13 Fun Car Activities for Toddlers
- Older kids may stay entertained with movies and road trip games, but you’ll need other activities to keep your toddler entertained.
- Limit the amount of screen time your toddler has, as it can overstimulate their brains and cause a meltdown.
- Small toys are great entertainment in the car because they require little preparation.
A few years ago, my husband and I made an out-of-state move away from our families. Since then, we’ve made at least 20 trips back home. Each way requires 9 hours in the car with our 4 children.
With each road trip, we’ve learned new travel tips for keeping our littlest children entertained in the car. I’ve bought special travel toys, created personal activity bags, packed individual snack bags, and tried just about every other idea you can find online. We’ve got traveling with toddlers down to an art at this point.
If you’re preparing to travel with young kids, you’ll want to have an arsenal of fun activities ready to go. No parent wants to be stuck in the car with a crying toddler, wishing they had packed more activities. A little preparedness goes a long way.
Let me help take the burden off your shoulders. There’s no need to spend hours searching the internet because I’ve assembled the ultimate list of fun car activities for toddlers. Many of the ideas on this list will also work as airplane activities for toddlers should you be traveling by plane anytime soon.
So grab a pen and start making your shopping list. These easy, affordable car activities for toddlers will make your road trip more enjoyable.
Preparing Your Toddler for a Road Trip
We know. It seems silly to have to prepare your toddler for a road trip. After all, aren’t you the one doing the packing, driving, feeding, and activity planning?
Though you might also have to prepare yourself for the long journey ahead, don’t forget about your little one. You can prepare your toddler for a road trip by dressing them appropriately and communicating clearly beforehand.
Here are a couple of helpful hints from a mom who’s made the mistake of not preparing her toddler a time or two:
What Should a Toddler Wear For a Long Road Trip?
Before dressing your toddler for a long road trip, think about what time of day you’ll be leaving. We like to leave early in the morning, so we let our kids ride in pajamas for the morning portion of the ride. When we stop for lunch, we have them change into regular clothes, so they’re dressed when we arrive at our destination.
If you’re traveling at night, let your child wear pajamas or bring them along so they can change before falling asleep. If you’re traveling during the day, just be sure your child is comfortable. Elastic waist shorts or pants and cotton shirts are the most comfortable choices we’ve found.
How Can You Prepare a Toddler For a Road Trip?
If your child isn’t used to long car rides, this might be a big adjustment. You can help your child by talking with them ahead of time. Continually mention your trip for a couple of weeks leading up to it.
Also, if your child knows where they are going, it might make the trip more exciting. Print off some pictures for your child of what or who they will see on the trip. Each time you mention the exciting details, also include that it will take a while to get there in the car so they are prepared.
Must-Haves When Traveling With a Toddler
Certain items rarely leave my van. These are our go-to traveling items that are handy on near and far trips alike. Add these must-haves to your traveling list for a smoother journey:
- Baby wipes
- First aid kit
- Towels (for accidents and unexpected messes)
- Trash bags (for wet clothes or trash from snacks)
- Toddler snack cups and several snack options (I’ve found that my go-to airplane snacks for toddlers also work well in the car.)
- Travel potty (You never know what bathroom options you’ll have on the road or how quickly your toddler might need to go.)
Toddler Toys to Bring On a Long Ride
When we pack activities for toddlers, we also throw in some toys. Small toys are great entertainment in the car because they take little preparation on your end. If you choose the right types of toys, they’ll likely keep your child entertained for long periods of time.
What Types of Toys Can You Bring On a Road Trip?
When my kids select toys to bring in the car, I always have them choose ones that are good for imaginative play. I find that open-ended play toys are the ones that entertain them longest on a road trip.
Some of our favorite toys to bring are small character figurines, dolls, or sensory toys for toddlers. Toy cars, action figures, or magnetic blocks are great options for busy toddler boys.
What Types of Toys Should You Not Bring on a Road Trip?
There are really no set rules as to what toys you should and shouldn’t bring in the car. However, I suggest you consider the noise level of the toys you choose. Trust me—you’ll thank me later.
I don’t allow my kids to bring musical instruments, loud battery-operated toys, or any other toy that gets repetitive and obnoxious in a small space. I would also advise against nerf guns in the car. You’ve got enough on your hands without having to dodge flying objects as you drive down the highway.
Best Car Activities for Toddlers
We’ve tried out dozens of car activities throughout our many road trips. Some were a complete bust. Through trial and error, we found these activities to be clear winners:
Window clings are a cheap toddler-approved activity in our house. Packing these as a road trip activity will not disappoint. My kids love playing with these in the car, and my toddler is just big enough to reach the car window.
It’s easy to find inexpensive window clings. I often buy the seasonal window clings from the Dollar Store or dollar section at Target for easy entertainment.
Sticker books are one of our favorite road trip activities because they are so inexpensive and simple. I’ll often grab several from the Dollar Store for all of my kids. I’ve also found that packing sticker sheets, a clipboard, and plain paper will keep my toddler busy on a road trip.
We’ve found playdough to be an activity almost all toddlers love. I often included this in our bag of road trip activities as an option for independent play. If you throw in a small cookie sheet as well, your child will have a flat play surface.
