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50 Tips, Tricks, and Ideas for the keeping the kids busy on a Road Trip.

We recently drove 20 hours South to St George, Utah. We had previously done 8 hour trips and although they were still long,  they didn’t compare to two full days of driving. During the trip I kept notes of what worked for us, and what didn’t.  I’ve compiled a long list of things to do, how to stay sane, and the little tips I learned along the way. So without further ado, here’s a long list of how to keep those kids busy  (and keep yourself smiling) on a long long drive.

  1. Go buy a Star Kids Travel Tray. I can’t say enough good things about this lap tray. Both my girls ask for it on as soon as we get in the car, even when we are just driving in our city. It has ingenious design with a clip that goes around the back of the carseat and can be unclipped on either side. It’s made from a soft and comfortable foam, but the girls found it sturdy enough for colouring and crafts. It has multiple side pockets for books and crafts and water bottles. It wipes clean. It’s carseat safe and won’t hurt them in the case of an accident (unlike large plastic trays that can crush them or could shatter). Honestly, if you are planning to be in the car for any amount of time this summer with kids still in a carseat or booster, go buy it today.  And for $30, it’s a steal of a deal for your sanity. We purchased ours locally at Wee Love.
  2. Get each kid their own tupperware container to keep at their feet. Everything they can bring along will fit inside this tupperware- activities, toys, books, crafting supplies. At the end of each leg of the trip, everything must go back into the tupperware. This keeps your car clean, keeps the activities organized and every knows where their own things are. We purchased dollar store tubs and decorated them with stickers as a pre-trip anticipatory craft.
  3. Remember those baby window shades you used when your kiddos were really little? Bring them back out. Nothing makes my kids crabbier then trying to colour with the sun in their eyes. On that note, pack them sunglasses too.
  4. Kids noise cancelling headphones for movies, music and iPad games makes the car ride that much quieter. A good pair is worth the investment on a long trip. We loaded up an old iPhone 3 with a bunch of music for Violet and she loved singing along while doing her crafts. And the adults got to listen to podcasts without any complaining.
  5. Kids love tactile activities while travelling. In each tub I included a small pad of construction paper, a glue stick, scissors, foamie stickers and some magazines for cutting. My girls love crafting and cutting paper and gluing and creating. This sounds like it could be a big mess, but it’s really not! Maeve just wanted to cut things out of magazines and while there was a ton of little pieces of paper everywhere afterwards it really took very little time to clean up.
  6. Bring wet wipes (we still use baby wipes in the resealable pouches )  for cleaning sticky hands.  They’re still perfect for cleaning up snacks and for tons of different emergency uses.  Don’t leave home without them!
  7. Buy the extra large size of Ziplock bags for your in-car garbage bags.  They contain everything and extra messy messes (or smelly ones) can zipped in right without liquids spilling out accidentally. We also use them for motion sickness accidents and seal the mess right up. (Be sure to pack kids Gravol just in case- especially if you are taking mountain roads. I basically survive road trips on a steady stream of Gravol unfortunately and windy roads are the worst).
  8.  And really, bring ziplock bags for everything. Bring a extra box of snack size bags in the glove box for splitting up snacks or purchased treats on the way. You can bring one big bag of popcorn and then share it evenly among your carload. I’ll usually keep a bag of baby carrots in the cooler and it makes it super easy to divide everything into personal sized portions.  (And I promise we use reusable tupperware at home,  but for travelling I want to keep things simple and not have to worry about cleaning out tupperware at 11pm in the hotel bathroom.)
  9. Freeze a pile of juice boxes and water bottles to bring along in the cooler of snacks.  Your snacks will stay chilled for longer and your kids can have  juice box “slushies” as they thaw. We use a soft sided collapsible cooler to save on room in the car, but I’ve seen coolers that plug into the car lighter at really reasonable prices. If you have room in your vehicle (we never do!) that could be awesome idea.
  10. Listen to audio chapter books from your local library. I’m really hoping to start Harry Potter this summer and continue with the entire series as the kids get older. The Naria Series is also on my list. For now we enjoyed Dr. Suess’ Short stories. We also brought along a half a dozen library children’s books with audio and the girls enjoyed taking turns holding the book to turn the pages.
