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With summer here, many of us are excited to be hitting the road for a much-needed family vacation or weekend away. However, those of us with small children may be slightly less than thrilled about the actual “getting there” part. 😬
Long car rides can be hard on anyone but are particularly challenging with small people who do not like being stuck in a five-point harness for any length of time. I know … between beach trips, long airport runs, and holiday visits to family on the other side of the state, every year we average about ten separate car rides of 4–6 hours each. After six years of trial and error, I can now look forward to these car rides with confidence (well, as much confidence as you can have with toddlers involved!) instead of dread.
For my kids, I’ve come to plan on going through five different phases of keeping the kids content during our trip, starting with the most open-ended, creative approach and ending up at screen time. Here’s what works for us:
Five Ways to Keep Kids Entertained On Long Car Trips
Phase I: Let ‘Em Get Bored
When you’ve taken the time to prep activities and entertainment it’s tempting to jump right in! You’re prepared and excited to show your kids what you have in store for them! But hold back. Let as much time pass as possible before introducing any support. Not only are you cleverly saving your tricks for when they’re really needed, but you’re also giving your kiddos the chance to learn how to experience a road trip. Let them look out the window, let them get lost in their inner worlds, let them get bored, and let them invent games and pastimes in their heads that you’ll never even know about. If we want to see our kids become content, self-sufficient car travelers, we need to give them opportunities to practice.
Phase 2: Road Trip Games
When your kids start to get antsy enough that leaving them to their own devices is making your own ride less than pleasurable, it’s time to provide some guided practice in the art of the old-school road trip game. My intention in this phase is to give the kids practice in entertaining themselves in the car without yet defaulting to planned activities or screens. Depending on your kids’ ages, you can play I Spy, The Alphabet Game, 20 Questions, etc. My kids are six and three, and lately our go-to's are spotting things of certain colors in rainbow order (“Let’s find something red! Oo, that red car! Okay, now something orange!” etc.), making up jokes that rarely make sense, and pretending the other cars on the highway are aliens that we have to blast with lasers. Often, once I’ve gotten them started, they keep evolving the game on their own while I go back to my book.
Phase 3: Audio Entertainment
Once I can tell my kids are sick of entertaining themselves in my nostalgic 90s manner, I offer audio entertainment. For road trips, I always make sure my phone is loaded with something we can all sing along to (almost always a Disney soundtrack), a playlist from a favorite children’s singer/songwriter (we love Caspar Babypants, Elizabeth Mitchell, and the seasonal Spotify lists Treehouse Schoolhouse puts together), and some kids’ story podcasts (check out Circle Round, Smash Boom Best, and Thomas & Friends Storytime). Once my kids are a bit older, I’m sure we’ll throw audiobooks into the mix, too. I like how when the kids are listening to audio entertainment, they’re usually still looking out the window and taking in the scenery, and as a music lover, nothing fills my heart more than building a family library of songs we enjoy and sing together.
Phase 4: Books and Activities
I always try to pack a few books for each of the kids that I know they can enjoy on their own. These could be familiar favorites that they can read (or “read”, in the case of my 3-year-old), Look and Finds, or interactive ones like Usborne sound books. Depending on how long our trip is and how many tricks I need up my sleeve, I may also have on hand some prepared paper-and-pencil activities like Travel Bingo, mazes, or a license plate search. I usually find these free online and print them out—just make sure you have a clipboard for each kid so they have a hard surface to write on! My pro tip in this phase (that I learned the hard way) is to parcel these activities out. If I hand my kids three books, they will be done with them in ten minutes. If I give my kids one book, they will still be done with it in ten minutes, but then I can give them the next book and get another ten minutes. You see what I mean? The same goes with the travel game worksheets … handing them out one at a time keeps them engaged much longer than handing over a packet.
Phase 5: Screen Time
Once we’ve exhausted all of our other pastimes, the whining is getting real, and I just want some peace and quiet to talk to my husband or listen to the radio, I pass back the tablets. Road trips with small children are a "run out the clock" situation, and if buckets of screen time get us from point A to point B, then that’s fine with me. However, the reason I save screentime as a last resort is because the tablets never really hold my kids’ attention for as long as I think they will—yet if I hand them over too soon, it’s all they want to do. It becomes a strange paradox of the kids not really being into the tablets but not wanting to try anything more open-ended either … it’s as if the early screentime closes off their little minds to other avenues of entertainment. Depending on the length of the car trip we certainly may revisit other phases after working our way through all five, but I have found that things go best if we don’t have any screen-time until we’ve used up our other activities.
Extra Tips for Car Travel with Kids
It’s worth noting that a nap is a welcome activity at any time, and I may hand out snacks at any point, too. (Pro tip: Make the snack its own activity, not combined with screentime or a game, etc. We’re aiming to kill time!
Also please realize that we can go back to any phase at any time … after a podcast story, my kids may be ready for some more quiet, staring-out-the-window time. After 20 minutes on their tablets, I may tell them it’s time for a snack break and then a game of I Spy. 🔍
Whenever you stop to use the bathroom, take advantage with a quick game of tag in the rest area grass to stretch and burn a bit of energy. My kids also think it’s the coolest thing ever to put in the coins and push the buttons to get something from a vending machine.
We hope that you have a fabulous time making memories with your littles this summer! ☀️ Let us know how your kids do on your road trips, and if you have any tips to add to these, make sure to write back and we’ll share them on our Instagram!