Road trips — like all travel with kids — can be both joyous and maddening. On one such trip, I’ll admit that I began answering the age-old “Are we there yet?” question with “Yes” no matter where we actually were. I told my kids “Yep, we’re smack-dab in the middle of bustling Nashville,” as we traveled down a barren stretch of back-road in Kentucky and “Yes, go ahead and place your order” when they asked if we were at McDonald’s yet as we sped along the highway.
We’ve been bored and restless, but we’ve also experienced the impromptu pleasures that are the siren song of such trips, like random stops at the likes of the World’s Largest Ketchup Bottle (in Collinsville, Illinois) and a giant maze hedge (in Asheville, North Carolina) and magic moments when we all happened to know the words and belted out pop songs in unison.
Unlike with air travel, a trip by car is as much about the getting there as it is about where you’re going. It’s fun to play silly road games and chat about what you’ve seen and where you’re going with your kids, but sometimes it’s nice to let someone else do the entertaining for a change. We’ve culled a list of podcasts and audiobooks that will keep the whole family engaged and make the miles seem shorter.
Ear Snacks (podcast)
Children’s musical duo Andrew & Polly host this entertaining show chock-full of earworms. Good luck getting “la-la-la grapes” out of your head! The hosts are warm and funny and, in addition to singing, talk to actual kids and experts about a range of topics.
The Gruffalo (audiobook)
This clever tale tells the story of a mouse walking in the forest encountering animal after animal who all want to eat him. He escapes by describing his friend — the fearsome (as-imagined-by-him) “gruffalo” — whom he uses to frighten his predators. Enjoy the unanticipated twists in the story, which is narrated in different voices that bring the characters to life.
Wow in the World (podcast)
NPR’s first show for children guides kids and grown-ups through scientific research in a fun, engaging way to explain the world around us. Learn why a bearcat purposely pees on its own feet and tail, the likelihood of a future filled with flying cars, or how sea pickles move through the ocean by pushing water right through their bodies.
Story Pirates (podcast)
The concept is simple: “Kids write stories; we act them out.” The result is hilarious. Actors and comedians gamely re-create narratives that are sometimes touching but often cockamamie, complete with musical interludes and silly asides that will actually make you laugh out loud.
Dream Big (podcast)
A family-friendly podcast encouraging kids and adults to, well, dream big. Seven-year-old Eva Karpman and her mom interview everyone from a one-handed concert pianist to a Canadian astronaut, a behavioral investigator to the host of “Hardcore History.” The mother-daughter duo encourage listeners to pursue their passions and take action.
Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child (podcast)
Skip the Raffi and expose your kids to some new music that they’ll love that has nothing to do with wheels or buses. Billed as “indie music for indie kids,” this hour-long, thoughtfully curated show spins tunes from the likes of Elvis Costello, They Might Be Giants, and family-friendly hip hop artist Secret Agent 23 Skidoo.
Kids & Tweens
Wizard of Oz series (audiobooks)
Narrated by actress Anne Hathaway, this classic series follows the adventures of young Dorothy and her dog Toto in the magical land of Oz. Hathaway imbues each well-known character with personality and will have you listening intently for hours.
Harry Potter series (audiobooks)
By now most know the general plot of author J.K. Rowling’s bestselling books about the wizard Harry Potter and his friends, but Jim Dale reads them aloud as you might in your own head, making for an immersive experience. Even if you’ve read the books, there are new nuances to discover in the audio version.
This serialized mystery series describes itself as “Goonies meets Spy Kids meets Stranger Things” and has been honored with a Peabody Award. The scripted podcast is actually performed by middle-schoolers and is so well-written and suspenseful with such rich characters that it feels like a true story.
Brains On (podcast)
Kid hosts take kid-submitted science questions and answer them with the help of experts. Learn all about tears (why does water leak from our eyes when we feel sad or happy?), how some animals use farts for survival, and why money is valuable (it’s just paper!).
The Apothecary series (audiobooks)
This exceptionally well-written series takes place in the 1950s amid Macarthy-ism and the threat of nuclear war and follows a plucky 14-year-old heroine and her adventures with a group of apothecaries as they try to solve a disappearance. It deftly mixes history with riveting action.
Two Brits interview some of the world’s most successful songwriters. Discover where The Lumineers got the idea for hit song “Cleopatra;” how “Ophelia” began with stomping and organic sound; and why, oh why, do they keep naming songs after women?
Welcome to Night Vale (podcast)
Boasting a cult-like following, this radio show for the fictional town of Night Vale explores all of its strange happenings. With 100 episodes, there’s plenty to listen to and you can dip in anywhere you like; no need to start at the beginning, you’ll be instantly engaged.
From the producers of “Serial” and “This American Life,” this investigative journalism podcast begins with the rumor that someone got away with murder in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama. The plot twists and turns through feuds and treasure hunts, all strung together by the colorful and enigmatic center of it all — John B. McLemore. Fascinating and moving.
The Tim Ferriss Show (podcast)
Professional life hacker Ferriss interviews world-class performers to uncover the secrets to their success. He delves into the morning routines, favorite books, time-management tricks, and more with guests as varied as motivational speaker Tony Robbins, actor Jamie Foxx, and Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova.
Dear Sugars (podcast)
Writers of the now-retired advice column “Dear Sugar,” Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond take questions submitted via email and offer their sound guidance. Their always empathetic advice feels true and helpful even if you don’t have the particular problem being discussed. It’s like training for a healthy adulthood.
Big Little Lies (audiobook)
If you somehow missed this bestselling book and wildly-popular mini-series, don’t let it pass you by again — listen to it. Narrator Caroline Lee does a wonderful job of bringing to life the story of a trio of friends and mothers in a small, upscale beach town and their involvement in a tragic accident — or was it murder?
For more road-trip tips and car travel game ideas, check out “Must-Read Family Road Trip Tips.”
Pamela Rothbard is a writer and photographer living in Glencoe, Illinois. Her work has appeared in various literary and mainstream magazines and on National Public Radio and her parenting and baking blog, Flour on the Floor, was featured in Better Homes and Gardens. Pamela has been a regular Make It Better contributor since 2013. When she’s not behind a keyboard or a camera, she’s trying new recipes and restaurants and adding another layer of clothing because she’s always cold. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @pamelarothbard.