You’ve strapped your toddler into the car seat or rounded up your kids and made sure they're buckled in — and you want this errand trip to be quick and painless. Parenting is rarely that easy, but with a little planning, you can get to your destination without any grumpy faces coming from the backseat.
Before you head out of the driveway, plan a few car activities for your kids, so your short (or long) drive is less stressful and more enjoyable for everyone.
Engaging Activities to Keep Your Kids Happy in the Car
Time and travel look very different through the eyes of a toddler or young child. A 15-minute drive may seem brief to you, but it might feel like a lifetime to them. This means it could quickly become a long and exhausting process for you as well.
Some engaging and conversation-focused activities might help you both enjoy the trip a little more. Give these a try the next time you’re gearing up for a drive with your little one.
Turn to Trusty Car Games
It's an oldie but a goodie: classic car games are fun for everyone. You might have to tweak some games to be toddler-friendly or create new rules if there are just two players, but this approach usually brings excitement from the back seat. Here are a few games to play with your kids in the car:
- I Spy
- The Alphabet Game
- 20 Questions
- I'm Going on a Picnic
- The License Plate Game
If you have two kiddos in the back seat, challenge them to count all the things they see from "their side" to see who gets the most. You can try flags, mailboxes, parked cars, and even holiday decorations.
Listen to a Kid-Friendly Audiobook or Podcast
Driving was once an opportunity to tune into your favorite podcast or catch up on an audiobook. With kids in the mix, that's not always possible when you're in the car together.
Instead, you can use this time to play fun or educational audiobooks and podcasts for your kiddos. They're often more engaging than music and might just stir up some interesting conversations for your drive home.
Play the Favorite Things Game
I came up with this little game during a particularly tough bedtime with my daughter. I now use it whenever I need to redirect her focus from the thing she doesn't want to do.
The "favorite things" game is very simple, but it's honestly pretty fun. Plus, it's a good way to bond with your little one. All you do is take turns naming your favorite things.
Since my daughter is barely three, I don't set strict rules on how many things each person gets to name or what each round involves (but you can totally do that for older kids). We just list off the things we love and sometimes that means my daughter repeats "strawberries" no less than 10 times.
Have a Concert Together
Car concerts can solve everything from general restlessness to trying to keep your toddler from falling asleep. Find some upbeat, age-appropriate tunes and rock out together. The people next to you at the stop light might wonder why you're playing the dashboard drums, but the child in the backseat will just think they have the coolest parent ever.
Play Mad Libs Aloud
For your older kiddos, Mad Libs work as a fun car activity in their original form. But you can also try a verbal version of the game aloud. Let your kids get in on making up the story and adding the verbs and nouns where needed to make it interesting and funny. You can challenge their creativity while you're sitting in traffic and have a lighthearted laugh as you're searching for a parking spot.
Identify Objects Together
Here's another simple car game that came from a desperate parenting moment with my daughter. I used this little tactic to keep my toddler from falling asleep on a drive home one night so her bedtime wasn't compromised.
Since my daughter was currently learning shapes, numbers, and colors, I challenged her to help me identify different objects we drove past. We tried to find as many white cars as we could, we talked about the shapes of street signs, and we waited with eagerness for all the red lights to turn green. Sure enough, she made it home without dozing off.
You can make this activity more engaging as your child ages by making the objectives more challenging. Try looking for certain letters on billboards and license plates. You might also count the exits as you pass them or try to spot all the restaurants or gas stations along your route.
Chat About Your Trip
Kids love to ask questions and that might actually make your job easier in this case. Start by telling them where you're going, why you're going, and what you plan to do when you arrive. If your child is older, their questions will probably naturally flow at this point and your answers can distract them from how long the drive is.
If you have a toddler, you might need to control the direction of the conversation and repeat yourself a few times. Give age-appropriate explanations and convey excitement (or seriousness when needed) so they can understand what the drive is all about.
If this is a drive you take regularly, like picking up older kids from school or getting groceries, chat about how the task normally plays out and any interesting stories from previous trips.
Independent Activities to Keep Your Child Busy During a Drive
Some of us need some serious concentration to navigate directions when driving, even with our GPS on. That’s when these independent activities come into play during your drive with a child. While you’re focused on not missing your exit, your toddler can focus on these activities.
Provide a Dry Erase Board & Markers
If you keep only one thing in your car for your kids' entertainment, make it a dry erase board and a handful of markers. This affordable little tool provides hours of drawing during your drives. Toddlers love doodling and with the swipe of a paper towel (you should keep those on hand too) they can start all over with new colors.
You can make this more interesting for older children by challenging them to draw portraits of people they know, write lists or keep count of objects outside their window, or create pictures based on the current song playing in the car.
Make a Sensory Bag
Sensory bins are so fun for toddlers, but they aren't exactly travel-friendly. You can apply the same idea of a sensory bin to a smaller bag. Use all the same items you would usually add to a sensory bin, just choose the smaller options and add them to a zipper bag. Your little one can run their fingers through birdseed, dry beans, or tiny toys to keep them occupied during the drive.
A travel-size sensory activity has the potential to get messy. You can go with the flow and clean up as needed or opt for a bag that your toddler can't open so they can play with the objects through the material without making a mess.
