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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday. A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom." 
Opinions expressed on the US Youth Soccer Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of US Youth Soccer.


Up and Coming

Susan Boyd

Last weekend, I drove past the city park where my kids, Bryce and Robbie, regularly played soccer. As I expected on a spring weekend morning, the three full-sized fields and four smaller ones were covered with young players either in the midst of a match or preparing to begin. However, all of these eager participants flocking across the soccer pitches weren’t kicking a ball. They were flinging it with lacrosse sticks. Then last night I drove past the high school where the football field lights were blazing not for a spring scrimmage but in order to illuminate an interscholastic boys’ lacrosse match. The proliferation of this century’s old sport has now become rampant in the United States. Where much of our interaction with lacrosse had been news reports a decade ago about the Duke men’s team, we can now watch matches regularly on cable sports channels and read reports on high school and college competitions in the sports section. Even one of my grandsons has gone over to the lacrosse side.

Soccer has enjoyed a special status as the new and growing sport in the U.S. over nearly three decades. It began when the U.S. Men’s National Team qualified for the 1990 World Cup, the first time since 1950. Interest grew when the U.S. won the bid to host the 1994 World Cup, bringing international attention and teams to our shores. This was followed by the formation of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1996. Since 1990, youth involvement in soccer has increased 89 percent with over three million registered players as a component of the 24 million men, women, and children participants in 2014, second only to China. According to 2015 Pew research, soccer is now the fourth-most watched sport ahead of ice hockey, auto racing, tennis and golf. With an average turnout of 19,000 at MLS games, America ranks eighth in the world for attendance at first division soccer matches, ranking ahead of soccer-obsessed Argentina and Brazil. The women’s game has seen not only phenomenal growth but equal success. There were 318 women’s college teams in 1991, which increased to 959 in 2009. The Women’s World Cup has been hosted by the U.S. twice in 1999 and 2003. In the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the U.S. Women’s National Team beat China to win the title before a crowd of 90,000. This event still ranks as the best attended women’s sporting event ever. In 2011, 8.2 percent of adults listed soccer as their favorite sport. Even when the U.S. loses, the team pulls in huge audiences. The men’s 2-1 loss to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup had 24.5 million viewers, which compares favorably to last year’s NBA finals that averaged 15.5 million, the World Series that averaged 14.9 million and the Stanley Cup that pulled in under 5 million. Soccer has come of age in the United States, and with the continued growth of MLS, which also attracts major European soccer stars, the sport should continue to enjoy a bright and expanding future.

However, no status is ever secure, and lacrosse has begun to nip at soccer’s heels. According to US Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body in America, participation has grown from 254,000 players in 2001 to 773,000 players in 2014—a 300 percent increase. Youth players doubled from 2006 to 2009, and in 2014, lacrosse was the fastest growing sport in high school, increasing 28 percent for boys and 31 percent for girls. Likewise, the number of college programs has increased from 247 in 2009 to 339 in 2014 for the boys and 319 to 443 for the girls. There are two professional North American lacrosse leagues and both are indoor. Major League Lacrosse recently expanded to eight franchises and now has a contract with ESPN3 to stream every league game. The National Lacrosse League has nine franchises and plays in Canada and the U.S. Its primary popularity is in Canada where box lacrosse is the official summer sport of our neighbors to the north. Just as soccer took off once a significant professional league began in the U.S., lacrosse will need its own strong foray into the professional ranks in order to build a loyal fan base. Adding to the hype are international competitions overseen by the Federation of International Lacrosse, which holds World Championships every four years for men, women, and U-19 players. US Lacrosse can boast of a record 27 wins at the World Championships since 1974.

The blossoming of a new sports option for our kids should always be welcomed. The more choices kids have, the more likely they are to find something that excites their passions and gets them out and moving. Lacrosse costs more than soccer for equipment but is still relatively affordable for all families, especially when clubs help organize equipment swaps. As college teams increase and kids can find role models in the sport to inspire them, the future does look bright for lacrosse. However, this growth brings some complications with it, and that is primarily competing for resources. This brings me back to those lacrosse sightings I had this past week. Just as soccer had to carve out space from football, now lacrosse will be carving out space from soccer. There’s only so much groomed green space available and, even worse, precious few indoor facilities. The freedom to practice and compete should be limitless, but restricted resources means fierce competition now spills from the pitch into municipal recreation scheduling offices. Trying to find ways of fairly subdividing these patches of green can lead to some sharp conflicts and sour grapes.

As one sport surges, it’s not unusual for other sports to decrease. This is especially true when the sports share aspects. Kids could find the movement and purpose of lacrosse to be similar enough to soccer to spur some crossover. Just as moving off the ice onto the pitch can come naturally to hockey players, so too soccer players might find the addition of sticks to their scoring arsenal equally enticing. Such shifting of allegiances makes clubs nervous because they survive on increasing their membership, not losing it. These shifts can elicit hostilities while increasing recruiting, which is supposed to be forbidden. As we begin the spring tryouts for soccer teams across the U.S., frustrated coaches may be seeing some players siphoned off by competing sports and others by rival soccer clubs. It’s an uncomfortable situation which works against the “for the kids” policy that youth sports promotes. Clubs need to fill rosters just to meet payrolls and expenses, but they also need winning teams in order to sell the club in the future to parents looking for success, so they must retain and locate what they consider to be quality players. It’s a tough balancing act – giving all players a fair shake while having to keep an eye on the power of the roster. Throw in losing kids to other sports and you can end up with a toxic situation. In some cases, coaches will promise these players that they can play both sports and not have to come to all practices and even games. That’s dangerous because it creates a double-standard that has glaring problems. My sons faced the pull between football and soccer and several of their teammates got “deals” in order to play both sports, which only created resentment and uneven results. Now kids may feel a pull between soccer and lacrosse with the same offers of “dual citizenship.” Finding a way to navigate this prickly course will remain an important aspect of making youth sports fun and fair for all.

No one should be leery of a new sport on the horizon. Kids benefit from a variety of choices because development, size, skills, and interests are so varied among pre-teens and even into high school. It’s really great when a child can find a sport that fit his or her particular attributes to a tee. Hopefully, physical education programs in elementary schools will offer a couple of weeks of exposure to lacrosse so kids can discover if that’s where they see themselves. The point of youth sports is to improve fitness and bring another level of fun to kids’ lives, and youth team sports are meant to encourage collaboration and develop friendships. So we should all applaud this upsurge in lacrosse. However, along with that, parents need to be mindful of the pitfalls. We can help facilitate cooperation among the field sports in order to make the use of our resources fairly available and help restrict in-fighting. We also need to encourage our kids not to straddle sports in the same season but learn to face the tough choices everyone has to make throughout life. We can and should be open to all the possibilities for youth sports, even as we hold a special place in our hearts for soccer, and help our young players to navigate those options. We want our kids to build great memories while improving their health and fitness. We can score goals in either sport.

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Clear as Mud

Susan Boyd

I had my annual eye exam, which isn’t really the point of this blog but comes as way of explanation. I had to have my eyes dilated, so while the drops took effect, I was handed a copy of the large print Reader’s Digest in the meantime. I don’t usually read that magazine, but I’m glad I had it thrust at me. There was a contest for humorous family anecdotes, and the winner struck me as encapsulating so many of our collective youth soccer experiences. A father took his son to soccer practice, and for the second week in a row, he was the only player on the field. Frustrated, the father told his son to tell the coach that this was unacceptable. The boy rolled his eyes at his dad and stated, “He’ll just say the same thing he said last week.” “Which was?” “Practice is now on Wednesday, not Tuesday.” I’m positive we’ve all been there in some form or another.

I’ve often watched a coach call together her team. She kneels down with all the young, earnest players listening intently to every word as she carefully explains the tactics the team should execute. They all nod agreement as the coach rises, claps her hands, and says, “Let’s go.” The team scatters like dry leaves swirling chaotically around the pitch and immediately lose all sense of order, direction and purpose. The coach tries to stay positive, but she is obviously frustrated. The problem is that those clear instructions weren’t really clear. Without the context of experience and maturity, telling kids to stay goal-side, check to, and give and go has all the clarity of a foreign language spoken backwards. We’re lucky if kids shoot the ball in the right goal. Developing a language that kids will understand, remember, and use when playing soccer becomes the predominant part of any coaching. The task is complicated by short attention spans, an inability to comprehend the importance of any discussion, and the dependence of English on idiomatic speech.

All too often, reason gets lost in translation from the kid’s eye view to the adult’s. It’s not just that kids are by definition irresponsible or naïve. It’s really that they live in a different contextual world than we do, and they are bound to literal translations in more ways than we are. Over the years we’ve come to understand the subtleties of idioms and allusions while our kids take them at face value. When a child says she can’t find her favorite toy, and a father tells her, “Look hard. Leave no stone unturned,” he shouldn’t be surprised to find her in the yard picking up rocks. A coach who admonishes his U-8 team to “step up your game” might find all his players marching on the pitch. We take for granted that the concepts we understand are the same for our kids. That boy in the anecdote probably thought “Okay the team is showing up on Wednesday, but my dad brings me on Tuesday, which annoys the coach but that’s how we do it.” Or he might just have forgotten to let his father know about the change because one day is as good as another in his limited experience with time. We adults can think we’re making ourselves clear, but the clarity is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

Consider some of the idioms we use every day and how easily they could be misinterpreted by a young player. The phrase, “hang in there” could end up confusing players who’ve been told not to swing on the goals. Encouraging kids to “go the extra mile” might have them in tears thinking they have to run another mile. How about telling a player “In the long run, you upped your game?” Does that mean they have to run a long time? Is there a downed game? Are they only good when they are running? Tell a team proudly that they should win their game “hands down” might mean they think they have to keep their hands at their sides. How confusing is it to tell a team they lost because they dropped the ball, when none of them picked it up except the goal keeper who’s supposed to pick it up and then drop or throw it? Discussing how a team should regroup by telling them to go back to square one will leave them befuddled since there are no squares to return to. If we chastise a player by telling him he was caught with his pants down, we shouldn’t be surprise to see him clutching at his shorts. Urging a player to hit the back of the net might find him behind the goal. We can’t be surprised when telling a team at half time that they started the game on the wrong foot that they all raise their hands to find out which foot they should start with. At the end of a tough loss, a team is told they have to face the music. The problem is that no music is playing.

It becomes worse when we mix sports idioms, which are confusing on their own and even more so when paired with soccer. When a team hears from a coach in June that they are “skating on thin ice,” we can’t expect them to comprehend what is being said. If the coach asks his team who is losing, 3-0, if he should “throw in the towel,” they have no idea how to answer appropriately. A pep talk before a game where the coach tells her squad that their commitment will be tested because this is where the “rubber meets the road” only leave the kids wondering what rubber (the ball perhaps) and why hitting a road. Encouraging a team to go for the whole nine yards will probably leave them wondering where those yards could be found on the pitch. Admonishments to come out swinging can be interpreted to use one’s fists rather than to give it one’s all.

We take for granted that everyone will understand certain words, phrases and instructions, but for young players, that’s not always possible. Kids take things very literally until they learn the subtleties and nuances of language later in their development. Language is difficult to learn, but we also have to remember that just because we know the common sense aspects of life, our kids may not. If a coach tells them information, they don’t understand that parents don’t learn the information unless the kids pass it on. Parents may have to look through notes stuffed in a backpack for information. Just because a kid knows how to tie her shoe doesn’t mean she knows how to lace it. Teaching our children how to do laundry involves lots of taken for granted moments like separating laundry, water temperatures, amount of soap, and what to line vs. tumble dry. It took a few pink-tinged undershirts and shrunken sweaters for the boys and I to figure out that they had no clue about what I intuitively knew. Something as simple as putting the lid on the blender before you turn it on isn’t innately understood by our kids. Flushing a paper towel down the toilet doesn’t set off mental alarms to a 10-year-old (or even a 14-year-old as we discovered the hard way). There are dozens of times a day that parents realize their kids just don’t get it, and the situations may range from running with scissors to sticking a fork in the toaster to putting batteries in backwards. It’s a wonder kids don’t burn down the house or blow up the microwave (as our daughter did quite spectacularly) by heating up a burger wrapped in foil. Life is filled with intangibles that can only become known by either instruction or experience, and often kids require both.

In this complex world of electronics we often think our children understand them better than we do. However, that fact only seems to be true where games or social media are concerned, and even then they use poor judgment because they can’t conceive of the far-ranging consequences. Otherwise we have to understand that our kids enter this world as blank slates that have to discover how things work, what words mean, and what consequences there will be going forward. We can’t assume anything when it comes to a child’s understand of the world. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to make assumptions because we’ve already internalized the meanings and the behaviors. We get surprised regularly. That surprise has been the basis of Art Linkletter’s show Kids Say the Darndest Things and half of the America’s Funniest Home Videos and YouTube moments. Just a few weeks ago a viral video showed a 3-year-old boy freaking out because the GPS announced “bear right,” and he thought they faced imminent danger. Our children’s confusion can be both frustrating and entertaining. It’s best if we can keep a sense of humor when our kids react with total bewilderment or wrong-headed behavior, because it will be a while before the fog lifts.

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Susan Boyd

Most soccer fans are sadly aware of Abby Wambach’s arrest for a misdemeanor DUI in Portland, Ore., on April 2. However, a more significant part of that story has achieved less notice. As part of her arrest, Wambach had to detail all of her past drug and alcohol history. She admitted to first smoking weed when she was 24 and trying cocaine when she was 25. These incidents would have been during her rise to prominence on the international soccer scene and just after the 2003 World Cup in the United States. At the time, she had already been on the U.S. Women’s National Team for almost four years, played in one World Cup and one Olympics. It may seem a surprising time to begin using drugs when her fame is ascending and she has the world by the tail, yet it’s not so unusual. It’s also troubling to think that later at age 36, after a lifetime of success in her chosen field and hopefully the wisdom and maturity to know better, she would risk reputation and even her life to drive under the influence.

This is the insidious reality of drugs and alcohol. As parents, we can’t ignore the seriousness of these substances in how they can affect our children and their future lives. If someone as accomplished, settled, and respected as Abby Wambach can be affected by intoxicants, then certainly younger, less confident players might succumb. Our kids are assailed daily with mixed message about what their attitude should be concerning drugs and alcohol. In the midst of most televised sporting events they watch people in their 20s have all kinds of fun under the influence of alcohol. Laughing, dancing, attempting daring feats, and having adventures are all cleverly intertwined with some brand of alcohol. The not-so-subtle message that our kids receive is that if you want to be a cool grown-up having tons of fun, then you need to drink their product. When role models, who wear logos or even act as spokespersons for a brand, are added to the mix, it’s not surprising that kids get swayed. And that’s just alcohol.

Parents have a tough time keeping up with all the new drugs available to their kids, and many of them are bought and sold on school property. It’s not just the ones we knew growing up:  grass, cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines. Now there are an entire spectrum of “designer” drugs – compounds created in the lab (often in China) and sold under an alphabet soup of street names. Presently, the dangers of Fentanyl, a manufactured opioid, have made front page news with scores of deaths reported across the United States. As parents, we are up against so many factors that even strong vigilance can’t always combat them. When it comes to drugs and alcohol, the best defense is a strong preemptive offense. We can make boundaries clear, monitor social media, check with other parents, and stay involved without hovering.

We must make clear how we stand on the use of drugs and alcohol. Most experts suggest that parents clearly state and back up the policy of zero tolerance, but also establish that should a child become impaired, they should call mom or dad for a drive home with a promise not to discuss the situation until there’s time to sober up both chemically and emotionally. Parents should never be enablers. It’s certainly tempting to use the argument that “kids will drink, so I’d rather they did it in my house where I can keep them safe,” but that merely blurs the lines on what your actual position is on drinking or drug use. My neighbor used that argument and found herself with 23 misdemeanor charges for supplying alcohol to underage kids – each count carried a $425 fine and a 10-day jail sentence. It’s difficult to parent from jail, and fines eat up that college fund pretty quickly. Therefore, for all kinds of reasons, the “keep it in my house” argument is deeply flawed. The reality is that kids who have a group of friends will find themselves at least once at a party with intoxicants – that includes with teammates. Sports may keep our kids busy, but they don’t assure a drug and alcohol free environment. Social media makes it even easier to let the mob know where to congregate. Getting alcohol or drugs is also simple to locate through social media. Kids have older siblings who are willing to buy a six pack or they find what they want in the liquor and medicine cabinets of their own families. That’s why we have to stick to a zero tolerance and to expect our schools to help us out by keeping kids out for a game or two if they are caught. Tough love is called that for a reason. No one wants to see their child penalized for what we agree is a rite of passage for most kids. However, the decision to imbibe can be more damaging than a short suspension if kids learn that there are no consequences or they become addicted.

Because so much risky behavior can be linked to the group influences in social media, parenting consultants advise that we make it clear that cell phones and computers are a privilege, not a right. As such, our kids must include us in their circle of participants on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other social networks. Experts say parents shouldn’t monitor constantly, but they should let their kids know that they will occasionally be checking in. If we find anything disturbing or questionable, we need to address it. One grandson — who is on numerous sports teams, a great student, and comes from a family with clear boundaries — was discovered by his parents to be considering the thought of sending and receiving provocative selfies because “everyone does it.” He was 14, old enough to understand the consequences once they were carefully explained to him but young enough to be under the strong influence of peer pressure. Parents must not discount how much power friends hold. Friends offer enticing opportunities that stuffy parents have spoken out against. Given the choice, most kids will opt with their peers. So keeping an eye on what is being offered, considered, done, or pushed should be part of our weekly duties.

Parents can also be allies. Become acquaintances with the parents of your children’s friends. A simple phone call to introduce yourself (Hi, I’m Ashley’s mom. I understand your daughter and Ashley have become friends) will open the door. Give parents your phone number and make it clear if any parent feels uncomfortable for any reason, they should call. When our kids tell us about a party, a trip to the mall, or a movie with friends, it’s a good idea to check with the parents to see if they’ll be home during the party or what curfew they set for their kids. That way our children can’t tell us that Ashley’s mom lets her stay out until midnight. Dating has to be a family discussion to agree upon not only the age when dating will be allowed but also the etiquette of dating. That should include meeting the parents and definitely meeting the prospective date. One idea is to have the date over for dinner to get to know him or her without the awkwardness of everyone just wanting to leave and get on with the date. When traveling to tournaments, we can’t always go along, so make sure there’s a family you trust to keep an eye on your player. Before a tournament, it would be a nice gesture for the coach to gather the parents and ask them what they feel comfortable with when their kids are away – R movies, going to a convenience store on their own, and video games are just a few of parents’ concerns. Recently in Wisconsin, a high school coach got in trouble for letting a group of senior girls watch “50 Shades of Grey” during the car ride home. That could have been avoided had the parents been involved. By the way, most of the girls said they had already seen the movie, which convinced the coach to allow the viewing. Shocker – that wasn’t true.

Pre-teens and teens are so difficult to teach because, of course, they see themselves as a) invincible, b) smart enough to avoid problems, c) entitled to stretch the boundaries, and d) so much cooler than their parents. When we point out the dangers of alcohol and drugs, their attitude is often dismissive because facts are far less interesting than anecdotes in which people have a great time and there are no short or long term consequences. All we can do is use opportunities to quietly state our concerns and our love. When push comes to shove, most kids will opt for their friends’ opinions over their parents’ years of wisdom. So we have to trust that we have invested in our children some common sense that will guide them through impulsive decisions. They may use illegal substances, but they may also be smart enough to not get in a car. We have to cover all the options and let them know that we trust them which doesn’t mean, by the way, that we are naive. I let my kids know early on that I probably knew 80 percent of what they thought they were doing secretly, and occasionally in a non-threatening situation I would inform them of one or two things I knew just to make it clear I was watching. My daughters, who are grown up now with kids of their own, marvel at how well informed I actually was, and how well informed they are. Nevertheless, it’s the 20 percent that’s scary. We can only combat that by being accessible, giving our kids all the information we can without lecturing, loving them, and applying the appropriate consequences. A psychologist once told me that a kid’s job is to get the best deal he or she can get. If that requires lying, sneaking around, manipulating, and begging then so be it. Our job is to stick to what we believe, not give in, and be consistent in how we exercise our discipline. If rules will change, they need to be our choice and not in reaction to a sudden situation (Come on – the movie doesn’t even get out until 10. Why do I have to be home at 11?). Which reminds me: Never answer why because kids love to get us into arguments (“Be home at 11” rather than “Because that’s the curfew”).