  11. Play the “Going on a road trip” game. Say “I’m going on a road trip and I’m going to bring along_____”.  Then say something that fits in a category or pattern.  Then ask your kids what they will bring- if it fits in the right pattern they “can come”. We’ve played this game with me bringing things that are all the same colour, start with the same letter,  or things that belong together (like farm animals).  With older kids you can do harder patterns like alphabetical or backwards alphabetical or ingredients for a recipe. It’s great for problem solving skills and it’s fun for them to keep guessing what to bring until they realize the pattern.
  12. Bring tub or two of Playdough. Sounds messy right? Turns out it’s not really and even what drops to the ground can be picked up or just dries out. This works particularly well with younger kids who can look out the window and keep their hands busy. Having the tray makes these kind of activities really easy. Just leave the silly putty at home- I have silly putty stains that I can’t get out on carseats and clothing from our last trip!
  13. Bring a map and a highlighter. Kids can trace the route and write when you stopped and why you did. We printed ours out from Google maps and taped a couple pages together but you could purchase bigger maps or allow them to do it digitally on an iPad.
  14. Travel with a hidden bag of wrapped travel surprises, similar to what I talked about in my Flying with Kids post.  When someone is getting cranky or bored you can distract them with a gift, or when someone has been excellent and quiet, you can reward them. Dollar store items, magic ink books,  colouring books, new craft supplies, mini flash lights are all good ideas. I like to wrap the prizes just to make it a little more exciting. Who doesn’t like to unwrap gifts? You can also give out surprises but on a timer system. Anytime your iPhone timer goes off, or you reach a certain location they get a prize. Or you could tell them a very specific time to wait for and they receive the prize when they see it’s excactly the right minute.
  15. Glow sticks and glow in the dark items are big hits come evening travel, especially if you’d like them to not fall asleep before your destination. They are the perfect small novelty item that works great as a surprise after a long day of travel.
  16. Bring a roll of masking tape for younger toddlers. Kids love tape. Just hand them a roll and let them just put it anywhere. Sounds strange but a great time killer (also works well on airplanes!).
  17. Play the classic 20 Questions. We had several very interesting games of 20 Questions on the way to Utah- I’m always a little surprised at how much my kids actually know! Maeve (4 years) could easily follow along and come up with her own “Animal, mineral or vegetable”.
  18. If you stop to grab a quick bite of fast food don’t let your kids actually eat while you are there. Play in the indoor playground or stop at a outdoor playground while the other adult grabs food. Use your stopping time as energy burning time– get in as much running around as possible. They will be happy to eat in the car (on their perfect little trays) and they won’t waste time eating when they can be active. You can bring along a jump rope, a blow up ball for playing some “volleyball”, or have them run a race or obstacle course. If you see a splash pad and it’s hot outside, that’s perfect too. If you are really clever you can call ahead to order pizza so it’s ready at the park or gas station when you arrive.
  19. Bring a large scrapbook for your kids to glue, draw and write in. I found a 10×10 size book at the dollar store and glued a map of our trip on the front. Then I left the first few pages blank for her to put in random things along the way.  I also wrote some questions along the top of the page that she could fill in as we went. Things like “Draw a picture of what’s outside your window right now”, ” What was the best part of your Day?”, ” What did you have for lunch?”. She could write or draw her answer, making the book more interactive and giving her ideas of what to document.  She glued in brochures from museums we stopped at, receipts from gas, ticket stubs from the children’s museum. It turned out to be a great memento from our road trip and gave her something to do on the drive.
  20. Give your kids an old phone just for the camera,  or an old digital camera,  or even a retro film camera to document the trip themselves. Getting the prints back is really fun for kids- and they can be added into the scrapbook. We gave Violet a Instamatic Camera to be able to put the instant polaroids right in to her memory book.
  21. Stay in hotels that have pools. Have a morning or evening swim to have some fun and use some energy. For us, a swim before leaving in the morning is better, but whatever works best for your kiddos. We even stopped at a local pool/hotspring in the middle of our drive one of the days- perfect way to break up the trip.
  22. Buy time consuming craft kits– rainbow loom bracelets,  Crayola sets, sticker mosaic picture kits, colour by number kits…. those inexpensive items that take up a lot of time, but that then can be recycled or thrown out at your destination are best.
  23. Talk about what your destination will be like. Write down the answers on the drive there and read them on the way home. Talk about what they guessed right and what things were different about the destination. Younger kids can draw pictures of before and re-draw the actual  scene after. Taking about why things were different then what they imagine is a great icebreaker question into talking about different climates or vegetation.
