When you think of a long road trip with two or three year olds, what comes to mind? Whining, crying, temper tantrums? Trying to get out of their car seat? It doesn’t have to be that way, not if you have the right car activities for toddlers!
If you’re taking a road trip with young ones, it’s tempting to just stick them in front of a screen and call it a day. It’s so… very… easy! And while a little bit of screen time isn’t bad, it really isn’t good for them for a six, seven, eight, or however many hours-long car ride. When it comes down to it, you do what you gotta do to survive, but ideally, you can throw in some other activities with the screen time.
But fear not, because there are other ways to keep the kiddos occupied that don’t involve screens. Many of these activities are not only fun for toddlers, but also stimulate their brains and hone those fine motor skills… all while you’re on your way to grandma’s!
And car activities for toddlers don’t have to be expensive, either. In fact, most of these things are free or inexpensive, the sort of things you can find at home or at the local dollar store!
Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links.
Family Road Trips With Toddlers: A Survival Guide
Traveling with tots is not the impossible feat you might think it is, but there are some very helpful ways to prepare! Having the right car activities for toddlers is a great thing, but there are some other tips and tricks to make it even easier!
I have a whole post on how to travel with kids overnight (and why I prefer it to traveling during the day!) but regardless of the time of day, here are several practical tips to keep in mind:
- Pack a VARIETY of activities! That’s what this whole post is about, after all!
- Pack snacks! Even a short road trip still needs some road trip food. Your toddler will look forward to it and it’s an effective way to break up the time and keep things from getting too boring!
- Pack an emergency bag: this includes extra clothes in case of accidents, a first aid kit, and a PUKE BUCKET or BARF BAG. I’m serious. We made this mistake on a road trip last year and let me tell you, not pleasant!
- Pack a travel potty if your toddlers are potty training or just recently became potty trained.
- Plan some toddler-friendly stops: especially if you’re on a long road trip, it helps to have some fun, family-friendly rest stop locations planned! It takes the edge of the boredom and lets them get some energy out! Googling local parks or free attractions is great, but sometimes even an empty parking lot is good in a pinch!
- Have a schedule: if your toddlers are used to a certain schedule during the day, try to stick to it on the road trip. Meal/snack time, nap time, quiet time, and play time can all be incorporated during a long car ride… just don’t be surprised if the change in location throws things off a little bit! That’s okay!
- Introduce new things as you go: start with one toy or activity, and if your toddler starts to look bored, give them something new to do, or surprise them with a special snack, or anything to make the trip seem less monotonous!
- Break it up with screen time: of course it is okay to allow some screen time, in fact it might be a good idea to let them take a break and watch a movie or an educational show, especially during a longer than 4 hour road trip!
- Tip to limit screen time: At the toddler age, I’d try to hold off on screen time until after they took a nap. I also plan it stragecially around stops, so if there’s an hour long movie for them to watch, I’ll put it on an hour before we have a stop planned. This way, they won’t be too upset when it’s time to turn it off, becuase we’re about to get out of the car.
Foolproof Car Activities for Toddlers
I’m sure this goes without saying, but as always, use discretion with which of these are appropriate for your toddler (especially if they involve smaller pieces). Every toddler is a little different and their age and development means that different toys and activities will be better for them!
Encourage independent play with toys that are easy to play with and easy to clean! Toy cars travel easy and don’t need a flat surface to be entertaining. However, you can enhance the play experience with a play mat like these disposable ones, which can stick to a travel tray or cookie sheet. As a cheaper alternative, a small white board with streets and/or parking spaces drawn on it works great, too!
Did you know young kids have a better reading comprehension listening to books than reading them? Obviously, most toddlers can’t read yet, but audiobooks are still a perfect way to stimulate their brains and their ears!
You can get free audio books from the library or snag a free 30-day subscription to Audible and download new books right onto your phone! And if you already have Audible, then you’re ahead of the game.
Space may be limited on a long car ride, but that doesn’t mean you can’t let them pack a few of their favorite books to flip through on the drive! It’s great if you have some interactive books they can engage with, too, or if your older kids are willing and able to read to them!
Here are some of our favorite books lists:
- The Best Children’s Books For Twins (About Twins!)
- The Best Spring Books for Toddlers
- The Best Fall Books for Toddlers and Preschoolers
- The Best Christmas Books for Toddlers and Preschoolers
No, seriously. Just pipe cleaners. They’re cheap, they’re fun, they don’t make a mess, and they can entertain young children for hours. Better yet, take an old plastic jar or metal coffee can and poke some holes in the top (making sure there are no sharp edges, of course) so toddlers can have a ball poking them through and pulling them out. Great for fine motor development!
On our most recent trip, I purchased these Wikki Stix and they were a huge hit with my kids. They made little people and my son even made glasses to match his sisters. I made sure to pack these away in our box of travel items so that they are still fresh and exciting the next time we travel!
Magnetic Cookie Sheet
If you don’t mind investing a little bit of money into your car activities for toddlers, a travel tray is a great way to pack everything in one place and let the little ones entertain themselves. There are compartments on the sides for books and snacks, and sometimes even a stand for a tablet.