What always surprises me is how our children can grow up so differently from one another. I raised four children with what I thought were exactly the same boundaries, love and expectations. I have four completely different offspring. I’m sure there were subtle differences in how I handled things but more significantly, the outside influences on my children were often dissimilar – teachers, coaches, teammates, friends, setbacks, attitudes, and a myriad of other intrusions on my perfectly constructed parental plans definitely left their imprint. So despite our standardize efforts, it’s actually wonderful that we raise clearly individual and independent kids. However, that variability also wreaks havoc with insuring that we’ll never have to deal with drug and alcohol use and dependency. It happens in the best of families to the best of people. When a role model like Abby Wambach gets caught, it can be a teachable moment both for parents and kids. Even someone with maturity, status, and support can be trapped by bad decisions. Let our children know that everyone is fallible — even we are — but we all need to be cautious when it comes to being swayed by outside pressures or our own internal impulsiveness. Giving our kids a safety net through love, attention, and the “it takes a village” approach by including other parents, teachers, clergy, and coaches in raising our kids may prevent some life-altering mistakes. If not, the net will help mitigate the long-term effects of those decisions, sometimes after a painful period of time. I know the ache of watching people I cherish succumb to drugs and alcohol, but I also know the powerful healing that can come from love.

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Roadside Distractions

Susan Boyd

Whether your child plays select or recreation soccer, chances are good that in the next six months you’ll travel at least 300 miles to a tournament. It’s not only becoming more and more acceptable for any team to travel, but it has also become expected. Even though a decade of these trips set back our retirement 20 years, we always looked forward to them. They were opportunities to explore different parts of our country and spend quality time as a family. However, traveling proficiently required a learning curve. Being cooped up in a car for hundreds of miles across empty prairie lands didn’t always result in loving togetherness. Instead, the trip sometimes quickly devolved into petty arguments, mega sulking spells, and lots of “Are we there yet?” voiced in strained pleading tones, especially on the ride home after a less than triumphant contest. It became important to not only find ways of passing the time but also ways in which everyone could participate. We hated relying on DVDs because they just isolated everyone and stole their attention away from the landscape we were discovering. Following are some of the delights we bonded over, plus a few new ones I wish we’d had on those trips. Several of these can also be used on planes and even in the hotel room. On rainout days we were able to entertain an entire team in the lobby of our hotel. For a minimal investment, we managed to gather a wide variety of fun.

You all know the standard road games like the alphabet game, auto bingo, and license plate hunt, which work, but not always for all age categories. I still recommend them because they require little expense (auto bingo cards run $1 to $2 each) or no expense at all. The problem comes when you enter the truly “open road” sections of a trip where signs, animals, plants and structures are at a minimum. Hunting for the letter Q in no man’s land usually leads to giving up at worst and restlessness at best. Plus those games don’t work on an airplane. You should keep them in the road trip repertoire but consider adding a few upgrades. For example, University Games offers a twist on travel bingo for $7 called Travel Scavenger Hunt, which consists of a pack of cards. Individuals or teams work to discover all the items on the card. The game works on the road or even in an airport because there are special “hear it,” “feel it,” and “smell it” categories. The game is rated for ages 7 and above, so it should work for the entire family. We teamed up older with younger players and even had 3-year-olds shouting out discoveries.

Loaded Questions on the Go by All Things Equal sells for $12. This is a great game for the road, the hotel room and on the plane. Again, it’s a pack of cards with four small pencils where one person chooses a question off the card (“What’s your best ability?”) and everyone else writes their answer on a sheet. Someone reads the answers and the person who chose the question has to guess who gave each answer. You can keep score, but we never did. It was more fun to see what answers came up, who was attributed to that answer, and why. Answers and reactions usually result in some good laughs. The driver can participate but needs “shotgun” to fill out the answer.

My favorite road trip go-to is Mad Libs. Each pad is around $4 and has dozens of games. Besides teaching some basic English grammar, the fill-in games provide some major laughs. You can rotate who controls the pad and fills in the answers. We reserved nouns and verbs for the youngest kids as those are easier to think of.

There are also several options for quiet singular play. The newest option is adult coloring books. These provide far more complex drawings to color in than regular coloring books. You can keep several levels on hand plus a box or two of colored pencils to keep everyone entertained. I shy away from crayons because they tend to melt in the heat of a car parked long hours in a tournament lot. Crayola sells a box of 50 sharpened colored pencils for $13.50. A small pencil sharpener will set you back less than $2. Some great options for kids are Harry Potter coloring books by Hot Topics for $16.50 and Creative Haven Country Scenes for $4. Dover Press makes smaller coloring books for kids that are the size of a small paperback and sell for $2. Pepin Press has books of tile cards that are 5x6 inches, printed on thick cardboard, and come in a variety of tile designs (Barcelona, Art Noveau, Dutch), which sell for $13.