  24. Bring school work and or homework. Little kids can easily  work on these Kumon books (on sale at Edmonton Costcos right now for a steal, or at Mastermind Toys) and need very little guidance for each page.
  25. If you are staying in Canada bring along Kinder Eggs as a treat AND a toy. Pull them out as a reward from your hidden bag of surprises. (Just don’t sneak them into USA where big fines are given to those bringing in the little eggs of deliciousness.)
  26. If you are like us and  don’t have a entertainment system in your car,  bring along a iPad (buy, borrow or beg a friend) and jam the iPad between the two front seats so it’s facing the kids and make your own entertainment centre.  If you have bluetooth turn on the speakers to sync to the Ipad so all the kids can hear.  Bluetooth headphones are perfect too.  It works exactly the same as a fancy DVD player and everyone can watch the same movie together.  Classic Disney movies your kids might love and have never heard of are-  Swiss Family Robinson, Old Yeller, Homeward Bound, and Mary Poppins.
  27. Play the sign game. Each kid needs to find a word on a sign that begins with the letter A, B, C, D….. The trick is going in alphabetical order and not skipping ahead until each word starting with needed letter is found. With older kids you can play it as a competition- no working together, whoever spots it first gets to use the word and each kid needs to find their own word of each letter.  It gets pretty hard around “V”….. but I can confirm the whole alphabet  CAN be done!
  28. Usborne Sticker books. I’ve talked about these sticker books before but they are truly worth their weight it gold. We can get at least4 hours (not in a row… usually) from each book. The stickers pull off the paper perfectly and don’t need a parent to read them instructions. Lots of the titles are quite Educational too, with themes like Classic Composers, Ancient Greece, Vikings or WWII. And I can now confirm boys like them as much as my girls do.
  29. Bring along their favourite pillow and blanket.  It’s nice to be cozy. If you’re lucky you might even get some afternoon naps in the car.  But if they aren’t nappers, they will have something comforting to sleep with at night- this is especially helpful if you are staying in a new place every night or if they are a little uneasy of new spaces.
  30. A friend told me about every hour spelling tests. A alarm goes off on her phone and they have a one word spelling bee every hour. Bigger words for bigger kids, prizes or points as you go along.
  31. Bring along small toys and accessories for play. Cars with road pieces or animals with food and shelter.  Playing with toys on the tray is much easier and they can be stored the entire time in a side pocket for easy access. Have them pack their own toys in their tub and let them know that whatever they bring is all they will have for the entire trip, so choose wisely. This also elimatinates the amount of whining about not having certain toys- learning to pack themselves and take reasonability for what they bring is important.
  32. Have a gum bubble blowing contest.
  33. If you have older kids you can download classic games onto a phone or iPad. We played a lot of “”Wheel of Fortune” and other game shows together as a family on the iPad.  So even though you’re still using technology you are still interacting together as a family.
  34. Pass notes. Love notes to your kids, secret messages about your destination, why you are excited, or maybe do it in a code for them to figure out.  For those that can’t read passing love notes full of pictures is just as sweet and special.
  35. Download Duolingo and play fun games and learn Spanish while you are at. Everyone can take turns playing and you can quiz each other on Spanish words. It’s easy enough for Violet but challenging enough for me.
  36. The game “Guess Who?” is perfect for travel.  The (newer) boards that have interchangeable characters for 4 different games. You can sit in the front and play easily with the child behind you. This game looks bulky, but when taken out of it’s box the game takes up barely any space and lies flat.  It was perfect for Violet (6) and Maeve (4) to play together.
  37. Don’t take out everything to entertain your kids at once. Keep everything stored till they ask for something, or until they complain about being bored. If you bring out everything at once and they will burn through activities way too fast. Try for a new game or craft set every hour ( or however long your child’s attention span is).
  38. Try to teach your child a new hobby or skill a week prior to leaving. It’s a little hard to teach a 6 year old knitting from the front seat, but it is easy enough to assist her as needed. Ideas for new hobbies could be things like sewing, cross stitch , braiding bracelets, stamping cards or origami. Teach it close enough to your travel date so they are still excited and engaged in the new skill.