Give Them Reusable Stickers
If you haven't discovered reusable stickers yet, they're a gem for entertaining toddlers! They provide all the fun of stickers without turning your vehicle into an art project. Look for the reusable stickers that come with a booklet or board, so there is always a suitable place for your child to use the genius little items.
Keep a Binder of Coloring Pages on Hand
Large coloring book collections are great for a child's playroom, but they might cause some clutter in your car. That's why you need a binder full of coloring pages.
Binders actually provide a lot of versatility for your child's car coloring experience:
- You can customize the pages and add new ones to keep things exciting.
- You can add educational or challenging worksheets to keep your child interested.
- The rings of the binder allow you to include a binder pencil pouch for storing crayons.
- The binder provides a firm surface for your child to color on without a table.
Pack a Bin of Car-Friendly Toys
Toys are a tried-and-true method for entertaining kids and they work just as well in the car as they do at home. Keep a small bin of toys in the backseat so your child can grab their favorite items when they start to get a little bored. Rotate the toys regularly to keep the bin interesting.
You may want to avoid including toys with flashing lights so you aren't distracted during drives at night.
Reach for Busy Books
Call them busy books, quiet books, or activity books. Whatever you call them, they work wonders with toddlers and young children.
Busy books are typically sturdy, child-focused books with removable parts. Most of them have a learning component so your child can sort shapes, identify numbers, or name animals. You'll usually find the pieces are secured with velcro on the back and encourage fine motor skill development in younger children.
Sometimes the removable pieces, often made of thick paper or cardboard, can get a bit disorganized during a trip. Keep a bag or small container on hand to store them separately from the book so nothing is lost.
Store Entertaining Items in a Shoe Rack
This hack for entertaining kids in the car is a serious game changer. The plastic-lined shoe racks that are meant to hang over your closet door fit just as easily over the seats of your car. The sections are the perfect size for storing snacks, toys, small books, and other items your child would enjoy.
With the clear fronts, you can see everything at a glance. Hang it over the back of your seat so your child can reach for what they want without help and grab whatever interesting items you've added for the trip. They'll be so excited to see what's in the rack each time they get in the car that they won't even bother to ask where you're going.
Give Your Child Flashcards
The cut-off age for finding flashcards entertaining might be pretty young, but they're worth a try with toddlers. Whether it's numbers, letters, sight words, or animal facts, flashcards keep your kiddo occupied (while learning) and might encourage some engaging conversations with you or other passengers.
Try Window Cling Stickers
You know the stickers you once saw on the backseat windows of a car and thought,"why do parents let their kids have those"? Now you know why: because they keep the kiddos happy.
Grab some traditional cling stickers — you can usually find them in dollar stores — and add them to your windows for quiet entertainment that younger children will enjoy. Switch them out as they wear down (or seasonally) to keep kids interested.
Other Ways to Keep Your Child Happy in the Car
Sometimes fun activities and engaging conversations with parents just aren’t quite enough to keep your restless toddler from losing it during a car ride. That’s when you turn to the parenting hacks that work time and time again. When all else fails, try these methods for keeping your kid comfortable and content in the car.
Give Them All the Snacks
Most of us are cheered by a yummy snack and the same applies to kids. Pack some of their favorite snacks for the ride and pass them to the backseat when the restlessness sets in. While you're at it, pack some delicious snacks for yourself so you can enjoy a moment of parenting respite while you drive.
I was always nervous about giving snacks to my daughter when she was a young toddler while we were in the car. To lower my anxiety around choking hazards, I stuck to applesauce and puree pouches while we were traveling, so she still had something to enjoy while I drove worry-free.
Use Screen Time
When your objective is to get from point A to point B without a tantrum, screen time can be a real lifesaver. Don't be afraid to pass the tablet to the backseat for an interactive game, an educational video, or an episode of your child's favorite show.
Call the Grandparents
When all else fails, call Grandma. Whether it's over the Bluetooth in your car or over FaceTime on your phone, a quick conversation with grandparents (or other family and friends) might turn your cranky toddler into the sweetest passenger ever.
Let your child know they can chat until you reach your destination and use the time to simply enjoy your drive. Hey, you're just encouraging a strong bond with your family and your children here.
Encourage Naps or Quiet Time
If your drive is a bit long — or you know you'll be in the school pickup line for a while — encourage a nap or quiet time for your little one. You can create a comforting environment in the car that helps your toddler feel at rest while they wait.
- Have a blanket, pillow, and beloved stuffed animal on hand.
- Use window screens to filter harsh light.
- Play soft music or white noise over your car speakers.
- Speak in hushed tones when chatting or answering questions to signal quiet time has started.
- Bring a book you often read at bedtime.
Hit Up the Drive Thru
This little driving-with-kids hack will make your day as much as it makes theirs. Pop into the drive-thru to give everyone a little break from traffic and a fun treat to make the drive exciting.
- Try the coffee drive-thru for a caffeine boost for you and a baked goodie for the kiddo.
- Stop at a fast food place for a refreshing drink and fry order to share.
- Pop into a Sonic or a smoothie spot for a break from driving and a fun drink.
- Hit up a fast food joint for a milkshake, ice cream cone, or iced coffee.
Breathe, You’re Going to Survive the Drive
Sometimes parenting turns simple activities into major obstacles we have to overcome throughout the day. But, as we grow, we overcome and adapt. That’s the real key to surviving those drives with a cranky toddler. Take a deep breath, try some of these car activities, and know that you’re doing a wonderful job.