**This post contains affiliate links. Please read our disclosure here**
I am not naturally wired to enjoy video games, quite frankly I’m terrible at them so I’m sure that doesn’t help. On the flip slide, my husband loves to play games and watch movies, but thankfully he supports my desire to keep our kid’s consumption of media minimal – especially when we travel in the car! Don’t get me wrong, we watch plenty of television at home and as my daughter has gotten older she enjoys games on daddy’s phone and playing games with Scout. However, when we are in the car I want the kids to look out the window and see the world. One of my favorite memories to date is the day we switched her car seat to be forward facing and she saw the giant building in the large city we drove through – it would have been a long time before she learned the word ‘sky scraper’ if she hadn’t been looking out the window that day! Granted this ‘just-look-out-the-window’ approach works fairly well when we are only taking short trips in town or only have a couple hours on the road, but we took a long road trip a couple weeks ago that all told ended up being 2300 miles in the car so I needed to ramp-up my plan to protect the sanity of all the adults in the car.
My kids are young, and the two year old has the attention span of a fly, but Momma had a few tricks up her sleeve and called on the collective wisdom of my Facebook friends as well! We were blessed to have an adult next to each of the kids and I had a massive bag of activities that we reached the bottom of a couple times along the road, but the kids were rock stars and we never had total meltdown despite long hours strapped in car seats. Road trips can be overwhelming, but often it is the cheapest way to travel so it’s worth the planning time to enjoy the family memories! Read on if you are looking for some screen free ideas about how to make your own car trips more fun – whether your trip is short or long!
The first step for packing bags was paying close attention to what my kids were enjoying toy-wise in the weeks leading up to the trip. I didn’t want to pack a bunch of random stuff they we’re into at the moment so over the course of a couple weeks I made a giant list of options I thought might work sitting in a car.
The week before we left I made travel bags for each of my kids that had some of their favorite toys. They were small enough to sit on their lap and had pockets to keep their options contained so they could access their own activities – allowing at least for some independence when choosing options I filled the bags with some of what I thought would be their favorites and we switched out their choices when those toys no longer were amusing.
Personal tip: what works well in our van normally is to have the bucket of toy options between their car seats that they can reach and share with each other. This box has ponies, musical instruments, books, travel doodle pro, etc.
As a child, when we would have long road trips my mom would wrap up new toys or learning activities so that once in a while we could open a present! I don’t remember exactly how it worked back in the day, but I think on the days we planned to drive at least 8 hours we got to open something new. I took a more carefree approach and wrapped up several items for each of my kids – I wrapped items for each kid in the same wrapping paper so it was easy to see which presents went to each child and just stored them in my giant mommy bag of toys until we needed them. Mind you these toys weren’t anything fancy or expensive, but were all things the kids hadn’t seen before – books, magnets, activity pages, etc. that I had picked up from garage sales over the last couple months. I didn’t have a set time to open something new because they are too young to grasp that concept (but it certainly would work well to say ‘after lunch’ or ‘every 3 hours’ with older kids) and just saved the new fun for those moments that they seemed to be extra crabby! They LOVED getting something new and the unwrapping process killed some precious moments as we pushed on to our next stop. I didn’t save any presents for the ride home, whoops!, so picked up a couple fun items during the week and set them aside to help provide the same fun on the way home…they were just wrapped in plastic bags instead of wrapping paper!
Feed them – a lot. We had a massive bag of food for snacks in the car with us. I feel like everyone gets the munchies in the car so we had a little of everything sweet and salty. I tossed in a couple of bowls for the kids and Dixie cups for the adults to make sharing easier, plus a roll of paper towel and package of baby wipes. (Personal Tip: I totally forgot chip clips so spent more time than I prefer making sure the open bags of cookies didn’t tip over! Make sure those go on your packing list for your next trip if you bring snacks.) We didn’t have set times for eating so just munched as we were hungry. Go figure – the candy was gone first!
I had a friend offer a lovely suggestion that would be more effective with children who like to eat (that’s a post for another day) that she has been using for many years as they travel often to see family. She puts together individual servings of snacks – some healthy, some candy and all kid friendly. She makes two of everything and creates one set of each for her kids. Then every half hour the kids are allowed to choose a snack to enjoy and they just ‘eat their way to Tennessee’.
The most popular snack for my non-eater was making her own cereal bracelet. I took pipe cleaners along and grabbed one on a whim to attempt to distract so we could push through a little longer in the car. I had packed Fruit Loops and put some in a bowl for each kid. We then showed them how to ‘slide’ the cereal onto the pipe cleaner. Once the pipe cleaner was full we put it on her wrist and she then enjoyed eating them. Couple things to keep in mind…I’m not sure pipe cleaner was the easiest option as the cereal didn’t slide well at first, but she managed to make it work. Also, eating can be messy so I recommend having them eat over a bowl. She enjoyed making several in a row more than once on the trip so this was hit!
Driving at night is another great option when you have kids. For personal reasons we didn’t choose to drive at night this time, but we traveled during naps as much as we could – because there is something lovely about traveling with a quiet car! I packed some glow bracelets and mini flashlights just in case we happened to hit some dark hours in the car and needed to pass the time with something new and fun.
Running and moving at every stop! Movement is essential for kids of all ages, but especially for young children strapped down tight in a car seat. I packed bubbles, balls, and Frisbees in my bag-o-fun. Several friends said that they ate their meals in the car as much as they could so stops were just for exercise, but my kids don’t eat well normally so we opted to avoid this. We packed up picnic food as much as we could and used a travel app to help find local parks along our way. Don’t forget if you go this route to make sure you have plates and silverware along too. More than once we had to do fast food or a picnic at a rest area without a playground, so encouraging movement and running was improvised. Stretching is also a great way to help get wiggles and kinks out of everyone’s muscles. I remember plenty of times as a kid that my dad would say ‘I want to see how fast you can run to that sign and back’ at gas stations so don’t overthink this one too much!
Planning ahead for how your kids will use all the fun toys you brought, while being trapped in the car, is also essential. Our youngest is still rear facing so I couldn’t find a lap tray that I was happy with because she slopes so far back. So I improvised and picked up a metal cake pan from the dollar store. I didn’t want her to be injured by flying metal if we happened to get in an accident so I just hot glued fleece around the outside so it was soft and she was good to go. It worked perfect because we could take it in and out of her seat ten-million times and the tall sides kept most of the activity pieces from falling all over.
I picked up this lap tray for my older daughter, but it didn’t get used hardly at all. Her car seat has cup holders and pockets for storage so she mostly just used those or put stuff back into her travel bag. When she needed more surface for a snack or activity my husband just put her pillow on her lap. I suspect that as she gets older, with a less restrictive car seat, and enjoys activity books more this will become more useful to our family, but I sure wish I had seen this version before we left because it is similar to the one I made for her sister and probably would work well in her current car seat!
I had several other options recommended to me from just a basic clip board to the Taby Tray. I highly recommend giving whatever you choose a trial run on a short trip before you leave so you can see how well it may work or if it will need some modification. Again, this doesn’t need to be complicated, but having something will help kids be less frustrated about losing pieces of their toys when you aren’t able to reach them.
Here is a list of some of the items we took along on our trip.
I have kids who are almost 2 and 3.5 years so keep that in mind when you look at my list. As your kids get older the activities will look different! I would have loved to listen to some books on tape or read stories aloud as a family. Puzzles, mini games, travel bingo, and the license plate game or alphabet game were all fun when I traveled as a kid. And never underestimate the power of car karaoke, so make sure you stock up on some great music to bring along as well!
- Water Wow books – these were in the first present my kids opened. They are a favorite for our quiet bags so I picked out some new ones when they were on sale. They actually helped occupy my husband for a while too and I know my sister-in-law picked up some for her elementary aged children before their last spring break trip. I love that they can’t make a mess because all you need is water (and you can refill the pen anytime because it’s just water!) and they are totally reusable so it’s a win-win.
- Magnets – I brought along our Frozen magnet activity book, but picked up this fun fridge set at a garage sale for my youngest to open as a present. She had a magnetic tray so this was a great way for her to have fun and she didn’t always need it to make noise, which I appreciated. I planned ahead and packed a small bag to contain the pieces so it was easy to find everything out of her travel bag when she wanted to play with it. You could totally bring any number of magnetic options along depending on your kids interests and learning level – see some fun new options here. Felt books would be another great options if you are nervous about magnets with your kids!
- Coloring items – I brought crayons, pencils, ink pens, and our color wonder markers.I also tossed in some scissors and tape because you never know when you might need those things! These were all stored in a handy bag I kept so I could pull out just what was needed for a particular activity. I had activity books with puzzles and stickers (you can totally just print activity pages off the internet for cheap too), coloring books and our color wonder paper – seriously the best invention ever because I let my 2 year old use markers, Wipe Clean books (they are a great way to have reusable fun) and just some plain paper. We didn’t use a lot of this on the actual car ride, but it worked great when we needed the down time at our destination.
