(This is an article I wrote several years ago. I thought you might enjoy reading it.)
With seven children, this can be quite an adventure.
First of all, we do not have a TV in our van and wouldn't take one if you offered it. We think the children need to learn to entertain themselves and enjoy the scenery. Besides, my observation is that the more TV a child watches the more selfish they behave. Selfishness does not make for a good vacation for anyone.
The first order of business is to get our housing ready. Hotel bills for this large of a family are more than a little, shall we say, uncomfortable. Besides, camping is more fun and can double as one long science field trip (we homeschool). Most of our vacations are the drive all day and sight-see then camp for the night kind.
“Let's see, we need to get the tent out.”
Several years ago we went camping with four children and two small tents. After I got up in the middle of the night to take care of the toddler and tripped over a boulder (no moon), my husband planned a new stop for the next day; Wal-Mart. He bought the biggest tent they had. This mansion-in-a-bag is 10x15 and divides into three rooms; one for boys, one for girls and the middle one for mom and dad; or it can be one big living room. Just the thing for us. So our first step in preparing for vacation is to get the tent out, set it up and make sure it is all there. This requires team work from everybody.
“Joy(14), you and Joe(6) put in that post. Jim(11) and Jon(8) do the other one. You have to lift together, or it will fall over. Ready, one, two, three, lift!”
Our children have learned through this and other projects how to work together very well.
In no time at all the tent is up. Since it is up anyway, we get all the bedding and pretend to be setting up our camp site. Every child has a foam pad to go under their sleeping bag to neutralize the rocks, a sleeping bag proper, a fuzzy (polar fleece) bag to use as a light blanket when it is warm and to increase the warmth of the big sleeping bag when it is cold, a pillow and a sleeping buddy. Yes, I let my boys play with stuffed animals and dolls. I don't worry about their masculinity in the least. I think it has something to do with the fact that their animals and dolls are constantly performing commando raids, war maneuvers, rescue missions and getting into all sorts of very macho trouble. Nothing feminine there.
Add a small playpen for the baby, and it is all set up.
“O.K. Now take it all down and put it in the van.”
Joy and I start rolling up bags and tossing pillows out the door. The middles (four to eight plus the help of the babies who are one and two) take things to the van as soon as we have them at the door. Jim sorts things where they go; sleeping buddies and pillows to each chair, the sleeping bags behind the back seat. He stacks them in the order he receives them in; fuzzy bags, sleeping bags, playpen, pads, tent.
“Great! You guys did a good job on that. Now, put it all back up.”
We reassemble the whole camp site. Everyone puts the tent up then Jim takes things out of the back and hands them to the middles who hand them to Joy and me. Then back down and into the van in reverse order of what we will need to set it back up again. The first time we did this, my husband got out of the van after the long drive and grimaced at the tent.
“I guess we had better figure this out and get it up.”
“Honey, you are tired. After all you have worked all day by driving. Sit down and have a coke. The kids and I will put the tent up.”
“Are you sure?”
From the look on his face I know he was expecting a real stressful next hour. Boy was he surprised. Fifteen minutes flat, sleeping bags neatly laid out everything neat as a pin and everyone happily ready for the next adventure on the list.
Next step; pack the clothes. This will be a two week trip, but there is no way on earth I can fit two weeks worth of clothes for nine people plus camping gear into my twelve passenger van. So I plan for about four days worth of clothes. We will stop at laundrymats as the need arises anyway to deal with the couple of bed-wetters I still have. Adding clothes won't take much more time. I just have to remember to get the big bag to hold all the dirties.
I have packed clothes two different ways. When my oldest was young, I would make up a list of what everyone would need such as Three t-shirts, five pair of underwear, three pairs of shorts, etc. Then I would get a backpack for each child and tell them Go get three shirts. They would bring them to me and I would pack them in the correct bags making sure everyone had everything they needed. Now that I have older ones, I write up separate lists for each of them (or let my oldest write her's) and let them get their own while I get the babies' stuff. My two oldest do good and I don't even bother checking their stuff. The middle ones get their own and I count to make sure they have everything they need (extra changes for those that still have accidents). My wonderful teenager often helps get the babies' clothes.
