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Road Trips: How to Prevent Sensory Overload on Family Road Trips
This article provides helpful information for preventing sensory overload on family road trips. Affiliate links are included for your convenience. Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child.
Road trips were always an adventure when I was little because in my family there were 10 of us with my mom and dad so I bet you can imagine how hectic and crazy our road trips were right off the bat. I remember us all piling in our amazing station wagon with clothes and suitcases piled high on the top of our car to make room for more bodies while my mom yelled at us, “don’t forget to bring projects with you for the car ride.” Those long trips to Washington D.C. and Texas were sure cramped and one of us was always annoyed with someone else, but they were a lot of fun and very memorable.
When I got married and had my own kids, road trips were still an adventure. First of all, instead of an awesome station wagon, we had an even better mode of transportation: a minivan with the wood paneling on the sides. Pretty sweet, right? Don’t laugh, I know you are jealous! Even though I didn’t have eight children like my mom did, our road trips were equally as challenging because now it was my turn to plan games, bring toys and create projects to keep the kids busy through the long stretches. Remember, these were the dark ages before TV and electronic devices were around for long car rides. Plus, we were living on a budget and I had to get creative with some of our projects. However, what I didn’t realize at the time was that these projects and games served a dual purpose: keeping my kids occupied and it provided them with the sensory input and output they needed to keep them calm and less fidgety through desert areas like Wyoming and Nevada.
Now that I see and help kids with Sensory Processing issues on a daily basis, all of these activities completely make sense and I understand the purpose behind giving them the sensory stimulation they need to prevent anxiety and stress in a cramped hot car. If you have a child with ADHD or sensory issues, you are probably dreading those upcoming road trips because hundreds of miles could mean crying, screaming, tantrums, and fighting, which equals disaster. But, never fear, there are ways to prevent those types of outbursts with the right intervention. The best part is, you can even use these types of activities and ideas for kids who don’t struggle with these issues so road trips can be a good experience for the whole family.
Road Trips for Sensory Kids
As you prepare for your road trip, first think about your child and what their needs are. If you have a child who needs a lot of sensory input, be sure to pack toys and tactile objects with lots of texture so they can channel all their energy in those objects instead of jumping out of their seat or causing fights with their siblings. For kids who have too much sensory input, remember to bring anything that will calm them like music, blankets and pillows.
Now, let’s break it down. Here are just a few great ideas to help your sensory kids and family have a great road trip this summer.
Create a Map
After about five miles into your car ride, I bet you are already hearing those famous words, “Are we there yet?” And, it’s just the beginning. Printing a map of your journey is a great visual to help your kids see how long the trip will be and it also creates a concept of time. Kids struggling with attention or sensory issues often worry about time and how much time they will spend in the car. To help them understand the timetable little better, bring a little toy car or print a paper car they can move along the trail of your map as you go. That way your child can see how far you have gone and how much further you have to go. You can also mark your map with breaks or stops so the whole trip isn’t as overwhelming for them and they can see when a break is coming up for them to move around outside.
Snacks and Meals
I think this is one of the hardest parts about traveling. If you are like me, a trip to MacDonald’s or Burger King on road trips is so much easier than packing a cooler full of food for my kids. However, with sensory and attention kids, nutrition is incredibly important on road trips. We know sugary and salty foods aren’t very good for any child, but for kids who struggle with these issues on an every day basis, they are impacted that much more when these types of foods hit their digestive system. Sugary foods tend to raise their blood levels, which can lead to moodiness, anxiety and attention problems.
Try to pack some nutritional snacks and avoid fast food and sugar where possible. Some great options are nuts, fruit, popsicles like these no sugar Berry Granola Popsicles, carrots, cucumbers, and any other veggies they might enjoy. Crunchy foods can also be good for kids who have oral sensory issues as you see here. I promise it will make the road trip much more bearable. Once you reach your destination, it’s ok to let them treat themselves for hanging in there while you drove, but try to help them eat healthy while on the journey.
Avoid Screen Time
Electronic devices and TV in cars was probably the best invention ever made for parents and long road trips; however, too much screen time in the car can actually be counterproductive, especially for kids who struggle with attention and sensory issues. While some apps and games are great for educational purposes, screen time and video games can prevent kids from building healthy connections in the brain, which could lead to behavioral problems while on vacation. It could also trigger meltdowns, especially if you have a sensory sensitive child. This is where your games and toys come in.
Take a break by singing fun songs, ask them to tell a story, or play games like “I Spy with my little eye,” or “I’m thinking of.” Another fun idea is to get a cookie sheet, paste some magnets to the back of a puzzle, paper dolls, or some animal pictures, and have them play with the magnets on the cookie tray so they don’t slid off. Sensory toys are huge when it comes to road trips. Toys like these chewy bracelets and rice bags are a great way to keep kids busy and calm on the long trek.
Take it Easy
For children who have too much sensory input, the best thing to do for them on road trips is to reduce the noise, light, and anything that may bother their skin. Calming music is perfect for helping them cope with the change in environment and perhaps their rowdy siblings. Create their own special playlist with music that makes them happy or find some great stations on Pandora. Classical music is great for sensory kids. For more quiet time during road trips to settle any anxiety they may experience, try an audio book they can listen to or a kid’s podcast.
Make it Home
Kids with too much sensory input also need to feel safe and secure. The best way to do that is to make your road trip feel a little more like home. If they have an attachment to a blanket, stuffed animal or toy, don’t leave them behind. They can really do wonders if there is ever a time they feel insecure. Another way to make them comfortable is to bring noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses and soft clothes, even if that means their PJs. The littlest irritation with sound, noise or light could make the trip more difficult. Remember, kids with oversensitivity to these types of things could be bothered by the most obscure things like the hum of the car engine, the tags on their clothes or the light of an iPad.
Activity is Key
Now for kids who don’t have enough sensory input. These types of kids we like to call “movers” or sensory seekers. Because they crave more sensory input, they are constantly moving and fidgeting. What they need is more movement, physical activity and playtime, which is a problem when sitting in a car for hours. If you have a child that needs a lot of sensory input, you may have to schedule additional “potty breaks.” Stop at a park, a pond or any place where they can run wild. Their brain is telling to them to move, it’s what makes the body feel better. If you stop at a park, activities like monkey bars, swings and ladders are great exercises. You might even want to massage their legs and arms. This may also prevent them from poking and annoying their siblings when they get bored.
One of the most important things you can bring on your road trip for kids who need more sensory input is a sensory kit. Sensory kits can include anything from stress balls to whistles (if you can stand the noise) and chewable toys. Kids love sensory kits because it keeps them active, less stressed, calms moodiness and keeps them from fighting with each other. For more ideas on what to include in your sensory kit, click here or use some of these toys that are also great for your child’s development.
If you are still anxious or worried about road trips with your kids, do a test run. Take them on a smaller road trip to see how they fair. If you think they are ready, I think now is the perfect time to start planning a trip to Disneyland or maybe SeaWorld. In the end, road trips won’t be perfect, but they will be fun and memorable for the whole family. One thing I do know is you are going to have a great summer! If you have time, send us pictures of your road trips on Facebook or email us so we can share in the fun. We’d love to see the fun places you go and what your kids are learning.
Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs