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Holidays: Kids driving you crazy?

Planning ahead can take the trauma out of travel

Over the river and through the woods

To Grandfather's house we go.

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through white and drifted snow.

— Lydia Maria Child

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Sure, in the olden days, just getting to grandpa's house was an adventure. These days, whether traveling long distances by car or by plane, it can be less of an adventure and more of a royal pain — unless you're prepared.

Nadine Terman, a Palo Alto mother of a 9-year-old and 7-year-old twins, aims for somewhere "between surprise and order" when preparing for long trips. That translates to a backpack for each child, with "a blanket or stuffy or book. The rest is a surprise," she said.

She's found a resource online, KrazyDad, which offers free downloadable mazes and printable puzzles. "Each kid gets something exciting to work on: word searches, mazes, blank paper and a new set of crayons, markers. ... They tend to create their own drawings. ... I print out 50 mazes per kid (of varying difficulty)," she said.

Origami paper is tucked into each backpack ("It takes time to perfect new ones," she said) as well as little packets from Michaels. She aims for things that keep them occupied and are fun, such as Creatology projects that can take "an hour to build a foam house," she said.

"I do the same thing for everybody so no fights," she added.

Normally, the Terman kids are allowed 20 minutes of iPad time, but on a long plane ride that could be extended to 45 minutes to an hour.

"The problem is, if you let them have screen (time) too much, their necks will hurt. You want projects where they're moving their arms and neck, turning to the side to look at you, are more engaged," she said.

Halfway through the flight, the Termans play musical chairs, switching who gets to sit next to Mom. "Our kids do like to sit next to a stranger; we're five people, we can't sit in full row. We've met nice people who fully engage with them. It's really cute," she added.

Diane and Chuck Schwalbach live in Menlo Park with their four children, age 6, 4, 2 and 2 months. Last May they flew to Europe with their then-three children.

For that trip, "we started packing early. We made a list of what each kid needed: clothes, toys, entertainment. We have to be really organized or last minute someone will miss a pair of shoes or a swimsuit. You don't want to have to go shopping when you get there," Diane said.

High on the priority list was Tylenol and snacks for the plane, "specifically for takeoff and landing when kids' ears are popping," she said.

Inside each child's rolling bag, they pack an extra set of clothes and a couple of things they get to choose, including books.

"I usually get a couple of activity books, set of crayons; my husband works for Apple so the older kids have iPads, with favorite movies and headphones. We're very blessed, but on long plane flights, I wonder how people did it before portable electronics!

"It really comes down to being organized. I have a basic packing list, and depending on where we're going, I adjust it," she said. For Hawaii, the list includes hats and sunscreens, but for snow trips, she always brings the humidifier. "Someone's bound to get sick from the airplane. Also Clorox Wipes and Wet Ones; when we get on the plane we wipe everything down," she said.

"Food and snacks are key to keeping kids happy — but healthy ones. We do a lot of freeze-dried peas or blueberries, nuts — little things that take a long time to eat. We want them to chew consistently at takeoff, but not get so full that two minutes in they don't want any more food," she added.

Schwalbach finds long car trips more challenging than airplanes. After all, she said, "You can get up and walk around on a plane.

"It's all about healthy snacks and quiet activities that they like. My 6 year old loves word searches, my 4 year old likes sticker books (with removable stickers)," and they bring a lot of board books for the 2 year old.

Schwalbach is a big fan of "I Spy" — "especially when you're waiting, you've got time to kill, or in restaurant and waiting for the bill or waiting to order."

Amy and Evan Silletto have had plenty of practice driving to Southern California with their now 3-year-old son, Evan. The Mountain View family heads south about once a month to visit grandma, embarking on an eight-hour trip in the car.

But instead of packing tons of toys, they mostly engage him in conversation.

"If we observe a train from the highway, we'll talk about it. We'll talk about anything. He likes to look out the window," Amy said, adding that they do play observation games, such as finding all the blue cars.

"It helps to make stops every few hours. Then he can run around, get some energy out," she said.

"We usually stop for food; it breaks up the trip and gives him a chance. In a plane, that's not a possibility. On a plane, I'd bring snacks — goldfish and graham crackers — I try to bring something he likes," she added.

Depending on the age of the children, other parents have found a variety of ways to entertain them on long car or plane rides.

Jingjing Xu, from Palo Alto, wrote in an email that when her children were 5 and 7 years old, they traveled around the world as a family for eight months. "Books, new small toys, drawing, card/small board games, iPad, movies on plane, sleep, it was super easy to entertain them for 10-15 hours flights. The little ones (under 3) were the ones challenging I think. For long car trips, books on tape work great for us," she wrote.

When Claire Hallahan of Palo Alto drove her two boys (age 9 and 6) on her own to Portland last summer, they played "I Spy," counted cars of different colors, listened to a book on CD and sang along with the radio.

"My older son took many photos too. It was easier than I thought. Flying long haul is easier now as the planes have games that people in different seats can play against each other. They usually have good movie selections too. Just in case though I always pack a little travel pack in their carry ons. This would include card games they can play themselves, a new book and a coloring book with crayons," she wrote.

Lyra Myers of Menlo Park noted that she made up little activity kits from goodies purchased at the Dollar Store. She'd pass out a new one every couple of hours, along with fun snacks.

Donne Davis, also of Menlo Park, founder of the GaGa Sisterhood, a social network of grandmothers, took her two granddaughters on a four-hour road trip recently to visit their other grandparents. They were entertained by an audiobook in "The Penderwicks" series by Jeanne Birdsall.

But Annie Jenkins of East Palo Alto probably summed it up best in her email: "I love all of these great activities that don't involve just handing the kid an iPad... good ol' fashioned I Spy, count the cars ..... plain look out the window! That's what we used to do when I was a kid."

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Read more holiday stories in the Holiday Guide to Everything.

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Freelance Writer Carol Blitzer can be emailed at cblitzer@sbcglobal.net.

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