I like this one a lot for a long car ride because it has a dry erase board and activities! Could be worth the extra cost!
Play kid-friendly music
Entertain your toddlers with a little car-bound singing and dancing to their favorite tunes – children’s music, movie soundtracks, or light pop music are all good options.
Play “I Spy”
This is probably easier for older toddlers and preschoolers but you can still call your toddler’s attention to neat things out the window, like big trucks or mountains! My toddlers were always upset when the big trucks left until we made a big deal out of waving “bye-bye” to it.
No-Mess coloring books
If your child loves to color but you love keeping your car marker-free, then no-mess coloring books are a real lifesaver on road trips! I absolutely LOVE THESE.
Another great idea that’s cheap if not free if you have lots of these lying around: sticky notes! Toddlers can go to town sticking them all over the car without consequence… I mean, you do have to clean up a bunch of sticky notes eventually, but it’s a small price to pay.
This is similar to the magnetic cookie sheet idea above, except that you stick magnets onto the back of puzzle pieces instead!
A “busy bag” or “busy box” refers to pre-packed activities designed to keep kids’ hands and brains busy, but that leaves it pretty open-ended, right? Check out this post to learn more about how to put a good busy bag together!
However, I do like the idea of using a metal lunch box because you can stick magnets to it, maximizing the number of activities available!
Much like the sticky notes mentioned above, stickers are a great option for toddler entertainment that aren’t going to make much of a mess. A big sticker book with lots of different animals and shapes is always a win!
Another option if your toddler loves stickers is to invest in some reusable stickers like these ones here. And when I say reusable, I mean, you can wash them and reuse them!
Many of these portable ideas benefit from a plastic tupperware container of some sort for easy travel and storage – a mini art kit of crayons and colored pencils is no exception!
Glow Sticks or Glow Bracelets
If you know you’ll be driving as it gets dark, glow sticks are a fun way to shake things up and give them something exciting to play with!
Play “Simon Says”
If “I Spy” is a little too advanced for your younger toddlers, then a classic game of “Simon Says” may be an easier way to keep them entertained!
I’ve seen travel kits on Pinterest with normal-sized legos, but personally, I think that’s a little risky… maybe it could work for older toddlers and preschoolers, but for younger kids, I’d use big legos like these!
Here’s another no-mess coloring book option that I’ve recommended before and have heard others recommend: Melissa and Doug’s Water Wow books, designed for on-the-go! Just fill the pen with water and let them go to town with no inky mess.
Edible necklaces and bracelets
String cheerios, Fruit Loops, or another ring-shaped snack food into necklaces and bracelets for a fun snack that keeps their hands busy… and might just minimize the number of cheerios that get all over the backseat!
Break up the monotony of a long car ride with unplanned snacks and activities, given as “presents.” You can even wrap them up for even more fun! Even if it’s a little toy or trinket they already have, the thrill of the unexpected is sure to delight them!
No, seriously: plain old masking or washi tape (so it’s easy to get off of surfaces) works wonders as a car activity for toddlers. They have a ball tearing off pieces and sticking them to things. You may not need to spend a dime on this, but here’s a pack of colored masking tape just in case!
Popsicle stick velcro puzzle
Stick pieces of velcro to the ends of colored popsicle sticks for a simple DIY activity that toddlers can use to make shapes. Alternatively, stick magnets to the ends and use on the cookie sheet from above!
Whether it’s spring time or not, you can make an easy game out of empty Easter Eggs: fill them with trinkets or snacks, or draw dots on one half with the corresponding number on the other so toddlers can practice number matching!
Another craft supply you might just have on hand that toddlers love: pom poms! Much like pipe cleaners, you can cut holes out of a cardboard box or container and let them have fun poking them through. Just make sure they don’t decide to put them in their mouth!
Matching card games
Practice numbers, letters, pattern recognition, and more with some simple matching card games designed with toddlers in mind!
Pool noodle stacking
Here’s another busy bag idea that could translate well to a road trip, especially if you have a travel tray: cut a pool noodle or two into disks and create a stacking game. This can be color matching, number matching, or just for the fun of stacking something and knocking it over!
A favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or lovey is always a good call when it comes to keeping toddlers occupied on long road trips. They can provide some entertainment as well as comfort from home!
Travel Felt Board
Felt boards like this travel set are a great activity for road trips because they’re quiet, reusable, and fun! Toddlers can let their imaginations run free and you don’t have to worry about messy clean-up!
Calculators or Old Cell Phones
Seriously, something with buttons that your toddler can press and play with will keep them entertained for hours. Pick up a cheap calculator from the local dollar store or donate an old flip phone and you will not be disappointed with the result!
Car Activities for Toddlers: Final Thoughts
It is absolutely possible to have a fun, relatively stress-free travel experience with little kids along for the ride. The key is to keep them entertained because if they’re bored, you WILL hear about it!
However, there are definitely more car activities for toddlers out there than the ones I’ve suggested here. If there are any not on this list that you think are also foolproof, feel free to let me know in the comments! Until then, happy trails!