Tried, True, and Cheap Ways to Make Road Trips with Young Children Entertaining (For Them) and Relaxing (For You)

Whether four hours or four days, road trips can be stressful. Throw a few squirmy toddlers, perhaps a slightly older little person, and a tiny person and those road trips get exponentially more stressful. Whenever those moments in the car seem to be on the verge of bursting open in frustrated wails, I close my eyes and imagine what it would be like to be strapped to the seat in a five-point harness with close to no room to shift my heft left or right, sweet toes dangling at least two feet from the ground, most likely having lost all feeling about forty five minutes into the journey. And that is when I take a deep breathe and reach down deep into my bag of Mommy tricks to find those golden nuggets of distraction. Here’s a few of those secret tricks this Mommy uses to get her (and her little people) through the long road trip days:


Yeah. This seems totally obvious. Crayons. They’re great for coloring with. But that’s not really how this mommy uses them. First, I like to get a cheap box of as many crayons as possible. It’s totally true that not all crayons are created equal; some just barely leave a strip of color behind. Those crayons would never do for the beautiful cards made for grandma or the family portraits created, but they are perfect for using on a road trip. Either way, it’s important to get a big box. The bigger the better (you can find them here: Crayola; Ultimate Crayon Collection; Art Tools; 152 Colors, Durable Storage Case, Long-Lasting Colors).

The middle little focused on peeling crayons. Note his art tray to collect all his “stuff.”

As the tension builds in the backseat, I like to have my littles peel all the crayons. This gives them a task with goal that they can repeat again and again and again. (It’s important to make sure there are a number of empty cups on hand so the littles can put the wrappers in one of them as they peel and the naked crayons in the another.) Busy, focused hands equals busy, quiet little people (aka happy mommy). Once those 98 crayons are peeled, I ask my little people to give me all of the crayons color group by color group. Sure, on this step I have to be engaged with my little people and there’s some stretching and reaching, but seriously this old body needs to twist and turn and stretch under controlled circumstances every once in a while. The final crayon stage? I ask those little people stuffed in the backseat to break the crayons into as many little pieces as they can (and I, again, give them a little basket to put them into). The crisp snap of the crayons is cathartic. With each crack an iota of their road trip tension just slips out of their strapped in bodies. Breaking things can feel good, breaking things in the car can be bliss.

PlayDoh/Planet Putty

I am that mom. I let my children use PlayDoh in the house. I let them unabashedly combine colors. But that wasn’t always who I was. I wanted control. But then, one day, I let them have at it, and hours later they came up for air, glorious mud colored balls of PlayDoh in their chubby little fingers. And I realized I had peace for three hours. It was that day I decided to significantly invest in PlayDoh (if you have an eater though, I suggest homemade playdoh). When I need some time to get a few things done, I send them into the playroom with their PlayDoh to get lost for a few sweet, quiet hours.

The middle little getting ready to open his bucket of PlayDoh and cookie cutters.

This philosophy, though risky, can be applied to the car as well. I usually don’t bust it out until we’re hitting code red, stage critical. I give my little people two or three tiny tubs or two mid-sized tubs, a rolling pin and a few cookie cutter shapes similar to this one: Play-Doh Fun Tub. The little people work on art trays that we always bring with us on road trips (you can find them here: Messy Trays Set of 4 Colors), so the mess is actually quite minimal. At the risk of cursing myself, I’d even say there’s less mess than when the little people are in their playroom free to roam with a handful of swirled, crumbling, old PlayDoh balls (fingers crossed that does not come back to bite me).

Three Planet Putty jars for three little people (even though the tiny one never gets it in the car).

When PlayDoh isn’t at hand, or I’m feeling a bit more uptight, I like to give each little person (minus the tiny one who would without doubt eat anything that seemed remotely capable of being put in his mouth), a small baggy of Planet Putty (Planet Putty – Earth Mars Jupiter – Collect all 9!! Includes Universal Truth’s Who am I?) (they come in hard plastic containers that tend to break easily, so we usually do away with those and opt for a plastic bag). Because Planet Putty has such a bizarre texture, leaving little hands feeling both wet and dry at the same time, my little people can get easily lost in it. They take crayon pieces and bury them in the stuff or watch as it slowly drips into shape. But the great thing is, unlike PlayDoh, it tends to stick together and not leave behind little tiny crumbs that are perfect for mashing into the carpet or the already crumby carseat.

Rice Shakers

One joyous holiday season our sweet little Elves on the Shelf (yea, cause we got suckered into getting more than one), gave our little people a delightful gift before they set out on their holiday road trip 11oo miles to grandma’s house. This little gift was a tall cylinder filled with tiny bits and pieces of confetti-like pieces of red and green plastic. Inside of this clear cylinder that shook like a maraca were tiny objects: a wreath, a snow man, a cotton ball, a tiny candy cane. This toy came with cards that listed items my little people had to find but also involved some imagination and justification (something soft, something cold, etc.).

Now this little gem of a toy got us through some road miles, but be warned, it’s not a hands off activity for parents. My littles don’t read (well, not the oldest is getting there with some amazing sound it out skills…), so this was a full participation activity. I had to read the cards and make sure that the shaker was properly passed between the oldest little people. There were some complications. And that leads me to my next point. We made our own.

Simple ingredients to make a rice shaker. Can you tell where we were headed before I made this one?

