If you’re just joining us, this is Part 3 of my Road Trips for Families series. You can read more in Part One: What to Pack – 10 Must Haves for the Road and Part Two: How to Plan Fun Stops Along the Way
Maybe you picture hours of backseat bickering every time you think about a road trip with your kids but I have good news for you. Entertaining your kids on a long car trip isn’t as hard as you think and it doesn’t mean hours and hours of videos either. The key with keeping kids entertained on the road is to rotate activities. It keeps the boredom and fighting at bay and ensures you get to enjoy the trip without wearing your referee stripes or answering the dreaded “How much longer?” question.
These are some of the items that we use in our road trip box with my two kiddos (ages 4 and 7).
Activities to Rotate in the Car
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When little legs can’t move it, it makes it easy to get antsy. Small manipulative toys help give fingers something to do. Think of things like silly putty, wikki stix or even stringing beads or cheerios on a necklace. My younger son especially does better with things he can physically touch but that don’t require directions or precision. This pin art toy and some magnetic blocks would be perfect.
There are so many great options in this category. You can assemble your own makers kits with basic supplies like markers, stickers, paper and stamps from around your house or the Dollar bin or you can grab pre-made kits for every interest. Pro tip: Skip crayons since they can melt in the heat. For prepared activities, I like Melissa and Doug On the Go activity books, this travel spirograph and color by number books. You can have everyone working on the craft with shared supplies or tailor these to the abilities and interest of each kid. My boys don’t always love to sit and craft at home but when they’re stuck in the car, they are surprisingly engaged.
Games are nice way to promote some non-bickering interactions (hopefully). Our whole family has enjoyed this Travel Scavenger Hunt card game and a few fun printable games like bingo and the license plate game on Pinterest. I print them out at home and run them through my laminator (this makes me sound fancy but this is actually one of my favorite purchases!) so that they can be used with dry erase markers. Magnetic games are also great and we have a few of these that come in a helpful metal case. Some of my other favorite games to pack when traveling can be found in this post.
Whether you have readers or not in your backseat, books are perfect for road trips. New titles, especially seem to hold my kids attention better than books they have seen before. You can swing by your local library before a trip and fill a bag with new selections or pick up a few at the Dollar Spot or Goodwill. We’ve had especially good luck with I Spy Books and anything from the National Geographic Kids collection. For my little guy, books with flaps are also popular.
Audiobooks are some of our favorite things in the car and are like a magic calming tool when everyone has had enough time in the car. Even my 3 year old would sit quietly for long stretches and listen. We’ve enjoyed classics that my kids are too young to read on their own but are a big hit on audiobook. Your local library should have a good selection or you can join Audible for a 30 day trial and get a free book. I prefer to have them on my phone rather than a CD but pick whatever works best in your car. Bonus points if you can tie your audiobook into your travels. We listened to The Wizard of Oz while driving through Kansas last year.
We do let our kids watch videos on long road trips but try to limit it to one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I grab new titles from our library or borrow from friends since new-to-us titles tend to be a bigger hit. Target also has $5 DVDs you can snag. Our minivan has a built in DVD player but you can also download videos to your iPad and get a holder to hang it from the back of your seat. Videos make a nice reward and they do give the adults a break which is always helpful.
Gear You Might Need on the Road
Get a good pair that fits your kid’s head so that you’re not stuck listening to endless episodes of Elmo. Bonus points if they are wireless so that you don’t have to turn around 700 times to tell your kid to stop pulling/biting on the cord.
Cloth Tote for Activity Bags
This is the most genius idea ever. Grab some cloth bags from the craft store (use your coupon) and put a few of the items above in the bag. Keep the rest of your stash in the trunk in a plastic box and switch out what’s in the bags every few stops. This keeps kids from fighting over items because you can only play with what’s in your bag. If a toy is popular, I just rotate to the next bag when we switch up items. Everyone stays entertained and knows new things are coming. I also usually toss a couple of snacks in their bags and those have to last them until our next stop. They can eat it all at once or they can ration it out but then I’m not handing out snacks because of boredom. See, I total you it was genius!
Old Socks and Dry Erase Markers
These stay in the activity bag all the time and are used for laminated printables or writing notes. The socks are erasers. Some of the activity and drawing books I found use dry erase markers too so these are handy for multiple things.
Use this for an inexpensive lap tray. I picked ours up at the Dollar Store and they work well for crafts, games etc. They’re lightweight and small enough that the fit easily in the activity bag and they have a lip around them to prevent things from rolling off and becoming un-reachable.
Another option for writing on. My older son used this more for some of his activities like the license plate game since it’s easier to write on than the cookie sheet.
I know this sounds like a lot of stuff but I fit everything in one plastic bin plus the activity bags. Most of my items were picked up in the dollar bin or were a few dollars on Amazon so I didn’t spend a ton of money. Costco also has great activity books that can be reused many times. By rotating the items the kids have, they’re entertained even on the longest trips and I spend less time fetching items while we drive. My two boys survived 7000 miles in the minivan last year with this set up and we continue to pull our our box of travel items each time we plan a new road trip we plan a new road trip.
So what’s your favorite way to entertain kids on the road? Any secret weapons you’ve found that keep the peace? Let us know in the comments below!