Every year we take long road trips, usually at least once to a beach and often somewhere else. I also love going on day trips to explore fun places closer to home. I try to prepare as many fun things for my kids to do as independently as possible, so that I can focus on driving, navigating or just so I just don’t have to hear “Are we there yet?” over and over.
When thinking about how to entertain your kids on long car rides, it’s important to remember that kids have short attention spans. I have always heard that the child’s attention span lasts anywhere from 1-3 minutes per year of age. With that in mind, a 3 year old’s attention span could range anywhere from 3-9 minutes on a given activity. They may rotate back to an activity more than once, but they will need a wide range of things to cycle through.
Some of my favorite places to find in-car entertainment are Amazon, Target, Michael’s and the Dollar Tree. I stock up on some of the things mentioned below through out the year so we have a variety of different activities. Stocking up ahead of time also gives me time to make or organize the activities so I am not scrambling at the last minute. It is budget friendly, too!
Here are some of the best ways I’ve found to keep kids of all ages entertained on long car rides:
When our kids were babies, we tried to plan our trips around their sleep schedule. We would leave a couple of hours before their bedtime and one of us would sit in the back to entertain them or play with them so they wouldn’t fall asleep early. About bedtime we would make a stop, walk around, stretch, change into pajamas, and then continue. The parent who had been in the back would move to the front and baby would usually fall asleep quickly.
As our kids got older, I would give them age-appropriate snacks, but I made them work for it. I used a Munchkin snack container (affiliate link) that they had to reach through flaps to get their snack out of. It kept them busy a little bit longer.
Some of my favorite entertainment for little babies was any sensory-style hanging toy that they could grab and reach for. Anything that would make a crinkly noise, or squeak (affiliate link) – it is fun for babies to get reactions out of things. I would typically buy a new one before a trip, or hide an older one for a while before the trip so it felt new.
Cut up strips of fabric in a wipes container was something my older babies loved. I got a bunch of ribbons and textured fabric and placed it all in an old wipe container. Pulling it out was always exciting for them!
For little babies, singing or talking with them helped a lot. They also loved hand-held mirrors or baby board books.
Toddler / Preschool Age:
Kids at this age just love opening, closing, putting things into other things and taking them out. One of my son’s favorite road trip toys was a “Simply Orange” juice container. We gave him things to put in and out of it – pipe cleaners, pom poms, straws, clothes pins, large buttons – anything I knew he couldn’t choke on. Putting items in and taking them out again kept him entertained far longer than I thought it would. An empty Parmesan cheese shaker bottle would be great as well.
I have seen others use a colander to thread pipe cleaners in and out of. Kids can also practice putting (non-choke-able!) beads on the pipe cleaners. This could expand into a wide variety of activities, including sorting colors and shapes – something preschoolers love to do.
Magnets are a big hit as well. A cookie sheet and all sorts of magnets are a ton of fun. Melissa and Doug brand has many options, like these (affiliate link).
Velcro can be a ton of fun too! We’ve put Velcro dots on Popsicle sticks and let them create whatever they wish! Amazon or a store may sell things similar to my homemade ones! You can build letters, numbers and shapes pretty easily.
Craft kits are also fun! I love to get plastic bags or pencil pouches and fill them with fun craft supplies. Crayons, paper, stickers, mini notebooks – and let them go to town! Target’s Bullseye area often has fun prepackaged “Play Packs” (affiliate link), coloring books / crayon / sticker kits that mine enjoy.
Water Wow books (affiliate link) are a ton of fun and reusable, not terribly messy either.
I like to pay attention to the Target dollar spot, Michael’s and The Dollar Tree. They often have foam shapes, letters, animals or other different pieces for various activities. I like to buy those, then save them for road trips. I’ll put them in a zipper pouch and make a busy bag. I’ve used shapes as tan grams bags for both my toddler aged and big kids. I’ve printed a scene for the foam animals for imaginative play. They often have different felt activities, as well that could easily be put in a bag for a road trip! You could make your own felt pieces for activities that you may like.
Puppets allow for lots of imaginative play. We make easy puppets – large Popsicle sticks with characters glued or taped on them can be a ton of fun. Ask my husband about the time we acted out “The 5 Little Monkeys swinging in a tree . . . teasing Mr. Alligator” on our trip to Chicago. Our kids loved it! Anything on paper can be turned into a puppet with a Popsicle stick.
If you are feeling brave, a large pencil box, cookie cutters and play-doh are a hit. I put the box in a large plastic bag when we are done to help catch any extra mess or crumbs.
Mini figurines are another Target / Dollar Tree / Walmart thing to look out for. When I had animal figurines, I turned a little shoe box into a farm scene. I was feeling pretty creative, but my son loves to do this on his own now! He has fun turning boxes into other things, then taking his toys to his new scene to play.
School Aged Kids:
My kids still enjoy craft kits. Sometimes I just buy all brand new “fun” supplies and let them go to town, or I make themed kits. Even a fresh notebook, stickers and writing tools are exciting at this age. I try to bring containers to hold everything for when they are done. Small travel-sized soap holders make great storage containers for crayons.
And easy way to DIY your own activity books is to print word search, bingo, maze, scavenger hunt, crossword, or other activity pages on your home printer. Place them in a clear plastic binder sleeve and store in a 3-ring binder with a dry-erase marker. (Teacher tip: Crayola makes a dry erase marker that comes out of clothes easier than the Expo band).
Colorforms (affiliate link) come in a variety of themes. I pick out a few of my kids favorite ones, and let them play.
My bigger kids have expanded the imaginative play with the popsicle stick puppets mentioned earlier. Now, my kids even like to draw their own people on the large popsicles sticks to fit what they want to play.
When we feel brave, or know our trip may be extra long – I have loved bringing play-doh or kinetic sand – I get a big pencil box to hold it in. I put the box in a large plastic bag when we are done to help catch any extra mess or crumbs. It’s such a unique treat to play these things in the car – it feels extra special and fun!
If you have a LEGO lover – get a large lego base board and attach it to a cookie sheet. Box up some LEGO bricks and enjoy building.
Tips For Keeping Road Trips Fun For All Ages
Keep things together as best you can. I like to put smaller items in pencil boxes or pouches, then put those inside a bigger reusable grocery bag or a bin of some sort. Have a designated trash container with extra bags. You can empty and start fresh anytime you make a stop. (It also comes in handy if someone gets carsick.)
Use a road trip map. I like to make a list of specific stops we may be making and display it in the car. We then move a little marker along as we go! It helps us all to see the progress we’ve made. It does not have to be fancy, ours is usually just the cities we’ll be driving through, written along a line.
Milestones help break up the trip. We put these up on post-its and take the post-it down when we meet a milestone. We celebrate various mile achievements (50 miles, 100 miles, 326 miles, etc.), or anytime we go into a new state. Sometimes we play a fun song, sometimes the kids get a small treat, sometimes we just cheer. We usually wing it – but it gets everyone’s attention for a few minutes and breaks up the monotony of the ride.
Look at your trip route ahead of time. See if there are parks or fun attractions near places you may stop. Take the time to burn some energy.
When stopping for gas or food, take your time. We walk around, stretch, do exercises and run. Burn that energy!
Technology time is always fine; we keep it limited so they don’t get crabby or car sick. Headphones for the devices are a lifesaver.
Remember, you aren’t going to get where you’re going fast. Take your time during breaks, if they get bored for a bit, it’s okay. If they eat a ton of snacks, it’s okay. A fun car ride to or from your destination can set the tone for an amazing trip!