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 children, 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 7, 8, 9, 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.
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 grandmas!
Toddler car activities 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
I have 4 kids right now, ages 9, 7, 7 (twins!), and 2. At one point, I had THREE TODDLERS and we have always traveled with them. My husband’s family lives 12 hours from us, and so it’s a long road trip that we have made every year, at least once.
I’ve picked up some tips and tricks along the way. I’m going to share a LOT of activities and ideas but please don’t try to cram in every activity on your road trip. Simply pick a few of your favorite ideas!
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! I highly recommend these portable barf bags. They are affordable and easy to pack!
- 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 pit stop locations planned! It takes the edge off 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 playtime can all be incorporated during a long drive. 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: During long car rides with younger children, I try to hold off on screen time until after they took a nap. I also plan it strategically 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, because we’re about to get out of the car.
Foolproof Toddler Car Activities
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 depending on their age and development means that different toys and activities will be better for them.
These travel trays look AMAZING. My kids are constantly dropping things in the car and asking for me to retrieve them for them. These trays would prevent things from falling to the floor!
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!
Encourage independent play with toys that are easy to play with and easy to clean!
Toy cars travel easily and don’t need a flat surface to be entertaining. However, you can enhance the play experience by creating a road on a travel tray or cookie sheet with this road tape.
Did you know young kids have better reading comprehension by listening to books than reading them? Obviously, most toddlers can’t read yet, but audio books are still a perfect way to stimulate their brains and their ears!
You can get free audiobooks 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.
Pro tip: If you have a DVD player in your car, play a DVD over the stereo without turning the screen on and BOOM: audiobook. We do this with Daniel Tiger DVDs all the time!
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
I purchased these on one of our recent road trips and they were a huge hit with my kids! They made little people and my son even made glasses to match his sisters. I loved that they were using their imaginations to create things in a non-messy way. I made sure to pack them away in our box of travel items so that they are still fresh and exciting the next time we travel.
Buy them here: Wikki Stix
Magnetic Cookie Sheet
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.
Road Trip Games: 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.
Road Trip Games: Play “Simon Says”
If “I Spy” is a little too advanced for your younger toddlers, then a fun game of “Simon Says” may be an easier way to keep them entertained.
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.
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.
One of our favorite toys is another mess-free drawing option: magnetic drawing boards.
Another creative 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. These are a wonderful option for a long car trip.
I just purchased this magnetic play scene as a Valentine’s Day present for our toddler, knowing that we have 2 trips coming up (both by air and by car!) and this looks like fun activity for a long trip.
It comes with a magnetic puzzle, a play scene, and a dry-erase pad with some markers.
I’m super excited about it, AND the fact that it is all self-contained!
Here are some other adorable options for magnetic play scenes. These are truly some of the best road trip activities for toddlers!
Here are a few more really fun ones that I found. Please note that some of these are for a three year old and up due to choking hazards. And, depending on your kids ages, some of these magnetic play scenes can be something that the whole family can enjoy.
Dress up the girl with magnetic clothes, jewerly, and accessories!
This is like a magnetic Mr. Potato Head. I am tempted to grab this for our next trip because it looks so fun!
Busy bags and busy boxes
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.
A big sticker book with lots of different animals and shapes is always a win!
This obviously depends on the toddler and whether or not they can handle the temptation of plastering the car window with stickers.
Out of my 4 kids, I would trust 2 of them with stickers in the car at this age.
Another option if your toddler loves stickers, and you can’t quite trust them with real 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! They don’t actually have a sticky back and come with a scene to place them on.
I seriously LOVE these sticker pads and they entertain my toddler at home for quite a bit of time. They are a really good option for both younger and older children.
This sticker pad with the roads and rails is also super cute! I am leaning towards the vehicles because my toddlers have always loved vehicles, but they are also availabe in dinosaur, animal, around the town, and fairy tale themes.
And finally, I haven’t tried these, but I have heard great things about these puffy stickers! There are so many options for reusable sticker pads, and I promise you, they are such an easy way to get hours of entertainment.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Felt boards like this travel set are a great activity for road trips because they’re quiet, reusable, and fun. They are similar to reusable sticker pads and magnetic boards, where the felt will stick to the board and not fall to the ground.
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
I hope this has given you some fun ideas to entertain your toddler on your next family road trip.
Don’t forget some healthy snacks (and some fun treats!), some good entertainment, and of course, a little bit of screen time.
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 travels!