virtual children by Scott Warnock

Games for the long car ride

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Having been a lifeguard, I learned many strategies to ward off boredom during those rainy shore weekdays when all the swimmers were at the boardwalk or playing Monopoly at the beach house. Ah, but no experience in life need be wasted: Those anti-ennui lifeguard strategies are transferable to that iconic American family experience: The long automobile trip.

After our recent 2,000-mile vacation drive through Lanham, Williamsburg, Charleston, Savannah, Atlanta, and Charlotte, we played some classics, and below I share our versions of five of these efforts to while away the hours without just staring at screens, together, but alone.

Name that Song. This is indeed a classic, and many families have a version. Here are our simple rules: When a song comes on, the first person who shouts out the song name gets a point as does the person identifying the artist. Participants must keep their own scores, and we go with majority rules for close calls. There is no penalty for guessing. After a song is identified, you continue to cycle through the stations, looking for new songs and moving through ads.

Variation: Set up the radio presets in line with certain genres. I rule the classic rock stations; my wife kills the 80s; my daughter knows every pop song (within like three notes). Set presets along those lines. After scoring, you’re in control of the radio, and you can start in your own preset zone, but you still have to move through the whole range of presets.

Alphabet Sign Game. Another classic. Here’s our version: Everyone starts at the same time, looking for a word that begins with “A” on a sign or on anything external to the vehicle. Then move through the alphabet in order. We play you can save one letter, so if you see a “Quality Inn” early, you can save that “Q.” It gets fierce, looking for those “Xs” and “Zs” at the end. You can make your own rules for things like repeat signs, car models (they make X much easier to find), and license plates (no license plate letters for us unless it’s an overt, obvious vanity plate word). Note: It’s tough to play in Virginia because of their strict billboard laws. Note: The driver has a disadvantage because he’s driving, but he has the advantage of controlling the car, thus avoiding that upcoming Nissan Quest after he already got his own “Q.” It’s a wash.

Variation: You can skip one letter, although we stopped doing this.

Variation: On long rides, go up and then back down the alphabet.

ABC Song Game. This is a new one I invented on our trip (yes, invented), and it’s awesome. My wife and I occupied ourselves for five straight hours from Williamsburg to Charleston. (She trounced me; it was luck.) To play, you need an iPod or something loaded with about 200 songs, but you need to not know what the songs are. You set the iPod to play in alphabetical song order. The game is this: When a song comes on, you have to guess what the next song alphabetically would be; the goal is to pick a song alphabetically earlier than the next song that actually plays. Folks, this is way harder than it sounds, and it’s very engrossing. So say “Night Moves” (Bob Seger) is playing. Player A guesses “No Regrets” (Billie Holiday). Player B guesses “Night of the Living Baseheads” (Public Enemy). Player C panics and guesses “Night Flight” (Led Zeppelin). The next song is “Night Shift” (Siouxsie and the Banshees). Player A gets nothing, as “No Regrets” is not before “Night Shift.” Player B gets one point. Player C is dumb, picking a song that’s actually before “Night Moves” and could be ejected from the car for this transgression: minus two points. Player B gets an additional two points for beating everyone else. If no one could think of a song before “Night Shift,” no points. Again, this is way harder than it sounds, especially because the song is playing while you’re thinking (and cause your kids keep asking you to explain the rules).

Don’t Spell a Word. Players go in turn adding one letter toward spelling a real word, but you cannot add a letter that creates a word (we play one- and often two-letter words don’t count). If you add a letter that completes a word, you lose that round; sometimes this happens by accident, but often you get trapped. However, again, when adding a letter you must work toward a real word. That’s where challenges come in. If you can’t figure out why the person before you added a “T” to C-I-C-A, you could challenge. The challenger might laugh and say, “I’m spelling ‘cicatrize’.” You’d lose that round. But if the person doesn’t know why she added a “T,” doesn’t know the word “cicatrize,” (or “cicatricle”) then that person loses the round. We play this like “Horse” or “Pig” in basketball: You get one letter toward the game word or phrase (like “Long Car Ride”) each time you lose a round, and whoever gets all the letters of the game word or phrase is out. Keep going until one person triumphs. Note: The fourth spot is tough in this game. Note: You can break someone’s heart if you know words like “xylophonist.”

License Plate Game with app. Many people make a game of spotting license plates, and there are now apps that make this even more fun. We used the free app pl8s, which recorded where you found each plate and includes a difficulty measure that looks to be based on state populations. It also helped us visually id plates that just whizzed by (hey, I drive modestly to save gas!). On our Southern jaunt, we saw 41 states. Not bad.

With these games in your family tool kit, you’ll go from Jersey to Atlanta in no time. You may even drive around the block at the hotel once or twice (“Be quiet! You can go the bathroom in a minute!”) looking for a sign for the zoo.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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5 Responses to “Games for the long car ride”

  1. We called the “don’t name a word” game GHOST… with each out, you got one letter of GHOST until you disappeared!

  2. Sounds like your family had a great trip. I wish I could have squeezed in the back of your Honda civic with your 3 kids & played those games. You guys rock !!!

  3. Good times.
    Bet your kids loved that play list for the ABC song game ….”eclectic” doesn’t even come close….

  4. Sounds like fun..but reading a book would have been quieter..

  5. We tell stories. Depending on the population in the car each person can use between one and three words. The first person says three words, the next person adds three words and so on to tell the story. Letting kids run this game by themselves is actually funnier than when the adults play along.

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