We simply took two water bottles, filled them with rice, and added little objects to each of them, making sure they both got the same objects. On index cards I drew pictures of each of the items I put in the bottles (I gotta put this minor in fine art to use somehow). Now, I give each of the older littles a bottle and the pile of cards. Now, I know full well that one of the statements that I most frequently find myself saying as a mother is, “It’s not a competition.” And I am hyperaware that I am raising frighteningly competitive children (we’re talking nightly fights over who the dinner winner is). And, along with a long list of other items, this is one thing we are working on. So, to prevent the competition that ultimately results in tears, scratches, kicks (seriously three kids across the middle row of a minivan is no joke of physical outbursts-even with five point harnesses), I make the rule that they both must find the items in each of their jars before moving on to the next item, and when all is done, I will give them a little treat (we’re talking sticky hands or tiny plastic animals that cost all of sixty cents but delight because they’re new). This encourages helping one another rather than racing each other and then being bad sports (don’t judge, remember, we’re working on it).

Scavenger Hunt

Along the same lines, I give my little people scavenger hunts that I’ve created. The problem I’ve found with many road trip scavenger hunts is that they aren’t designed for nonreaders. This means that a fair number of road signs have to be left off of the page. So, those that I have created focus on elements my preschool-aged little can handle. They are not words, but pictures. They’re not responsible for just a “truck”, but a blue truck, a red truck, a green truck. They find a red light, a green light, a yellow light. Here’s a McDonald’s sign and a person with sunglasses on. Look! A baby in a car seat, a dog in the car.

Sunglasses on and ready to search.

Again, in the interest of self preservation, each of my littles does not get their own scavenger hunt. They share a single one. And as the tiniest gets older, he can join right in. This way, the back (or middle really) seat is just focused on cooperating and not beating one another (and I do mean that word both ways). And at the end of it all, they get to reach into that little bag of goodness and get themselves another pack of stickers or silly putty (to be opened later because no, I do not allow silly putty in my car…way too sticky…I’m not crazy like that).

Just as a note: when creating your own scavenger hunt, consider the drive you’re taking. For instance, when we go on our annual trip to Vermont, we usually drive small roads through the country. Those scavenger hunts have cows, horses, red barns. Research the area a bit to determine what may be along the road. If you’re going to be driving through Georgia, throw a picture of a peach on there. A palm tree in Florida.

Bristle Blocks

Our middle little guy is a full on builder. He tinkers and builds, builds and tinkers all day long. But, practically speaking, blocks just don’t cut it on a road trip for us. There is a 500% chance that if I bring Legos with us in the car, I will also be picking said Legos off of the floor at the end of the trip. They will be buried in cushions, in the tiny depths surrounding carseats, in the mechanisms that adjust the front seats, in shoes, in pockets, and perhaps in the tiny’s mouth. Not only do I not want to spend hours searching out this often eeny beany little pieces, I most definitely do not want to have to rip them out of the mouth of the tiny person. He will scream once I take it, my husband will scream until I do. It’s just a disaster. Save the Legos for home or desitnation.

A big ol’ bucket of bristle blocks.

Instead, invest in a set of bristle blocks like these B. Bristle Block Stackadoos. They are of substantial size, so all the little people, from the biggest to the tiniest, can get their chubby little paws on them with little to no concern. This also makes them much easier to find when they slip next to legs or under seatbelts (and, quite a bit easier for this momma to spot and collect off the floor if they make it that far). The structures that my littles put together are sturdy, so even if my husband decided to drive like a wild man, they don’t come apart. (Who am I kidding? He is the slow guy in the left lane. He is the Sunday driver. Every. Single. Day.) I simply give the littles an art bin (yep, the same one I use for the PlayDoh), hand over some blocks, turn on some grown up music (so long  Moana Soundtrack), and savor my old lady jams.

TV Shows

The big little person watching the screen.

So, I understand that having the ability to watch movies or tv in the car is not something every little has or can get, but I thought I’d throw my two cents in here too given we’ve seen it play out for six years now. I always thought that movies were the way to go. They were long. There were so many characters. But then I realized that’s not the case. Even in our house we don’t get through a movie in one sitting. My little people have a mean case of the wiggles. All the time. They don’t have the attention to get through a whole movie. So, once they glaze over and stare out of the window 17 minutes into the movie, they simply can’t get back into it. And now they sit. Watching. Half-hartedly. For nearly an hour. The amount of whining that can come as a result of an hour invested only partially in a movie only slightly interesting in just excruciating. So, we opt for tv shows. They’re short. So when one of my littles decided that they want to look at a book for 10 minutes, they can easily get back into watching tv because a new show starts soon. Where this becomes incredibly important is that it keeps the whining at bay and encourages my people to just ease into a simple show, letting the rocking motion of the car, the hum of the road, lull them into a gentle sleep. Common knowledge says well rested littles mean happy parents.

Traveling ain’t easy. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Just like anything involving children, a little prep work helps. And it helps even more when that prep work involves gathering together a few items that entertain little people without costing a crazy amount of money. In the end, it’s really about making the time on the road part of the fun of the trip itself. In the end, those little people won’t remember how much they wanted to wiggle or how a leg fell asleep. They won’t remember the traffic on the highway or the late start. Instead once you’ve all recovered back at home, they’ll turn to you in your living room and ask in earnest, “Mommy, can we go travel again? And can we bring the PlayDoh.”

For more tips on taking road trips with your little people, check out “Five Tips for Preparing for a Road Trip with Little People” and “6 Hacks for Making Road Trips with Young Children a Bit Easier for Their Grown Ups.”