Long car trips with kids can be a rung of hell. Enter Car Games.
With a few great car games you can tweak the backseat doldrums into a giddy laugh-fest that mixes learning with silliness. Aside from being fun, car games can allow for unexpected play and bonding. Most of them also allow kids to practice those invaluable executive functioning skills like turn-taking, impulse control and self-regulation. And with the right game and the right moment it can also be a beautiful way to get to know your kid better – and for them to know you.
I grew up in Los Angeles where life in the car was a matter of course. Even simply getting to a playdate or an extracurricular activity involved freeways, traffic and the dreaded “are we there yet?”.
Yet, somehow, I have these really happy memories of most of my car time.
Carpool buddies and I made up songs and secret backseat handshakes while eating from coolers of snacks. My mom and I would have some serious heart-to-heart conversations and my dad taught me my first Shakespeare soliloquy.
And of course there were the car games…
Long before iPads or iPods, before backseats came equipped with TVs, and headphones were the norm…there were car games.
And so now that I’m a mom and find myself in the driver’s seat, I’m intent on using car time as bonding time and just another excuse to play.
While these car games are inspired by the classrooms of Child’s Play NY, they are tweaked for the backseat, and road tested by me and my family. Furthermore, they are super customizable, so please put your own spins on these and tell me how it goes!
Car Games to Learn More
What Do You Like More?
This is a fun and simple car game that relies on this basic question:, “What do you like more?” It helps you get to know your kids and opens the door for them to get to know you!
Watch this video about “What do you like more?”
- Ask about the perennial hit of favorite foods (what do you like better rice or noodles?) to get the ball rolling
- Transition to topics you genuinely want to know about – like extracurriculars, literary tastes, vacation spots, etc.
- Take turns going back and forth so that your kids can also ask you about your preferences, and come up with the right question for you.
- Make it a rule to only talk about things, not people – otherwise feelings will get hurt!
- Get specific with movie tastes, favorite authors or games.
This game develops kids confidence and builds a sense of identity as they verbalize their tastes and differentiate themselves from you and others.
Car Games to Laugh More
This game is one of my favorites and provides some unexpected hilarity.
- Establish a location and relationship (for example, tourist grandparents on a ride at Disneyland)
- Kids speak alternating lines of dialogue.
- Each word they start with has to begin with the next letter in the alphabet.
- Set a time limit (somewhere in the 1 to 3 minutes is a sweet spot)
- The goal is to get all the way to Z or as close as they can to the end of the alphabet. Each pair who goes wants to get farther than the last.
When we play this in the classrooms at Child’s Play NY, kids get up together and are given a scenario. For example, Kid 1, the pilot, is trying to fly the plane but is very sleepy and Kid 2, the flight attendant has to take over the plane. Each line of dialogue that they improvise within the scenario has to begin with the next letter of the alphabet. In this case, the scene might start as follows:
(Pilot): All systems are a go!
(Flight Attendant): But you haven’t even turned on the plane, what is the matter with you, Sir!
(Pilot): Can you come back later to take my order? I’m suddenly very sleepy.
Flight Attendant): Don’t send me back out outside, the other flight attendants want an answer – why haven’t we left the gate?
…and so it continues.
This game really boosts literacy, improvisation skills, and helps kids focus their imaginations and energy.
How to make this the funniest of the car games
- Come up with locations where sitting down makes sense and is part of the playing. Examples: At the movies, on a plane, at a concert, etc.
- You can use an improv scenario or just have a conversation! Invite everyone to talk about their favorite memories from their vacation, what they are looking forward to, or recount their day. Make sure that each person’s answer starts with the next letter of the alphabet.
- The limitations imposed by the game’s alphabet concept actually serve boost creativity and can lead to some wacky and hilarious answers. If people don’t answer with the next right letter of the alphabet, they are out – or they have to skip their next turn. You set the rules that work for your car!
Car Games to Listen More
Name that Sound or Song
Tired of everyone listening to their own thing? Bored with the bickering over playlists? This game will get headphones out of ears and bring everyone together to create a new live soundtrack for the car ride. Additionally, this helps to calm the car and gets those endorphins flowing as people remember their favorite songs!
