Embarking on a long road trip with little ones can make even the most seasoned parents nervous. But having fun and keeping everyone entertained (without plugging in) is easier than you think. Here are 22 boredom-busting activities to ensure backseat moaning and groaning is kept at bay. Screen-free fun for the win!
1. Plan it out. Before hitting the road, catalog the kitschy, the weird, the wonderful sights to see along the route. World’s largest ball of twine, anyone? Wall Drug pit stop? You bet! Then, make sure to stop and gawk a while so the kids can stretch their legs and you can grab a few family selfies to post. Find memorable roadside attractions that made our list or choose your own landmarks.
2. Keep little hands busy. A toddler's hands are best kept busy between those hypnotic highway naps. A large plastic yogurt container with a rectangle cut out of the top combined with a Tupperware full of colorful pom-poms—little hands love to stuff fuzzy balls into the container. Or, try threading oversized buttons onto a ribbon when the second wind hits.
3. Map out your trip. Pick up a few of the classic, old-school paper maps (one for each kid) and let them mark it up, highlight routes, check off milestones—whatever they’re interested in—as you go along your trip. It’s a great way to get them involved in the journey, instead of just focusing on the destination.
4. Play 20 Questions.
This classic game is easy even for your tiniest passenger. Make sure the answers are only yes or no and keep the answer simple for toddlers (in fact, give them a hint ahead of time: family pet, relative, favorite toy, etc.).
5. Pack a building kit. Building toys like LEGO are always an awesome and fun way to keep kids happily busy. But on road trips? That can be a challenge. This little container not only has a small drawer for important bricks, but it also has a handle and a building plate on top, which is ideal for car or plane travel. Buy it here.
6. Dress up dolls. Paper dolls sure have come a long way, baby. But what hasn’t changed is the way they engage the imagination over and over again. That’s why we love them for travel. Usborne Books makes a wide variety so everyone in the car can play.
7. Fold paper. Hit the craft store before hitting the road to snatch a pack of origami paper for the six and up gang. Make sure you have a flat surface, and you’ll be swimming in Chinese stars, fortune tellers and pirate hats before you’re even out of town!
8. Bring travel games and toys.
When it comes to the toys you'll bring along for the journey, there are a ton of fun classic and new options to choose from, like marble runs, magnet learning letters and more. See our favorites by clicking here.
9. Let them decide. Kids love having choices and being involved in decisions. Give them an hour or so out of each day of your road trip and let them dictate where you stop and what you do (with certain limits, of course). It may mean taking a whole bunch of extra stops, but it’ll be worth it to keep the peace. Plus—sometimes it’s just fun to say yes a lot more than you say no.
10. Stick it up. When you see windows, think blank canvas for your littlest road trippers. Dollar Store gel clings and window markers work great when the only view around is farmland and open country. You can even break out a pack of removable stickers to kick it up a notch if you’re feeling brave.
11. Make them work. Okay, so maybe not work, but put them into action with a scavenger hunt—like this easy printable one from Schooling a Monkey. It’s a fun way to keep kids busy searching for water towers, purple cars, a flock of birds—you name it! Grab stickers to check off the squares as you go, then sit back and watch how excited your kids get when they spot things like farms and traffic signs.
12. Play the counting game.
From big rigs to farms or flags, there's plenty of things you can count on while driving. Let your kid decide, and you can even make it harder by narrowing the category (red cars instead of any car!).
13. Play classic road trip games. Three words: License Plate Game. Bring this vintage fave back into fashion with your mini crew. Find plates from all 50 states (C’mon Alaska and Hawaii!) or modify it into an alphabet game starting from A to Z, using the plates you pass along the interstate. See our other favorites here.
14. Tell a tale. Spin a yarn to rival Homer’s Odyssey by creating an epic story-in-the-round with your little literati. One person begins the story (think once upon a time or in a galaxy far, far away…) and takes it to a cliffhanger moment (gasp!) before passing it to the next bard of the car. Keep it going as long as you can. Imaginations, engage!
15. Play with puzzles. These super cute magnetic wooden blocks from Tegu help pass the miles for the preschool bunch. Plus, they win the road trip trifecta. Easy to pack? Of course. Great for open-ended play? You bet. Tons of fun in a small space? Check!
16. Get crafty. Make your preschool teacher proud and pull out felt boards for your journey. These individual boards (look for them at your local craft store or indie toy shop) lend themselves well to car travel. Scenes can be continually recreated and the felt sticks to itself, but nothing else.
17. Listen up. There’s no better time to sit back and get comfy for some good old, mesmerizing story-telling than on a long road trip. Queue up a few great audiobooks beforehand. Or, lend an ear to a few awesome (and kid-oriented) family podcasts. Check out the newest family podcasts before you head out on the highway. With a mix of something for everyone, the entire family can get in on the fun!
18. Go old school. A good retro road trip deserves good retro toys. Thank goodness so many are making a comeback. Etch-a-Sketch equals mess-free drawing (and a whole slew of questions about how it works) for the older bunch, and a View Finder takes the edge off for the kids who want to watch something.
19. Start clicking. Unearth grandpa’s old Polaroid camera or get a few disposable ones before the trip. Have your kids snap pictures when the mood strikes. From the car, at a rest stop, when there are just 10 miles to go. Then, use these photographic masterpieces to create a journal of the trip when you return.
20. Hide trinkets. Set up your own Hidden Object game around the car before heading out. Place little trinkets (think leftover plastic spiders from Halloween, colorful paper clips, vintage buttons) in plain view around the car. Then when your road trippers are getting antsy, challenge them to see how many they can find.
21. Tell more stories. Get inspired to tell tales along the road by using story blocks. Make your own ahead of time or grab an adorable set, like these wooden story blocks from HABA. What you do from there is as open as the road. Pick them randomly from the tray they come in and let fate determine the direction of your story, or let the munchkins lay them out first and create a story from there.
22. Hand out rewards. Inject a little motivation into the trip with a prize box. Try playing the quiet game if things get too loud. Or offer a dip into the prize box if they can make it 10 more miles without a squabble. Prizes can be simple like getting to pick the next song or choosing the next activity, or you can stock up on a few dollar store items before heading out of town.
—Allison Sutcliffe & Heather Dixon
Featured image: iStock