By Shelley Zoellick - 1994 (FOTR 1988-2003)
RVing can be a wonderful experience for children, whether it is for a weekend, an extended trip or even full-time. Travel and visiting new places stimulates a child's curiosity and provides a wealth of learning experiences. Recently my sister-in-law commented (with some chagrin!) that my five-year-old son, Preston, asks so many more questions than other children his age, and seems knowledgeable beyond his years. She contributed it to all the traveling we do. Since my husband's job requires extensive travel, we decided to make our home on wheels. Our son was born about a year after we began full-timing in 1988.
In this article I would like to offer some suggestions on how to make RVing with children a positive experience. Since my perspective is a little different, I will skip the usual list of car games and focus more on other aspects of RVing with children. While preparing this article, I met a grandmother with three preschoolers at the campground where we are staying. She and her husband are full-time RVers who had found themselves suddenly responsible for their orphaned grandchildren. Not willing to put them in foster care, they made room for the three adorable little boys in their full-timing lifestyle. So, for those of you who full-time with children (and I know there is a growing number of you out there), or are planning an extended trip with the children or grandchildren, I will deal with some specifics, such as how to handle schooling on the road.
There is no reason why your children can't enjoy RVing as much as you do. I am always puzzled when people act as if children are somehow too delicate to handle long trips or RVing for extended periods. My son has been living in an RV since he was born, and embarked on his first two-day trip when he was two weeks old. So please don't let any negative attitudes you may encounter deprive your child of a wonderful learning experience.
Whether it is a weekend trip or a way of life, RVing offers many benefits to families. One is cost - a family with children can usually camp more economically than they can stay in motels and eat out in restaurants. It is also more convenient - having a fully equipped kitchen on board, the security of familiar surroundings, and not having to pack and unpack suitcases.
Campgrounds generally provide an enjoyable environment for children. There is room to run and make noise, and often other children with whom to play. Many campgrounds cater to children, with hay rides and other activities. Having been on both sides of the fence, I am convinced that campgrounds are also safer and cleaner than motels. I'll never forget the time I found a discarded hypodermic needle in front of our motel room where my toddler was playing (thankfully, I found it before he did!)
Having said all that, I'll be the first to admit that RVing with children can be challenging at times. That is why it is helpful to understand what aspects of RVing are trying for children (and parents!) so you can help alleviate them, while encouraging the activities and attitudes that will help everyone benefit the most from the experience.
There's no denying that long road trips can be difficult for children, especially younger children. Since long, frequent and often unplanned road trips are part of our life, we have developed some strategies over the years to make these trips as easy as possible for our son and ourselves.
One of the first lessons Preston had to learn as a baby was that a car seat (or seat belt) is not optional. Since this is a matter of your child's safety (and also the law), it is wise to make this a firm rule from the start. Once your child knows you won't back down, he will accept it. It gives me chills to see families driving down the road with their children roaming about unconfined inside the car (besides being dangerous, it is not very relaxing!)
Since we are strict about this rule, we stop every two to three hours. This allows everyone to use the bathroom and stretch a little. Scheduling travel time in early mornings and late at night, when the children are sleeping, can also give you some peaceful driving time, especially with younger children. We often use this strategy, driving late at night when there is little traffic and Preston is sleeping peacefully. Drinks and snacks can be helpful on long trips, but avoid sticky or crumbly snack foods. I have discovered that by steering clear of sodas and other sugary drinks while traveling, frequent stops are not necessary. Of course, that doesn't mean children won't say they have to go, just to get Dad or Mom to stop. This is where you have to rely on your instincts. In my experience, it is best not to cater excessively to a child's every demand, but be reasonable and firm. Your child will respect you for it, and you will get a lot farther down the road!
Children can be entertained by the hour, and learn a great deal, just by having a parent accessible to answer questions and point out things of interest along the way. I encouraged an interest in geography and map-reading by giving our son a small pocket atlas and helping him to trace our route. Young children will benefit more from this if you first point out some familiar locations - e.g. where home is, where you camped last night, where you are going. Every time Dad consults his Rand McNally, Preston reaches for his own atlas and asks me to show him where we are.
Some toys and games are suitable for traveling, but I suggest that you avoid any toy that makes annoying noises. I'll never forget that trip to California when we bought a police car with a siren and flashing lights to entertain our two-year-old. I remember trying to calculate how many hours it would take to deplete the battery - the package promised 1, 000 pushes of the button, and Preston wasn't giving it any rest!
After we arrive at a new campground, one of the first things I do is check out what activities are available. (Some of this information is contained in campground directories, which can help you choose the best campground for your family.) It is a good idea to channel your children's energy into outdoor activities, especially if your RV is crowded. The campground we are staying at right now offers movies and cartoons at the outdoor theater, ceramics and other craft activities for the children, and hay rides. Of course, activities don't have to be structured - my son entertains himself for hours at the playground, rides his bike within the parameters I set for him, or plays outside with his Tonkas. And it is always more fun when an adult participates. Even many grown-up activities, such as hooking up the trailer or washing vehicles, can be fascinating to a child if he is allowed to help.
