We spent two nights at the New River Gorge, where we planned to rock climb, until the realization of a forgotten rope deterred us, not to mention the flash flood warnings and accompanying torrential downpours. Next we stayed with our friends Kathryn and Otto in Asheville, N.C., for three nights; then we ventured to Athens, Ga., to visit our friends Zach and Katie and John Ashley and Meredith and their three-year-old son John Ashley, Jr., for two nights; finally, we made it to the Whetstone reunion locale, the Chattooga River in Long Creek, S.C., where we we spent two nights. For our return trip, we stayed overnight once in a hotel and made it safely and happily home in time for Eric to return to work and Avie and I to reassemble the semi-routine of our lives.
When we received the Whetstone Photography 40th Reunion invitation one year ago, we immediately began planning our extended vacation, which fell perfectly in line with Avie's second birthday, June 28. For me, the most pertinent part of planning involved finding a way to keep everyone at peace and in harmony in the car. This began with performing an internet search to find the total driving time in hours for the entire trip, there and back again. My search told me that we would spend 24 hours driving. This meant that it would be in our best interest to prepare to entertain our son for 24 hours.
With that information, I performed a second search involving how to entertain toddlers during long car and airplane rides. From my findings, I gathered an assortment of recommended toys, games and activities suggested for two-year-olds and decided to prepare 24 items, one for each hour of driving. Then, I took it one step farther. I wrapped each individual item, because, as we all know, toddlers enjoy opening gifts as much as they enjoy gifts themselves.
These would be Avie's birthday presents, which also added to the fun of gift opening, because we would bust into a song of 'Happy Birthday' or somehow create a grand, theatrical presentation of the entire gift-giving process, from handing it to him, unwrapping it, introducing it and finally playing.
Following are the 24 items that kept Avie engaged and entertained during our 10-day road trip.
1. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head - a classic, one of my favorites as a child, and one that held Avie's attention for nearly an hour when first opened, which is eons in toddler time.
2. Teach Me Elmo - adorned with velcro, buttons and snaps, Elmo teaches toddlers how to navigate the putting on of clothing. Avie became quite attached to his Elmo doll, and we found him feeding Elmo, i.e., smashing blueberries into Elmo's perfectly open and ready-to-be-fed mouth, more than playing with the learn-to-dress features, but this was OK!
3. Stamps with ink pads (kid friendly ink) in blue, red and green - I bought tiny stamps that Avie could hold easily in his hands and ones that I could reuse one day for some project or another. They were nature-themed, with flowers, trees, bugs, butterflies, the sun and moon, things that our outdoor-loving boy enjoys.
3. Dry erase board with washable dry erase markers - Avie loves to draw, and presenting a new medium for art proved most interesting to our creative boy.
4. Sketch pad and crayons
5. Barrel of Monkeys
6. Melissa & Doug Magnetic Bug Catching Game
7. Melissa & Doug Vehicles Reusable Sticker Pad
8. Funny face items - glasses with snot blower, stick-on mustache and giant red clown lips
9. Race car launcher
10. Z Windup Toys - I wrapped Eddie the Spinning Elephant and the Flipping Frog - Avie prefers the Elephant over the frog.
11. Giant Snap Hand
12. Instruments - a flute, harmonica and kazoo
13. Felt board
14. Air foam mini rockets
15. Pill case with poms for sorting
16. Toy toaster
17. Farm machinery toy set - these included a tractor, backhoe and dump truck.
18. Finger puppets - The pack came with a set of family, whom we named after our own, such as Mimi, Gigi, G-Pa, mommy, daddy and baby, while we also took the opportunity to explain the concept of "sister" and "brother." It also came with a set of domestic and wild animals, all of which I divided into their own package to unwrap. The miniature sized puppets made Avie laugh and squeal, and he concentrated for some time on putting them on his fingers. A big success in passing time!
19. Buckle Toy Buddy Backpack - a gift from Eric's mom, Gigi to Avie!
20. Star Kids Snap & Play Travel Tray
21. Books - we did not buy any new books for the trip - instead, we placed some of his favorites next to him so that he could flip through them at his leisure.
22. Bunny, or "nunny," as Avie calls his favorite stuffed animal. With all the new birthday gifts he unwrapped throughout the trip, I wanted him to have something familiar.
23. Stickers with paper
24. Snacks!!! Avie loves to spend time cooking, mixing and trying new foods and concoctions, but without the daily kitchen activity to which he's accustomed, I tried to mimic a similarly interesting and fun environment. For this, I focused on packing and purchasing foods that served one of three purposes.
First, I went for freshness and novelty - anything new, whether a new shape, texture or taste, and anything that is obviously fresh, meaning straight from the oven, the juicer or the earth, piques Avie's attention. Thus, we provided him with foods he's never had, such as HappyBaby Organic Green Puffs, which he enjoyed sorting into his pill case; new vegetable juice blends and organic, freshly baked breads from the plethora of health food stores and local bakeries we visited; freshly in-season produce, such as herbs (he loves to eat basil, cilantro, parsley, dill and mint straight off the stem), apricots, raspberries, broccoli and cherries from farmer's markets; and a variety of snacks, including Bhuja Snacks Crunchy Seasoned Peas and the Chia Pod, which we found in stores like Trader Joe's and Earth Fare. Whether Avie only took one bite of these items or ate them all up, it was energy well spent on making sure his inner chef and curious taste buds were engaged and satisfied.
Second, I gathered a bag full of his tried and true favorites, items he never refuses - essentially, his comfort foods. These included avocados, kale chips, blueberries, sunflower seed and almond butters (because it reminds him of my mom, his Mimi), seaweed snacks, cashews, pistachios, goji berries, homemade granola bars, raisins, popcorn, toasted coconut and coconut water. This would be Avie's longest stint away from home, and for that reason I wanted to provide plenty of his favorites that would help in providing a nice sense of security.
Third, I was going for minimal mess. While I would have loved to feed him his beloved cooked basmati rice, stir fried quinoa, potatoes sauteed in heaps of olive oil, hummus, oatmeal and smoothies, I steered clear of these things, because, frankly, I did not want an utterly messy car! All in all, the food choices were a success, and Avie remained gleefully well fed while relaxing in his car seat!
To sum up, some gifts he liked more than others, such as the dry erase board, finger puppets and Potato Heads, and those became our go-to's when we sensed he needed them. Further, some things were thrown aside and never to be acknowledged again, such as the Giant Snap Hand. All that aside, it was fun to gradually build a giant bag of toys by the end of the trip and to have these items at our helm during our overnight stays. Additionally, another thing we did to help with Avie's state of peaceful calmness was taking turns sitting next to him in the backseat to read books, sing and snack along with him.
All in all, the energy spent researching, shopping, wrapping and planning for a cry-free trip was well-worth the effort. Avie only had one ten-minute, intense, wailing melt-down in his car seat during the 24 hours of driving time and maybe two or three other occasions where he showed some mild irritation. As they say, preparation is half the battle! We are now excited for the future of family vacations. I hope this list provides ideas for entertaining your car seat-bound toddlers. Here's to traveling happily!