My husband and I have lived far away from our families and friends for almost our entire marriage, so we take a lot of road trips with our young children. I’m not a fan of playing movies for my children and don’t give them electronic toys, so keeping them entertained on long road trips takes a little bit more planning and creativity. Here are some of my tricks and tips for keeping young children entertained on long road trips, without turning to screen time.
One of my best car tricks I learned from a dear friend when we lived in student housing in Austin: set up a store in the car, filled with various types of prizes: stickers, matchbox cars, magic invisible markers, books, special snacks and lollipops, etc. I try to have a variety of car-friendly activities and snacks/special treats in the store. These don’t have to be expensive, I try to find things on clearance or dollar aisles. I also have a set of toy money. My children are paid $1 for each half-hour or 1 hour they behave in the car, depending on their age and the length of the road trip, etc. In addition to normal expected good behavior, behaving in the car includes not asking “are we there yet?”, “how much longer?”, “has it been an hour yet?” or “when can I have my dollar?” I try to start the time on the hour, so it is easier for the children (and me!) to keep track of. Once they have behaved for a full hour, they earn their dollar. They can choose to buy something small from the store, or they can choose to save their dollar so they can buy something bigger from the store once they have earned a few more dollars. Admittedly, this game takes some planning: buying varying prizes for the store, having enough prizes to last the entire trip, and enough desirable prizes that different children will want, coming up with their prices, keeping track of the time and money, etc. But it also teaches them so much: they are learning about time, the clock, money, adding and subtracting, the value of saving your money versus spending it immediately, the varying prices of commodities, and adding and subtracting. I am also reinforcing values of obedience and good-behavior: if a child does not behave, they don’t earn their dollar that hour. I’ve also added in other incentives at times, like when my oldest son was learning to read, he could earn an extra dollar for every book he joyfully read to his younger siblings. This game has worked very well for us on various road trips, especially as the children get older. It’s harder to implement with young children but I will usually just reward a young child with a small prize when the older children are buying their prizes. There are many ways you could adapt this game to work for your family.
Certain crafts can also be great for road trips. We’ve had great success with stringing beads on pipe cleaners, stickers on construction paper, and pre-packaged craft projects from craft stores like foam letters and numbers to write things or make a picture on construction paper, or foam nativity pieces to put on a foam stable at Christmas time. With children as young as mine, I avoid projects that require glue or glitter or anything excessively messy in the car, but stickers and pipe cleaner projects seem to work well.
Coloring is another favorite for my children. I try to get them a new coloring book or small activity book for a car trip. Melted crayons can make a huge mess in the car so I bring colored pencils instead. But my new favorite coloring tool for road trips is magic invisible markers! The ink in the marker is clear, but color appears when the marker touches the special paper sold with the makers. These are fantastic because they don’t leave a mess on your car seats, clothes, or fingers, and the young children love using them and seeing a beautiful picture appear. This is a little bit more expensive of a road trip prize, but I have been able to find a package of 10-20 special pictures that the magic markers work on, and just buy one package and all the kids share it. They really love this road trip treat!
Books can be another great activity on road trips. Older children can obviously read their own books, and I strongly encourage this (as long as they don’t get car sick!) but my children also enjoy being read to. Our home school curriculum usually has a chapter book that we’re supposed to be reading for family read-aloud anyway, so I’ll bring that in the car and read that to the children, which they really enjoy. Another educational option is to bring library books specific to the area you’re going to visit (we brought some great books about the Grand Canyon and the dessert when we took a road trip out west. The children loved having new books to look at and learned a lot in preparation for the sights they were about to see). We tried a book on tape for our children on our most recent road trip, and it was not a huge success, but that’s mostly because our children are still too young. The 6 year old was very into the story, but the younger children were not. It was still great for the 6 year old and I’m sure the other children will enjoy it more as they get older. Favorite picture books for the younger children or a new book older children can earn from the prize bag are always a hit.
Of course classic car games can still be a lot of fun, for children who are old enough: My Mother Packed a Bag and the License Plate Game are essential to any good road trip! Spot It is small and easy for children sitting next to each other to play in the car. The Magna Doodle is another favorite for long car trips. Children of all ages can use it to draw and practice writing, but it can also be used for tick-tack-toe, hang man, Pictionary, and other drawing games.
The car can also be the perfect place for some home schooling lessons, especially group history and geography lessons relating to the areas you’re visiting. My children enjoy school workbooks, so I bring those and encourage them to do a few pages of phonics and math throughout the trip.
Snacks can be a good distraction and special road trip reward. I try to buy special snacks that we don’t usually have, while also bringing snacks that are healthy, aren’t too loaded with sugar, and aren’t too messy.
For younger children, I rotate through several of their favorite toys and books, but this is by far the best road trip toy I have found for my babies and toddlers: the Manhattan Skwish. It is amazing, trust me.
Obviously, pulling off a successful technology-free road trip with several young children takes a bit of extra planning and packing, but I think it’s worth it. My husband might joke about how much extra stuff I bring in the car to entertain and educate the children on our trip, but I’d prefer that to the mind-numbing hum of electronics in the car any day.
What are some of your road trip essentials for children?