How to Survive a Road Trip with Kids: Activities

How to Survive a Road Trip with Kids: Activities

Part 1: Road Trip Activities for Kids

Road trips with young children.  The thought alone is enough to fill any parent with an overwhelming sense of dread.  But unless you intend to sequester yourself at home for the next 18 years, they are usually a necessary evil.

We’ve been travelling with our kids since the very beginning.  With each child, we’ve done our first road trip when they are about 6 weeks old.  This has given us plenty of opportunity to fine-tune our approach and learn from our mistakes.

And don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of mistakes!  From the failed he’ll-sleep-if-we-drive-at-night road trip, to the blowout all over the car seat, we’ve navigated our share of disasters.  

But we’ve also picked up some tips and tricks that work.  Now, with three kids, ages 5, 3, and 1, road trips may not be enjoyable, but they are tolerable – for the most part.  The keys to a successful trip in our experience?  Keep them busy, keep them eating and stay organized.  

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In this three-part series, I’m going to examine the secrets to a successful road trip with kids.  In Part 1, I’m sharing our favourite road trip activities for kids – from babies and toddlers to early elementary-aged children.  In Part 2 we’ll talk about road trip snacks, and in Part 3 we’re tackling organization.

Before I go further, I should explain that our kids sit three across in the backseat.  This means that there is no room for Mom or Dad to hop in the back beside them, like there was before we had our third.  We do keep a seat accessible in the very back row of the minivan, in case we have to move one of us to the back and shuffle kids around, but that is an absolute last resort.  This means that us sitting beside them and entertaining them is no longer an option, and there’s a LOT of passing stuff back.

Baby enjoys beach after long road trip

Babies and Young Toddlers

For babies and young toddlers, our approach to road trip activities is simple: keep passing things back to them, and hope that it keeps them occupied as long as possible!  Here are some of the items we’ve used, with varying degrees of success:

  1. Links
  2. O-Ball
  3. Keys
  4. Rattle
  5. Any other favourite small toys
  6. Wallet, filled with cards that they can pull out
  7. Deck of cards (I found this idea on Pinterest.  It occupied my daughter for about 2 minutes on our most recent road trip, and I then spent 5 minutes picking up the cards that blew everywhere when I opened the van door.  Clearly it didn’t work for us, but I’m including it in case it works for you!)
  8. Water bottle (Either an empty water bottle that they can squeeze and chew on, or a water bottle that you’re using for some other purpose.  On our most recent road trip my daughter loved shaking the Eye Spy bottle I made for her brothers – more on that below.)
  9. Sensory bottle
  10. Board books (By FAR the winner with my 14 month old on our most recent road trip.  She would “read” a book for more than 15 minutes!)
  11. Soothers (If your child takes a soother, pack more than you think you’ll need.  Clip one to them, and pass the others back at varying intervals when the previous one inevitably is thrown on the floor.)
  12. Post-Its (Be careful that they don’t chew them)
  13. Paper or brochures to crinkle
  14. Stickers (For the older toddlers only – make sure they don’t end up in their mouth!)
  15. Snacks (More on this in Part 2!)

At 14 months, our youngest is too young to be interested in a movie or the iPad.  She does, however, love music.  Stocking the car with her favourite kids’ music and some of the songs she loves to dance to goes a long way.

My number one piece of advice for this age range is to plan for frequent stops, and give them a chance to get out of their car seat and move around.  Find a park where you can spread out a blanket, or a restaurant with a play area.  Make sure they’re not just confined to their stroller or a high chair – they need to stretch their little bodies too!

Older toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged children

For older toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary school-aged children, you have more options.  Our oldest is 5, so my advice is limited to what I know firsthand, but in our experience the older they get, the easier road trips become.

Road trip activity binder

Family travel road trip activity binder

For my boys, the highlight of every trip is their road trip activity binder.  Before we leave, I make up a binder filled with worksheets, colouring pages, dot-to-dots, mazes, word searches, maps, scavenger hunt bingo sheets, and more.  In the front, I include a 3-ring pencil case filled with pencil crayons.  Pencil crayons are key – with markers you’re dealing with too many dropped lids, and I’ve learned from experience that crayons and leather upholstery are not a good mix!