There, all packed.
Clothes bags, no more than one per person, go under each person's assigned seat in the van. No switching around during vacation.
I am a firm believer in cloth diapers... except on vacation. Those nice disposables go just under the seat closest to the side door with a box of disposable wipes and a large changing pad. At diaper changing time, I stand outside and lay the pad on the floor of the van. This makes the perfect height for a changing table. Add a trash bag and I have everything I need right there.
I love to potty train on vacation. We take a potty seat with a lid and disposable trainers (Pull Ups). The potty seat doubles as emergency facilities for other children as well. It has saved me many a trip to the pit-pot of a camp ground in the middle of the night. Four year olds are notorious for needing to go at around 9:30 p.m.
On vacation, eating and drinking are on a very regular schedule so nature's calls are also. This allows us to plan our stops according to a schedule. We stop every couple of hours and then everyone goes whether they need to or not. This prevents having to stop every twenty minutes. The only time it didn't was when Jessie (now four) was potty training. She was so intrigued by the novelty of having a potty in the car she had to stop six times in the first half hour. Thankfully she went to sleep after that or we never would have got out of our county! By the time we get home, the toddler knows full well how to use the pot for everything.
I assign buddies, older ones to help younger ones. My fourteen year old helps the one year old, my eleven helps my two, my eight helps my four and my six watches out for himself. I shepherd the whole group. Hubby drives, plans and guides to the neat stuff. This way getting in and out of the van is much faster. Everyone helps one other person and the assigned seats are assigned in such a way to make loading up as fast as possible. Buddies help with all the vacation chores of the little ones as well as holding hands going into stores and restaurants. For tourist attractions, fairs and the like we either use three strollers (one for each baby and one for stuff), or a big green garden wagon. The wagon sits on our luggage rack attatched to the trailer hitch at the back of the van, and holds everything that doesn't fit inside very nicely. It also holds a baby, two toddlers, a big cup of water, coats and advertisement flyers and handouts while strolling through a fair ground.
Food is actually pretty easy for us. My husband likes to explore new grocery stores to compare the difference to our local stores. So I only pack enough food for about three days at a time. Same for diapers, by the way.
Breakfasts will be mostly cold cereal. On short trips we just use paper bowls and plastic spoons, but for long trips the real thing is much cheaper. Each child has their own bowl and spoon that they wash after each meal. Even Jennifer(2) does a good job on hers with a little help from Jim.
Lunch is usually our big meal of the day on trips. We will either stop at a fast food, (preferably one with a play ground), or run into a grocery store and buy their current deli special. Our most memorable meal was in Oregon one year when hubby bought two whole, baked chickens and three flats of the biggest, freshest black berries I have ever seen. We ate until we were all stuffed. It was Sooooo good.
Supper is usually sandwiches. Cold cuts, sliced cheese, things like that. Nice and easy and clean.
So packing food ahead includes dishes, silverware, a gallon of milk (in the ice chest strapped to the luggage rack on the back end of the van), boxes of cereal, and some bread. Other supplies will be bought along the way as we need them.
I do fix each child a snack bag (soft sided lunch box) to start the first day out. It is filled with dried fruit, apples, nuts, a little bit of candy and maybe a juice box. (Handy hint: don't give toddlers chocolate or bananas in their snack bags. I still haven't got it all out of the upholstery.) These bags keep the kids entertained until we get past the familiar scenery. I do refill the bags along the way, but they are never as full as the first day.
Each child gets two cups. One holds water at all times and the other is for other drinks; juice, soda or milk. I use the spill proof ones with silicon gaskets for the little children and the “other” cups for the olders. The older ones get 7-11 type sports cups with straws for their water. The other cups are rinsed at the next stop after use or, at the latest, before bed. This keeps them nice and fresh for the next stop (and helps prevent me loosing them until we get home and they are turning green and walking towards the door by themselves....ewww).
Each older child (6-14) may bring one lunch box of toys. They are responsible for keeping track of them. If they loose them, oh well. For the little ones I find two cars, three animals, two people, etc. for their bags. That way with a quick count I can tell if they have lost anything. I find that the more children you have, the fewer toys each child needs. After all, who needs hundreds of toys when you have six older siblings to play with all the time? This small amount is enough to keep them all occupied and playing with each other the whole trip. We seldom have any “I'm bored” type complaints.
I don't allow electronic games. They remove the person playing them from the car and family mentally. I need everyone there to entertain everyone else. Besides, I miss them when they are gone to LaLa land.
Remember I mentioned the science field trip? I need to pack for that also. We give each child a disposable camera. The first picture is always of the owner so we know who gets what pictures after they are developed. We also write their names on them to keep them straight the rest of the time. Each child gets a new spiral bound note book with a small set of colored pencils. They keep a journal of what we do and what we see. I add a store of field guides and educational card games and we are all set.
At each stop we look around at what we see and discuss everything. This isn't some kind of “Now class, listen up” lecture. More like “Hey, look at all that neat algae growing on the wall of the gas station! It sure is a lot of pretty colors. They should fix their leak so it will die.” This invites lots of questions and comments and delving into books to see if we can name that fungus, weed or bug. We would do this whether we homeschooled or not. It's just a bonus that I get to record it as a school day.
The First Day
4:00 am. Andy is up and ready to go. I get the children up starting with the oldest and working my way down. Everyone gets themselves ready and then helps their buddy.
All in the car and leaving the drive way by 5:00. We end up making two stops to repair the car. The first we can only fix the problem long enough to get to the next big-ish town, Elko. This turns out to be one of the best stops of the trip. There was this wonderful park with a nice museum next to it. We toured the museum and played while waiting for the van to be fixed.
We spent a couple of days in Salt Lake City exploring the area. We swam in the Great Salt Lake. Well, more like wade out to our calves, yelled “eww!” and got back to shore. It is a bit slimy and buggy.
Nice pool at the camp ground. We enjoy visiting the city, but it is nothing like home. Though we look like we fit in with the local religion, we don’t and feel uncomfortable. I do laundry on the last day at the camp ground while everyone else takes a nap. Then on to Yellowstone.
We saw lots of neat stuff at Yellowstone; boiling mud pits, colorful hot springs, whole lakes of hot water, and of course geysers. I remember sitting by Old Faithful waiting for it to blow and hearing the people next to me talking. When the thing sputtered a bit they said “Is that all? What's the big deal? Let's go.” And they left. Five minutes later she blew for real, 150 feet high! I was so sad for them. They missed the whole thing because they were cynical and in a hurry.
I visited Yellowstone with my parents when I was a child. I remember the miles upon miles of trees. This time I found it so sad to look out on the miles and miles of burned up forest. Nothing but black in many parts of the park. I know this is nature's way of repairing the forest, but it still made me sad to think my children wouldn't see the expanse of all those trees. We live in northern Nevada, so any trees are a real treat. We would be wise to copy the Native American's way of handling the forests; keep the underbrush and old trees thinned out so there is no fuel for future fires to spread in.
My favorite is always the animals. We pay the children $.25 for any wild animals they see so we are all always on the look out. (This rule is suspended inside Yellowstone, by the way. We aren't generally rich enough to handle that.) By our last day in the park, though, we had seen very few animals. I prayed for just a few and maybe a moose. I had never seen a live moose. My boys prayed for antelope. We had read about them the week before our trip while studying the states we would go through and they were anxious to see the real thing. After I prayed, we saw many deer and the buffalo even got close enough to our car Andy could have touched one (he didn't, but he could have.) We also saw a grizzly and her cub, elk, and “Over there! Just off the road! A moose in that pond!” Yes, God spoils me. He told that moose to go have breakfast right there so I could see it. A few hours later we found a band of antelope by the road for the boys. He really is the God of little things, too.
We had a nice leisurely ride home. A stop at the Boise City Zoo was well worth the time. This is what my children think of when they think of “zoo,” now. Lots of neat animals.
Home. It sure was a good time. I will unpack tomorrow. Today, we will just rest. And enjoy our house (with flush toilets and running water!) But, ohh, I can't wait until next year. Zion maybe? Or the Grand canyon? Hmmmm.
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