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Grandma's trunk was stuffed with a Purple People Eater, a rhinoceros and a Tickle Monster.

But by the time we got to Utah, the kids' interest in that old game, which requires you to "pack" grandma's trunk by adding items in alphabetical order and then to remember what came before, was decidedly flagging.

They quickly lost interest in Eye Spy and in counting trucks on the Arizona highway too. (I could have kept going. Miles of Smiles (www.carouselpress.com) lists nearly 100 different games.)

At least 7-year-old Ethan Sitzman and his 4-year-old sister Hannah were thrilled with the rental minivan, staking out the "way back" for themselves on our Arizona road trip from the Grand Canyon to Scottsdale.

No matter how snazzy the car -- from a kids' perspective anyway -- and how short (or long) the trip, the biggest challenge, of course, is keeping the kids amused along the way. And that's clearly a challenge a lot of us will be facing this summer.

AAA says well over 80 percent of summer vacations will be road trips, with families traveling more than 600 miles round trip. The battery on a DVD player only lasts so long.

Before DVD players were de rigueur, I used to rely on a grab bag of new, inexpensive toys -- a new one every time we crossed a state line or traveled 100 miles -- and moms tell me that still works. (Try the flexible building sticks Bendaroos or new card games like Monopoly Deal (www.hasbro.com).

Treats help, too. (Tootsie Roll Pops were favorites with my gang.) Just make sure you don't have anything too messy or leave chocolate in a hot car. (That's why we always had cleaner, paper towels and wipes on hand.)

But now 21st-century parents can add a new weapon to their road-trip survival arsenal -- an iPhone with enough games (downloadable free) to keep the kids amused -- in our case, at least until we stopped in Sedona to check out the gorgeous red rocks.

Jamie Pearson, creator of www.travelsavvymom.com, says her two kids have a long list of iPhone games -- everything from DoodleJump (a vertical jumping obstacle course) to iPuppy (care for your Chihuahua?) Scoops (catch scoops of ice cream from the sky, even Face Melter where you take photos of faces and stretch them.

The good news is the "apps" are inexpensive, or even free. The bad news, says Pearson, is that "the iPhone honestly causes unnecessary drama, because we've only got one!"

Rest assured there are some options -- albeit fewer ones -- if you don't have an iPhone. For example, there's BlackBerry's free Cellufun Game Community and other smart educational games ($5.99) that offer map and puzzle games designed to help kids learn geography as you go.

Check the weather or traffic, your email, figure out your route, watch a movie or Twitter or Facebook on your new hand-held ClarionMiND (http://my.clarion.com), designed for 21st-century road trips.

And while a DVD player certainly helps, we've found that audio books (you can get them from the local library) are also a good bet because the adults in the gang can also listen along. "We've always got a story going, even if we're just running errands," says Pearson, who lives in northern California.

Mary Billingsley, a Suburban Washington, D.C., mom, reports that the audio version of Harry Potter was a definite crowd pleaser with her 8-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. "Last summer on our drive from D.C. to Vermont, we listened to the third book and we were so engaged that at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike we didn't want to get out of the car."

They listened to book four for nine hours, she said, on another trip. "We have to plan a summer vacation so we can listen to the fifth book," she joked.

Planning short breaks along the way help too. Michele Zavatsky, co author of "Kids Love Travel" (www.kidslovetravel.com) and other Kids Love Travel state guides, suggests planning activities within an hour drive of each other -- a local children's museum, water park, boat tour, hike or local factory tour.

Enlist the older kids to search online (start with the official tourism website, www.aaa.com, www.drivei95.com) to find some off-the-tourist-track spots. Laminate a couple of maps so they can help navigate.

Pack a cooler and picnic along the way instead of opting for fast food. It's not only healthier, but also cheaper. And the kids can run off some energy tossing a Frisbee or soccer ball in between bites.

If they each have a refillable water bottle, you are not only helping the environment but creating an inexpensive souvenir: They can slap stickers on them wherever you stop.

Slap masking tape on the seats to divide their space or to create (non-messy) artwork on the seat in front of them. Jamie Pearson says Travel Bingo "sometimes works for an hour or two" (www.kidstravelhappy.com) and you'll find other options at www.familyonboard.com.

Of course, it's not all about entertaining the kids in the car either. It's about keeping them safe. Never ever leave the kids in or around the car unattended -- even for a minute. Kids die every summer after being left in cars in the heat. Never leave the keys in the ignition either. Teach the kids they must stand to the side of the driveway or sidewalk when vehicles are backing out -- to prevent a car from backing over them.

And wherever you go make sure your child safety seats are installed properly. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.gov/keepingkidssafe), many aren't. For information on safety seats and where you can get yours checked, visit www.usa.safekids.org.

Remember:

  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies traveling in infant car seats should be kept rear facing, at least until they are 1 years old and at least 20 pounds. The rear-facing position reduces the risk of spinal cord injury in the event of a crash.
  • Children up to 40 pounds should be in a forward-facing safety seat.
  • Children over 40 pounds should be in a booster seat until the lap and shoulder safety belts fit correctly (when they are about 4-foot-9-inches and 80 pounds). Booster seats have been shown to reduce injury by 59 percent, compared with the use of safety belts alone.
  • Children 12 and under should always ride in the back seat -- securely buckled.

For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.)

(c) 2009 Eileen Ogintz Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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