- Stickers – these were a life saver several times when all else failed to entertain our youngest. I gave her a blank piece of paper and a sheet of stickers and just let her be. I collect free stickers from anywhere I can, but also grab books with bigger stickers like this so I have plenty on hand that both my kids can get off the page themselves. I don’t think stickers have the sticky power they did when I was a kid, but I didn’t mind that I could get them back off everything surrounding her when we stopped.
- Bandaids – this was on a recommendation from a friend whose daughter enjoyed getting the bandaids out of the package and sticking them on her stuffed animal for two hours during one of their trips. I wasn’t brave enough to use them because I wasn’t interested in picking up all the little wrapper pieces (silly reason I know, but just keepin’ it real), but had them along because it sounded like a fun activity.
- Pipe Cleaners (or wikki stix) – this was also a recommendation from a friend to give kids something to make shapes with. My kids were just a little too young to fully enjoy this activity so I look forward to using it when they get a bit older.
- Cars – Each kid had 2 cars that they picked out in their travel bag…I also tossed in a couple of our trains for fun. They were a great distraction to be silly with! And if your child is more obsessed with things that move, it would be super easy to create a portable road to bring along like sewing this one or just a quick printout like this.
- Dolls – my kids love to pretend with just about anything so I made sure to pack some of their favorite little people figures and dolls. They also each got to choose one stuffed animal to bring.
- Finger Puppets – they are random, small, and entertaining so got tossed in. (I had them in a zipper bag with the dolls so they didn’t get lost in the bigger bags.) These were fun for the adults to play with the kids, especially from the seat behind our youngest because it was perfect for peek-a-boo.
- Books – I had several books for the kids to just look at, making sure they were board books so they didn’t get ripped from being turned on laps. I picked up a great new Under the Sea slide and see book for my youngest (it’s from Usborne, but you can see it on Amazon here). Both my kids love books that make sound so I brought a couple of these as well. They enjoyed looking at the pictures but let’s be honest, spent most of their time pushing the animal sound buttons over and over and over and over again!! We also had our “Cars” Look and Find book that was fun to use as well.
- Toys with buttons – we have a toy cell phone and a remote that provide entertainment for our youngest so these got tossed in the bag too. I try not to underestimate the power of being able to make noise, even when it’s not my activity of choice. Whatever it takes to help pass the time!
- Chalk Boards – I picked up a couple handmade fabric chalk boards at a craft sale just before we left. The kids didn’t love them as they were kind of hard to write on in the car. I think having an option more like this would have made them more of a hit! Don’t forget to pick the dustless chalk to keep hands a little cleaner.
- Puff Ball Container – another favorite of my kids from their quiet bags is the empty cheese container filled with puff balls. So cheap and easy to make and they love dumping them out and putting them back in over and over again! And as kids get older the possibilities with this are endless for sorting, counting, making pictures, and a whole heap of other ideas this blogger shares – this blogger attaches magnets to them, which is genus for older kids to use in the car! Beware – puff balls will be EVERYWHERE. Thankfully they don’t leave a mess, but we lost about half of them along the way and found them back in every bag and crack of the van when we were unpacking.
- Travel Doodle Pro – the kids love to ‘draw’ on these travel boards and I love that they are totally mess free. There a million options including some that are larger and include more pieces so check them out here. I think these would make a super fun present for kids to open and will likely get some bigger ones before our next big road trip.
- Our imagination – plenty of minutes were passed just by making up silly songs or doing silly dancing. My oldest also enjoyed playing eye-spy, although usually picked something she saw out the window so kept her daddy guessing for a long time! Kids are creative, so given some space and a few random items they often can create their own fun to pass the time.
Mercy, that is a long list of options – no wonder my mommy bag-o-fun was so heavy! On our longest day we spent 12.5 hours on the road so like I said before, we certainly hit the bottom of the bag several times, especially with our youngest. I did also have a portable DVD player along for my daughter to have a movie during her normal rest time and on day four of driving home we got desperate with our youngest so used our selfie stick to provide a movie for her!
What activities do you bring along to occupy your kids in the car? Do you have a favorite game to play? I’d love hear what works for your family!!