If coloring isn’t their thing, there’s a fun puzzle by Smethport called Magnetic Doodle Balls for $5. It’s a covered grid board around which kids move and drop iron balls using a magnetic wand. They can make any number of designs and pictures. The board is the size of a regular magazine, but be sure to keep track of the wand which has a storage spot on the board.

University Games created Spot the Difference Travel Game where cards come in a tin. The cards have two pictures and players need to find the differences between the two. Kids can play alone or you can time players to see how many differences they find in 60 seconds. Every smartphone has a stop watch, which is what we used rather than dealing with egg timers.

On the route or once you reach your destination, there are three terrific options that help kids learn something about where they are visiting. National Geographic Kids has the Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas for $6. The book provides interesting facts about the areas through which you travel, unusual roadside attractions, historical markers, and viewpoints along with maps and some games.

If you have AAA membership, there’s still that wonderful Triptik that they created with paper inserts and now create online. There’s a AAA mobile app that allows you to place your Triptik on a smartphone or a tablet. Each Triptik highlights restaurants, charging stations for electric cars, gas stations, various attractions and historical sites, and side trips along your route. Kids can follow along, pick a place to eat lunch, find a spot to take a break, and figure out how much longer the trip will take.

Once you get to your destination, Idea Box Kids has a wonderful tool for making everyone’s trip fun. Called the Adventure Box, it contains dozen of Family Fun Day coins that kids can choose from the box. Each coin details an adventure to find in your new town such as A Cupcake or Donut Shop or A Zoo. It sells for $18. They also offer an Airplane Box for kids with coins that suggest things like How Long Can You Balance a Snack on Your Nose and Go on a Little Walk, which sells for $9.

You can also create some games fairly easily. I always print off alphabetical lists of states that the kids can cross off as they find license plates. Tournament parking lots can be a gold mine for completing the list keeping all the non-soccer family members busy during warm-ups. A small bag of coins can create a fun guessing game. Kids take out some coins and hide them in their hands. Everyone guesses how much total money is being held. Closest guesser gets to hide the next coins. We also play the distance game when you can see far enough ahead to the horizon. Everyone guesses how far it is to some landmark (a rock, a tree, a structure, or the crest of a hill), then watch the odometer, and the person closest without going over (a geographical Price is Right, I guess) wins and picks the next landmark. We also played the car game. Each person is assigned either a car model or color (easiest for younger players) and counts how many of them they find in either a certain distance or time. We kept white and black out of the color choices as those colors are plentiful.

Once you collect some games, you’ll need a place to store them while traveling. I’m a big fan of locking plastic bags. They come in a variety of sizes and keep pieces together. Some are already self-contained. Games on the Go from Continuum is a collection of 50 games in a license plate replica package of flip cards that are held together with a clip that you can attach to a purse, soccer bag, or cooler. Everything is kept together easily and conveniently. For the other games you can use Etna’s Car Seat Organizer a cube that has 10 outside mesh pockets, a cooler, and a hard top for playing or drawing on. The entire thing is portable with straps for carrying and costs $20. There are also fold down tables for seat backs from Car Gadgets that have a flat table surface and three pockets for storage. We wore ours out, and they proved helpful for everything from eating on the fly, to setting up DVD players, to being a drawing surface, to being a lap top/tablet table. These are only $11.50 each, so it’s not unreasonable to buy two of them or even more for that minivan.

Activities for road trips should be compact, have few small parts that can get lost, and be fun for all ages in the car. These few suggestions fit those parameters, but are certainly only some of the options available. All of these can be purchased through the manufacturers, but Amazon also carries all of them at often reduced prices and with free shipping if you are a Prime member. Most are also available through Wal-Mart and Barnes and Noble. You can do a search to see where you might find them cheaper. We kept our games in a half file box that had cut-outs for handles and a lid found in any office supply store. The boys decorated it with dozens of soccer logos and stickers and that box saw us through over a decade of travel. It was easy to transfer it into other vehicles if the boys were traveling with friends and from the car into the hotel room. Players would ask if the boys had the box because they knew it contained some fun time wasters. We put two decks of playing cards in the box and a set of die just to be prepared for some downtime. Eventually we had to create a second box as the boys began playing in separate parts of the country, but the overall cost was not that high to duplicate the best games and worth the expense as the games were well-used. As exciting as soccer can be, there will always be long lapses of boring waits and miles of traveling in order to participate. Finding some great distractions can fill the empty stretches with fun.

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