Parenting Blog

Occupy Children (On A Road Trip) — A Guest Post From The Mrs.

The Mrs. has offered to pen her first guest post for OWTK. All it took was a 6 year wait and a promise to rub her feet.  Not a bad trade.  Here she dishes on some ideas for occupying children on a loooooong road trip without using DVD players (shock!) or other electronic handheld isolation-inducing devices (horror!).  It can be done, we’ve successfully accomplished this – with extremely happy children in the end – countless times over the course of the last 7 years.


I was talking to a friend recently about long road trips, specifically with young kids, and I decided I wanted to add some freshness to an old idea that was covered here long ago regarding air travel with toddlers.  Many of the ideas presented in that article are still in use on OWTK family vacations — by air or by land — even though our little ones aren’t as little as they were when that post was first published (they are now 8 and 5.)  Here, though, I am considering those traveling with a toddler under 2 – you know, the kind with newly found freedom in walking and/or running wildly, tripping, bumping into furniture and torturing the household pets.  You can no longer contain these creatures in a baby jail, er, playpen – they are on the move!  Keeping them strapped down in a car seat for hours on end can be a nightmare, for them and for you.  To help make your next family vacation more dreamy, I came up with a few new ideas that hopefully OWTK readers will find beneficial.

I will start by going back to the brilliant idea of breaking down the transportation portion of your trip into manageable 20-minute segments, because I can personally vouch for it. We have used this strategy for years, over the course of many trips.  However, with a younger toddlers (18 months to 2.5-ish), it may be more like 5-10 minute segments so you’ll need to be prepared with a wider variety of entertaining diversions. Remember to introduce new toys, games, and snacks only when boredom or fussiness sets in.  Don’t be ahead of the curve on this one!

Here are some ideas for your next family journey:

  • Travel tray – The kind that hook onto the car seat (something like this) work great for playing with small toys, especially for those chunky rolling cars and trucks.  Also, a travel tray is a great place to ration out snacks like crackers or dry cereal so she can work her fine motor skills by picking them up herself. (I would recommend only a few at a time or your backseat will end up looking like the inside of a cereal bowl.)
  • Something old, something new – Pack your child’s favorites, and pick up one or two new items. They can be inexpensive or better yet, borrow a couple small toys from a friend, etc. – as long as they are new to your child, they are new…ya know?  This works especially well when presented in a dramatic way, like:  “What do I have here? It’s a new toy, and…oh my goodness, it’s a fishy!” Ok, I crossed the cheesy line (Jeff here: yes, yes you have) but you parents know what I’m talking about.  Here are some toy ideas:
  1. Squishy bath toys – because they are small and most are OK to be chewed on.
  2. With a travel tray, anything that can be stacked and knocked over can be great entertainment. Though, you may need a helping hand to pick them up if they go astray.
  3. Vehicles with wheels that roll are fun. Even without the tray, they can spin the wheels with their hands or roll them on the car window.
  4. Things that they can squish and bend, like the Baby Einstein Bendy Ball (but don’t expect your child to get smarter using it – what? that is still a relevant joke, right?)
  • Catalogs – Pick up a few catalogs with pictures of kids, clothes, toys, or animals. Your little one can look through the pages and point at things they recognize.  Make sure these are catalogs you don’t plan to keep, though, like Sky Mall, because tearing the pages can also be loads of fun!  I, for one, never minded cleaning up shredded pages of many a Playmobil or Corolle Baby Doll catalog if it meant my toddler was entertained.
  •  Books – For the toddler set, board books work best, unless you want them ripped or slobbered on.  My little ones love to be read to, and I am typically happy to oblige. The problem with road trips, however, is that if I am not driving, I get motion sickness looking anywhere but out the front window.  If I am driving (Jeff again: she is never driving on road trips), well, obviously that would be out of the question. Thankfully, I had an alternative. We had a few favorite books that we read over and over and over (most notably Snuggle Bunnies which is STILL in the rotation and STILL memorized) and…. Anyway, it wasn’t hard to memorize them so I could recite the story in the car while my girls could hold the book and peruse the pics.
  •  Audiobooks – Another fantastic option is to get a few audiobooks downloaded to your iPod or onto a CD to play in the car (your local library may offer free audiobook downloads!).  Oh, and grab yourself a copy of Bill Harley’s Town Around the Bend bedtime CD.  His songs and stories have been lulling my 8 year-old to sleep every night since she was about two.  Even if your little one doesn’t follow along with the stories just yet, Harley’s voice is soothing enough to lull anyone into a sweet slumber.  Also, check out Harley’s stories, as well as Clifford, Henry & Mudge, Ivy & Bean, Boxcar Children and so many more great books on the Tales2Go app.
  •  Bubbles! – Every kids LOVES bubbles. Pick up a small bottle or make your own soapy mix if you are so inclined. These could be the lifesaver that you save for those hairy moments when you are in the traffic jam and the kid has just about had it – then you go for the bubble explosion!

Now, for those with slightly older preschoolers, (3-5 yrs) a couple ideas for car travel that I like for this age group are:

  •  Animal alphabet – Pick up some organic animal crackers and alphabet cookies. Ask your child to think of an animal or family member, etc. that starts with the letter on their cookies or spell words with them. Identifying which animal cracker they got is fun if you play a guessing game.  Have your child close her eyes, reach in the box and pick a cracker. Then you guess which animal she got and see if you are right. You can also have them match up the animal to the letter it starts with on the alphabet cookie.  My girls thought biting the animals’ heads off was hilarious – what can I say?
  •  Invisible Ink BooksThese come with a marker that only works on the book (no marks on your car seats!), and the ‘invisible’ part is the coolest. Many are of the licensed character variety these days, but you can still find plenty of general interest, and quiz-type of invisible ink books – that ones Jeff loves as an adorable little boy.
  •  Pipe cleaners – Regular pipe cleaners are good, but the giant ones are even better. We got a set of Brain Noodles as a birthday gift last year and they are a huge hit in our house. My girls spend a ton of time working with pipe cleaners, large and small, making everything imaginable.
  •  Oldies but goodies – My kids love ‘old stuff’. Call it vintage or retro if you want, but they are making a comeback so tap into the fun stuff of our childhood like Rubik’s Cube, Etch-A-Sketch, and Wooly Willy. Use them to strike up a conversation about the good ‘ole days – you know, walking uphill (both ways) in snow without shoes…those kind of crazy stories we heard from our parents and grandparents.
  •  Magnadoodle – This was mentioned in the previous article and for good reason. You don’t need a fancy one; just be sure the ‘pen’ is attached so it doesn’t get lost while they scribble to their hearts content. Some even come with flip up lights (that don’t suck the life out of batteries and don’t interfere with driving!) meaning the fun doesn’t have to stop when the sun goes down.  We own two of the Fisher Price Kid Tough Travel Doodle Pro with Light ones and they are terrific.
  • KINDIE MUSIC!!! – Jeff will yell at me if I don’t mention having awesome new kid’s music to play during your highway adventure.  And he’d want me to point out that he’s already recorded and published over 2 hours worth of podcasts with 40 kindie songs (by greats like Justin Roberts, Recess Monkey, Okee Dokee Brothers, Gustafer Yellowgold, Randy Kaplan, Billy Kelly, and many more) that you can download from iTunes for FREE and listen wherever you and your kids travel to this summer.  And you only have to listen to about 5-7 minutes of him talking on each one.  Trust me, that is WAY less of Jeff than I have to endure every single day of my life!

Happy Travels!!

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One Comment

  1. You did good Jill
    I think you might be writing again some time soon.