You can find a plethora of printable activity pages on Pinterest.  To get you started, here are some of my favourite sites for colouring pages, activity pages, and worksheets:

  1. Crayola
  3. 3 Boys and a Dog


In addition to their activity binders, we bring a small selection of books and toys.  Each of my boys fill one of the Ikea GLIS boxes with whatever small toys they’d like to bring.  Right now, this is usually cars, transformers, animal figurines, and an assortment of goody bag treasures that they’ve collected.

I will often surprise them with a new toy designed to hold their attention in the way that only a new toy can.  This can be something simple like a new car, small stuffed animal, or transformer, or an activity like a Rubik’s Cube, Wikki Stix or a MagnaDoodle.

Activity books

We pack a couple of their favourite books and activity books.  Some of the activity books that we have and love are:

  1. Melissa and Doug Water Wow! books
  2. Melissa and Doug Tape Activity Book (I stumbled across this while looking for activity books for our most recent road trip.  It’s absolutely brilliant – what young child doesn’t love tape?  The only issue we ran into is storage of the tape, but I just threw it in one of the pencil cases.)
  3. Invisible ink colouring pads, like Melissa and Doug ColorBlast! books
  4. Sticker activity books like this one
  5. Where’s Waldo books
  6. Write & Wipe Games to Go!
  7. Write and Wipe ABC 123

Eye Spy bottles

Family travel eye spy bottle

A couple of years ago, I made Eye Spy bottles for my kids.  These are simple water bottles filled with rice and a variety of things I found around the house – buttons, a penny, birthday candle, pom poms, toothpicks, a bobby pin, a safety pin, Lego pieces, office supplies, small coloured stones, etc.  The lid is superglued on, and the idea is that they have to move the bottle around to locate all of the items.  I took a picture of the items before filling the bottle, and attached the picture to the bottle with a string.  These haven’t been as much of a hit as I hoped they would be (except for with my 14-month-old, who thinks they’re fun to shake!) but I’m including them in case you have more luck.

Road trip games

My older two are just getting to the age where road trip games will keep them occupied for more than a few minutes.  These are some of our favourites:

  1. Yellow Car.  An incredibly complex game that simply involves shouting “yellow car!” when you spot a yellow car.  This is one of the first road trip “games” that my children were able to play, and they loved it around 2-3 years old.
  2. Eye Spy.  No explanation necessary for this one.  This is another great game that toddlers can play as soon as they learn their colours.
  3. Find a Colour.  A variation on Eye Spy.  I name a colour, and they have to find something with that colour.  Sometimes I’ll give them my phone, and let them take pictures of the object –  holding Mom’s phone is a novelty, so this is an excellent way to occupy my 3-year-old on a road trip or whenever we need to wait quietly.
  4. Find a Letter/Number.  Same idea as Find a Colour – great for little ones who are learning their letters and numbers.
  5. 20 Questions or What Animal Am I?  My 5-year-old is probably ready for 20 Questions, but in an attempt not to frustrate our 3-year-old, we usually stick to What Animal Am I?  Simple concept: one person thinks of an animal and the others ask questions to try to guess it.
  6. A-Z Animals or Words.  Another game that sneaks in a little bit of learning.  Go through the alphabet from A-Z, taking turns naming an animal or a word that starts with each letter.
  7. Name that Tune.  One person hums a tune and the others try to guess it.
  8. Name that Animal. One person makes an animal noise and the others try to guess it.  My son loved this when he was about two-years-old.

At the end of a long road trip, kids enjoy view of the Grand Canyon


Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention screentime.  We have a DVD player in our van, and also load up two iPads with movies and shows downloaded from Netflix.  We try to hold off on screentime as long as possible, simply because I don’t want to play my best cards too early, but on road trips all screentime rules go out the window!

I hope this gives you a few ideas for your next road trip.  Stay tuned for the next articles in the Surviving Road Trips with Kids series, where we’ll be tackling road trip snacks, and road trip organization!

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