For a fun way to encourage fine motor skills, stick pipe cleaners in a ball of playdough. Then hand your child a snack cup of fruit loops or cheerios to thread on the pipe cleaners.
We actually keep a Magna Doodle in the car at all times. It’s magnetic, and the writing tool is attached to the board, so it’s the perfect option for a car activity.
These boards give your child an endless amount of opportunities to create and play. Sometimes my older children will use it to play tic-tac-toe while the younger ones will draw pictures and have everyone else guess what they drew.
Wiki sticks are one of the best fine motor activities for preschoolers or toddlers. These waxy, sticks don’t make a mess, yet they have a satisfying sticky quality to them.
You can let your kids create their own figures or you can challenge them with specific ideas. I’ve also found Wikki Stix activity books that give new ideas on how to use them.
Your child might not be able to exercise their body while on a road trip, but they can exercise their brain with something like magnetic puzzles. Toddler puzzles develop fine motor skills while also strengthening cognitive skills. Since all the pieces stick to the board, your child won’t get frustrated by pieces sliding off.
If you don’t have a magnetic puzzle on hand, you can also pack a small cookie sheet and refrigerator magnets. This is a similar activity that will keep your toddler busy.
Magnetic Maze Games
Maze games are a fun challenge to keep your child engaged on a long car ride. The magnetic pens that come attached to the mazes are great for little hands to grasp and move. Your child will love watching the pieces magically follow the pen around the maze.
Paint With Water Books
Painting with watercolors is an obvious no-go for road trip activities. Painting with water, though, is absolutely okay! These painting books are one of the best mess-free activities for toddlers.
The color magically appears as your child water paints across the page. Some of the water paint books are reusable, which makes this a fun option for both the ride there and the ride home.
Color Wonder Markers and Books
Markers are a lot of fun but are too messy for road-tripping with your toddler. Thank goodness for Color Wonder markers! These mess-free markers prevent you from arriving at your destination with a tattooed toddler.
I usually give my little kids one or two markers at a time with a little pouch to keep them in. This keeps the markers from getting lost in the car on road trips.
My kids really love books. So we always pack a stack of their favorite picture books in a bag. Interactive books with a pop-up or lift-the-flap feature are always a hit on road trips.
I Spy Bottles
I spy bottles are containers full of rice or other small grain-like substances with a mixture of interesting, tiny objects inside. These bottles usually come with a list of items for the child to find like dice, paper clips, coins, etc. You can easily make your own I spy bottle as well.
I Spy bottles are designed so that your child won’t be able to find everything all at once. You can reuse the bottle as a fun activity for many road trips.
If you think your toddler might be too young for audiobooks, think again. We have found some fabulous recordings of childhood classics by authors like Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, and Margaret Wise Brown. My younger kids love hearing their favorite stories read aloud by someone new.
One of the best distractions on long road trips is music. We often turn up the music and take requests for our kids’ favorite songs. Fingerplay songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “5 Little Speckled Frogs” are always a hit with our toddler.
You can plan ahead and create a playlist with fun songs the whole family will enjoy.
How Often Should You Stop When Traveling With a Toddler?
Plan to stop more often than you think you’ll need to. Toddlers are unpredictable and you might find yourself stressing if you try to keep to a tight schedule. Plus, you’ll need to stop often just to let them stretch and get out of their car seat.
What Does the 2-Hour Car Seat Rule Refer to?
Never heard of the two-hour car seat rule? You’re not alone. This safety recommendation from many safety experts and car seat manufacturers is not commonly known.
The two-hour car seat rule states that a baby should not stay buckled in their car seat for longer than two hours at a time. Toddler car seats are designed to sit straight up, and this puts a strain on their spine while seated. Also, this position can restrict airflow if your child falls asleep with their head forward.
The restricted airflow is why the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advises against letting babies and younger toddlers sleep in car seats when you take them out of the car.
Additional Tips When Having a Road Trip With a Toddler
It’s important to have realistic expectations for your road trip with your toddler. While older kids may stay entertained with movies and road trip games, you’ll need to have other activities to keep your toddler entertained. A toddler’s attention span is still developing, and too much screen time might leave you with a meltdown.
Prepare yourself for the trip by keeping these tips in mind:
- Plan toddler-friendly stops along the way.
- Prepare yourself for a longer drive than the map tells you.
- Plan to stop every 2 hours and let your child stretch their legs.
- Try not to overdo it on snacks and drinks or you’ll be stopping every 30 minutes for a potty break.
- Limit the amount of screen time your toddler has, as it can overstimulate their brains and cause a meltdown.
- Bring your child’s favorite sleep items if you’ll be traveling during nap time or at night. A favorite stuffed animal and blanket are a great idea.
- Pack busy bags with a new activity for each hour or 2 hours of the trip. Only bring them out when it’s time as a fun surprise.
Sensory bottles are wonderful for calming children and giving them sensory input. Learn how to make an easy DIY sensory bottle at home!
If you’ll be flying with a toddler, you’ll want to be prepared. Our list of fun airplane activities for toddlers is all you need to make the flight more enjoyable.
Toys, Visual Impairment
It's important to choose toys that are relatively simple in design, as complex patterns can be overwhelming for children with CVI.