leading the family as well. If the hike doesn’t have maps available, we like to make our own beforehand. Time to bust out that arts and crafts box again. It’s sort of like creating a treasure map. And don’t forget to add snack stops on there as well.
If we don’t have neighbors to worry about, the kids enjoy it when we put on audiobooks via our Bluetooth speaker while they are outside lounging in a hammock or doing any of the activities I listed above. We have a few different methods to borrow audiobooks for the kids.
Our first go-to is Overdrive and Libby. With our public library cards, we can borrow digital or audio books for free. We couldn’t roadschool the way we do without these apps. It saves us a ton of space in the camper and it’s free. We like free.
The other way we download audiobooks is with Kindle Unlimited. They have a large library and there are free trails out there you can sign up for, like the link I included above.
We also use the Epic! Reading app for audiobooks. The kids love the app for reading, read-to-me’s and for audiobooks. It’s free for educators, like roadschooling mamas and papas like you. It’s an easy to use app, even for the little ones.
Last but not least, you can always bribe them with the promise of s’mores for staying outside and soaking up nature for as long as possible. And after some time on someday, they will forget all about the promised treat and prefer to stay outside for outside’s sake.
Hope this helps. What are your favorite tips and tricks to get your kids excited about being on the road? Leave a comment below and let us know!