Encourage wholesome interests according to your child's age and ability. Recently my son began noticing all the birds around our campsite, so I bought him a field guide and showed him how to use it. Now he bursts into the camper, excitedly describing some new bird he has seen while his little fingers fumble through the pages of color photos. Yesterday he described a black bird with red 'shoulders', which I told him was probably a robin, although he insisted it wasn't. Imagine his delight when he identified the bird from the guide and showed it to me - a red-winged blackbird!
After a fun-filled day outdoors, one of the next questions is, Where does everyone sleep? Most RVs, even pop-ups, sleep four to six people, which is adequate for most families. But depending on how much time you spend RVing with your children, you may want to opt for an RV with more living space and a floor plan that better suits your family's needs. Slide-outs greatly increase your living area, and some of the larger trailers come with a second bedroom, which is usually equipped with two or three bunks and a place for clothes and toys. Recently I met a young full-timing family with two small children. The husband's employment required them to live on the road. Having the children's sleeping quarters and toys in a separate room certainly helped that family enjoy a more 'normal' lifestyle. I could appreciate that fact because the layout of our trailer necessitates that Preston sleep on the sofa, and his toys tend to dominate the living room. Smaller trailers often feature a master bedroom at one end, and two or three bunks at the other end. It is important for everyone to have a place of their own, even if it is just a bunk with a curtain around it.
When Preston was a baby, I discovered that a travel bed was ideal for RVing. It can double as a playpen, be set up in a corner of the living room, or be folded up when the extra space is needed.
Whether you have one bed to make up every day, or several, you will save yourself a lot of work if you use sleeping bags for those areas (like sofas and dinettes) which convert into sleeping areas at night. Line each sleeping bag with a sheet cut to fit and held in place with strips of hook and loop material. Simply remove the liners and wash as necessary.
Even if a separate bedroom for the child or children is out of the question, try to give each child something of his own. Let him pick out his own sleeping bag, perhaps choose his place to sleep, and roll up his bedroll each morning. If you give each child a place to keep their own clothes and toys, and teach them to pick up after themselves, it will save you a lot of work in the long run. And your RV won't have that 'tornado just went through' look!
When it comes to packing toys and clothes, you want to get the most for the least. So choose small toys like small cars or dolls. Toys that give the child options and stimulate creativity, such as Legos, Barbie dolls with interchangeable outfits, and children's computers with a selection of learning programs, are ideal. Bikes and outdoor toys encourage outdoor play. And if your RV has a VCR, some children's movies can be a lifesaver on a rainy day.
Long ago I resigned myself to the fact that children will get dirty playing outdoors, despite a mother's best efforts. So clothes that are durable, easy to wash and dry, and adjustable to changing weather conditions, are best.
Now a few suggestions for those considering extended trips or even full-timing with children. If you are wondering whether it can be done, consider the example of a teacher whom we encountered in Canada. He and his wife, along with six children aged ten years through infancy, had devoted a year to touring North America and writing a book about their experiences. Another young woman, whose example I admire, has been full-timing for years with her husband and children. The last time I heard from her, she had three little boys and a baby on the way, was home schooling her oldest, and somehow managed to find time to run a home business on the side!
Children are amazingly adaptable and can thrive in a variety of circumstances, as long as they are cared for and loved. As another full-timing mom mentioned to me recently, parental attitude is all important. If you approach your lifestyle with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure, your children will too.
Over the years I have met a number of full-timing families and seen mostly positive results. These children are usually happy, outgoing, adventurous, interested in everything - and possess a knack for making 'instant friends', as my husband and I term it.
Usually, in conversations with others about our way of life, the subject of education comes up. Many people assume full-time RVing is impossible with school-aged children, not realizing that it is possible to provide your child with a fine education via correspondence courses. Preston recently 'graduated' from kindergarten through a fully accredited private school, which has a home study program to serve military families and others who travel (including other RVing families).
With the technology available today, and a number of good correspondence schools to choose from, your children can receive an education that is at least equivalent to a regular education, especially if you make the effort to involve them in social activities. Recently I spoke with a full-timing mother whose son's test scores had jumped so dramatically since he began using computer learning programs on the road, that the state department of education called to congratulate him! Most of the parents I have talked to feel that their children are coming out ahead, especially with the learning opportunities that come with travel. They also cite strengthened family relationships, and avoiding the gang and drug problems of the public schools, as advantages.
Whether you are planning a weekend trip, an extended vacation or full-timing with children, it can be a rewarding experience for everyone. I hope some of these suggestions will help you to make the most of it!