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How to cheer kids up in the car

Beat back to school blues and keep the school run fun

The first trip back to school after the holidays end can be a mixed bag for parents. You'll miss them being around during the day, but it's also OK to crave your normal routine. Who knew you'd miss the office gossip so much?

Funnily enough, the new school year can be a bit stressful for kids too, so here are some easy ways to brighten their moods before you drop them off at the school gates.

Car games

If the kids are hyped up or nervous ahead of their day, they might need to burn off a bit of energy in the car - which is where our car games come in handy. From the old classic 'I spy' to more modern variants such as 'Discuss Dad's strangest holiday outfits', there are lots of car games you can play to pass the time. The Banana Game (points are awarded to whoever spots a vehicle with all or part of it in yellow) and Never Miss A Beat are brilliant as they're super simple and you can start playing instantly.

Even Stacey Solomon is getting in on the act - she took inspiration from our recent TV advert to play Never Miss A Beat with her two boys. We reckon they might be pop stars in the making; all that practice is definitely paying off.

Happy cheesy kids

Create drivetime playlists

If you normally keep things calm with Radio 4, you could always allow your kids to 'take over' the radio and play whatever songs they want during the journey. If you have Spotify or iTunes, you could prepare a playlist in advance.

It's worth laying down a few initial ground rules first: set time limits so everyone gets a fair go, agree on volume levels, and nobody's allowed to wail 'Oh, I hate this one!' if someone else chooses Justin Bieber. If a catchy song comes on, you could play a spontaneous game of Never Miss A Beat; spot who really knows the lyrics and who's just pretending.

Need some ideas? Here are some classic driving tunes which improve any journey:

  • Tina Turner: Proud Mary (Well, our Singing Baby rocks out in the backseat to this!)
  • Gary Numan: Cars
  • Prince: Little Red Corvette
  • Pebbles: Mercedes Boy
  • The Beatles: Drive My Car
  • Kenickie: In Your Car

Watch films and TV on a tablet or iPad

Depending on how you feel about screentime in general, and whether your kids have to earn it or not, you could always allow them to watch their favourite programmes or films in the car. From Finding Dory to The Parent Trap, there's are millions of family-friendly films your kids can enjoy on the way to school. If you need inspiration, download Cars or Herbie Goes Bananas - sci fi fans will love Back to the Future. Just make sure you don't hit 54mph (88km); you might find yourself travelling back in time.

TV shows are great if your commute is around 25-30 minutes, as the kids won't be glued to the screen when you arrive at school - one episode will do nicely. If you've got a 10 minute commute and the kids want entertainment, compile a list of pre-approved YouTube videos they can watch.

Top tip - if the kids won't be able to focus on anything new and you think they'll need something they can sing along to, just download Frozen. It's easier that way.

Some people struggle with car sickness if they read or watch TV in a moving vehicle, so keep an eye on your passengers. Here's how to stop travel sickness.

Kids car happy

Audiobooks and podcasts for kids

There are some great podcasts available for kids which adults can enjoy too; Story Pirates is brilliantly funny (adults act out genuine stories created by small children; sometimes it works, sometimes not) and The Unexplainable Disappearance Of Mars Patel focuses on a group of children trying to find their missing pal. Don't worry - it's won't scare younger listeners.

Other classic stories which work well as audiobooks include:

  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Top conversation starters

If your kids are normally up for a chat in the car, you could talk about the fun bits of going back to school. How do they feel about their new class? What are they looking forward to? Which friends have they missed over the summer?

You can also use your morning drive to boost your their mood - maybe compliment them on getting in the car on time, or getting the satnav up plugged in if you're taking a new journey.

Stuck for ideas? Here are some great conversation starters:

  • What's your dream car, and why?
  • Shall we start planning our next summer holiday - where do you want to go?
  • Would you rather fight a hundred duck sized horses, or a horse sized duck? (We'd go with the mini horses, but don't let us sway your decision)
  • Tell me one thing you want to do this weekend
  • Does anyone have any good jokes? (Want to hear a joke about paper? Never mind, it's tearable.)
  • What are you reading at the moment?
  • What's going on in your favourite TV show? If you could be a super hero, which one would you be and why?