  39. Memory games. We play it this way-  “I’m going on a bear hunt and I’m going to bring…..” then go around the car and each person adds a different item. See how many rounds you can do in a row. Its’ a great game to improve memory skills and teach kids about different tricks to improve their memory like building stories in their mind or making up abbreviations.
  40. Have your kids wear flip flops that can easily come on and off. This is particularly helpful if you’ll be making only quick stops along the way.  I hate being slowed down by tying up shoes when stopping for a potty break. Comfortable clothing is an obvious choice too. Also have your kiddos dress in layers- Being able to add or remove a sweater is easier then changing the temp of the car for only one uncomfortable passenger.
  41. If you have younger children bring along a small potty. Ikea has cheap and small ones. Being to able to stop roadside for a pee ANYWHERE break is much faster then going well off your track to find a bathroom (like needing to find a bathroom right this minute!). And don’t worry, you packed wipes to make clean up easier!
  42. Develop a reward system with tickets. You can make your tickets, download them off the internet or buy tear tickets from the dollar store. Good deeds, kind words, good behaviour,or full  an hour of quiet play are all examples of when you could give out a ticket. The kids can cash their tickets in at a ice cream stop, for a gas station bag of snacks, a small prize, or  a souvenir at your destination.  You could also use this system to give them one of your surprises from your bag.
  43. Bring Crayola window markers for older kids. They can keep track of their points for the license plate game where they need to find a license plate from each province (or each state).
  44. Book reading challenge– Read a book, earn a prize. This works best for older children who take longer to read a chapter books, but I love the idea of encouraging reading instead of watching movies.
  45. Let your kids pick some road side stops along the way. Google what is along your route and let them choose what appeals to them. Mark it in their map and have them follow along and let you know when your getting close and need to stop. Helping them be involved with the planning and navigation can help older kids feel like an important part of the trip.
  46. Bring nuts and bolts and let them screw them on and off. Great for fine motor skills.
  47. Print off game boards for “Road Trip Bingo“.  This pinterest link has loads of printable games for every age level along with lots of other games like  a “Colour the State”  license plate game, road trip eye-spy and a printable game trying to find different makes and models of cars.
  48. Bring water bottles, healthy snacks, and suckers for when you need a quiet minute  (I blogged about my love of lollipops when travelling here). Being prepared with food and drink will help eliminate stops for snacks and I know that’s the biggest thing my kids like to complain about. Snacks are your friend and sometimes you really need to just drive instead of stopping for food. My sister travels with a knife in her glove box wrapped in tea towel- I’ll admit that I thought she was crazy, but she used it multiple times on our trip- cutting up oranges and making apple slices to name a few.
  49. Talk about expectations ahead of time. This is probably my best tip for road tripping with your kids. If they know they will be driving all day they won’t keep asking “are we there yet?”. They already know they won’t be stopping till it’s dark out.  We were really clear before we left that some days would only be driving- but we would make it fun with surprises and treats along a the way.  Before we left the hotel every morning I gave them a pretty good layout of the day and what to expect- and what I expected from them.  I honestly didn’t hear “are we there yet?” once.
  50.  Planning a road trip is a lot of work and you might think that you have your schedule down to a science. But make sure that you can be flexible too. If the kids see a sign for a cool roadside activity or if there’s a unique park or waterfall hike, it’s okay to stop sometimes.  The kids were happier when we were stopping more and seeing more things- so I think learning to be flexible and  to just “go with it” is best advice you can give yourself.  Be prepared to be spontaneous and be prepared to just drive when needed.  But don’t forget to praise your kids in front of everyone for good behaviour. When they see you believing they are great road trippers, they’ll believe it themselves and act accordingly.


Maeve in her carseat with her tray and her sticker book learning about Ancient China.

road-trip-tips-with-kidsPicture above is everything we brought along for the girls and the tubs it all fit in.

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  • April 24, 2016 - 12:04 am

    Allison - Great tips! I am purchasing those trays before our first camping trip for sure and the Usborne books. I have purchased sticker books in the past but they always need my help with them.ReplyCancel

    • June 22, 2016 - 6:58 pm

      Kelsy - Yes! They are awesome books! Waaaay better then dollar store sticker books. And there’s so many awesome titles. Right now Maeve is working on “Clothing throughout the Ages” which is bit trickier but she still likes it!ReplyCancel

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