How to Play:
- Ask your child to hum a portion of a song. Everyone else has to guess the song’s title.
- There are a variety of ways to customize this game depending on your child’s age and the number of people in the car – is there a limit on guessing? Do people join in when they recognize the song?
- Depending on kids’ ages and reading ability, you can prepare a little ziplock bag full of song suggestions that players have to “draw” before their turns.
- You can even designate different “rounds” of the game, with each round involving a different musical category – musical theatre, Beatles songs, jazz standards, etc.
For very little kids you can instead play a game of “Name that Sound”. Rather than humming a song, imitate the noises that animals make instead of songs. Customize this as you like for your family. I once played a weirdly successful game of “Name that bird call”. It was pretty hilarious and surprising how many different birds my son knew!
Car Games to Observe More
Clap if You See A…
This game is the best at both developing executive functioning skills and honing kids ability to observe and react.
First, kids take turns deciding on what they should observe out the window (for example, a blue car, a school bus).
Second, establish the signal (a whistle, a clap, a knee slap – although not if you are driving!).
The more you add on, the more engaging it will be for your brain. Increase the challenge by making more than one rule. For example: Laugh when you see a VW AND clap when you see an out-of-town plate AND pretend to burp when you see a rest stop!
This is a great observation game that helps kids tap into their imaginations and sense of dramatic play.
- Pretend you are a news anchor from another planet reporting on the objects you see around you, here on earth.
- You are talking to your alien friends back at home, so find a funny voice or physicality for your alien through improv if you like!
- Describe something simple: usually objects that we see every day and take for granted are the best, like steering wheels, car seats, seat belts, stuffed animals, markers, etc. You can give them the example of Ariel encountering a fork for the first time in The Little Mermaid as another fun way in!
A time-tested classic, this game can be re-imagined in different ways that keep it fresh and delightful!
We all know how to play, but how about a quick recap?
- One person chooses something in his or her environment and begins “I spy, with my little eye, something _________.”
- Use shapes, colors, textures, or other descriptive adjectives to point out that something in your environment.
- The other players guess using Yes or No questions to find out what the other person spies!
While I liked to play I Spy as a kid myself, and with my son, I think it’s time for an update.
I Spy Like An Animal
How to play:
- First, kids (and you) pick an animal. As much as you can within the confines of the car, play around with getting into the body/voice of that animal.
- Next, take turns sharing what you see as that animal!
- For example, a sippy cup full of milk (as viewed by a cat), a fly (as viewed by a snake), a stuffed bear (as viewed by a frog), all take on new drama and excitement by virtue of these animal perspectives.
- Have fun going back and forth between animal sounds and words. Don’t be scared to get silly!
When you play I Spy and Alien Newscaster this way, kids are engaging their creative imaginations and imagining their environments afresh in ways that are essential for their developing brains! Dr. Belinda Bellet of the Brooklyn Heights Behavioral Society gives a great explanation of how the simple act of identifying objects around us has a calming effect and is a perfect injection of mindfulness into everyday play.
Check out my video about “Animal I Spy,” as well as other examples of Mindful Observation games, at the Child’s Play In Action site, here.
Car Games to Tell Stories
Here’s a wonderful game that you can do in a big group in the mini-van or one-on-one on the train. It’s a creative storytelling activity that’s perfect for situations like car trips when reading books is tough to do! Our teachers at Child’s Play NY use this all the time in the classroom to generate new material.
Watch this video demonstrating the basics of the game.
Not only does this game encourage spontaneity, it gives kids a chance to practice listening and turn-taking, as well as emphasizing the importance of the team effort!
Some tips for playing:
- Use your favorite stories, fairy tales, or fables as a springboard.
- Try adding a timer and designate one person to be the conductor/clapper in order to keep the story moving.
- Record the story via video or voice-memo so that you can look back and laugh with your kids!
What are your favorite car games? Please chime in below! Let’s all get where we are going with a little more laughs and a little less, “are we there yet?”
One Word Story
A great exercise in patience and also a hilarious way to tell a story. Check out this video to learn how to play.