Pensive girl 

Speak in tongues

No, not literally, although if that helps lighten the mood go for it. To get the kids excited about your next holiday, why not ask them if they'd like to learn a new language? Kids love a new project which works in their favour (don't we all), so you can tell them that learning the local lingo will make their next holiday much more fun for them.

If you speak a language, you could always try and teach them some key phrases in the car, then test them on the way home? Remember to give them lots of praise if they try hard. 'Très bon!'

Phone a friend (or family member)

Do your children have a grandparent they're especially fond of, or a family friend who always cheers them up? Check with them beforehand and if they're free, call them on speakerphone on the way to school and let the kids chat to them.

You could always arrange to meet up that weekend, assuming they're about? The kids will have something to look forward to and you'll get brownie points for organising something fun.

Aim for some quiet time

The car doesn't always have to be a hive of activity; it's also a place for you to relax, at least in theory. So, let's imagine a world where the kids are chilled out and quiet on the way to school, and there's minimal drama going on in the back seat. How can we make this dream a reality?

Realistically, early morning starts, rushed breakfasts and trying to locate a half-forgotten school bag or P.E. kit can be pretty tiring for kids. If your passengers need a doze, use your car journey as a chance for your kids to take five, rest their eyes and focus on the day ahead.

Seatbelt cushions or travel pillows can help make the drive a bit more comfortable, and if the radio's switched off, your passengers will be able to nap.

A word to the wise - if your kids do drop off on the way to school, prepare yourself for some grumbling when you wake them up. Swings and roundabouts.

Set 'Quiet Competitions'

Kids love a friendly competition (especially with their siblings), and if the outcome suits you too, that's a double bonus.

Set up a competition using a small treat as a reward, such as 'The person who stays quiet for the longest time gets 5 extra minutes of screen time tonight' or 'Whoever is quiet until we get to school gets to pick what we have for tea'. The kids will aim for the reward (keenly anticipating the treat) and you'll be able to focus on your driving.

Use the weekend as a carrot

Glad you're still with us - that title worked. Ask your kids what they want to do that weekend - maybe go on a walk, or see a new film? Once they've shown their interest in an activity, you could always work towards doing what they want this weekend.

Hug it out

One for all the softies out there; just before your kids get in the car, give them a massive hug. They'll either be delighted by your affections, or they'll be stunned into silence for the rest of the journey, wondering what on Earth's going on. Either way, it works as a distraction technique. 

Add a surprise to their lunchbox

If your kids have got a favourite lunch, make it for them - and tell them about it when you get into the car. 'Oh, by the way, lunch is your favourite chicken and stuffing sandwiches,' you could remark offhandedly. 'I included those crisps you like, a Babybel, and a caramel wafer.' Imagine those smiling faces.

Happy trio

Promise some car snacks

Fun-size chocolate bars, cartons of juice, peanut butter sandwiches and ice pops all work well for the homeward trip - just make sure that you bring along some paper towels and wet wipes.

If you're keen to get an early dinner, there's always the option of heading to a drive-thru for a cheeky burger. Mention this on the way to school and your kids will mysteriously perk up - just make sure you hold up your side of the bargain on the way home.

If you'd prefer to be healthy, try the following car snacks:

  • A handful of nuts in a sandwich bag
  • Low-salt popcorn
  • Pitta pockets with salad, pesto and hummus
  • A few squares of dark chocolate (if you can persuade them to eat it. If not, more for you!)
  • Cheese strings with crackers
  • Pack food which doesn't need to be refrigerated, such as muesli bars and dried fruit, and you can store several days' worth of snacks in the boot ready for the week.

Take it easy - and breathe

If all of your attempts to cheer the kids up fall flat, don't worry too much.

The day will be over before you know it and your kids will soon settle into the new school year - by the end of week one, things will have perked up and the school run will have become part of your routine again.