How to keep your toddler entertained on a car trip

There’s a reason every movie about a road trip, ever, is chaotic and disastrous – because often, road trips tend be, well, chaotic and disastrous. And that’s with adults.

Two brothers sitting in their car seats smiling.

Add easily bored toddlers who love being on the move and really, really dislike being confined to the one space for long and you’ve got yourself the makings of a fully-fledged nervous breakdown. But it doesn’t have to be that way! With a little thought and forward planning, you can keep your tot entertained, save your own sanity and get to your destination before anybody even thinks of saying, “Are we there yet?”

1. Start driving around naptime
Try to leave around 20 minutes before your toddler’s regular naptime, or, if you’re comfortable with it, drive overnight, when they’d be sleeping anyway. If you’re going at naptime, hopefully this means you’ll begin the journey with an hour or so (more, hopefully!) of lovely, peaceful, quiet naptime. This will make everyone happier.

2. Pack a special Road Trip Kit for each child.
Fill it with a dry-erase board and markers (way better than a coloring-in book!), some new books to read, finger puppets for imaginative play, simple jigsaw puzzles, a new water bottle with a bungee cord (so that you don’t have to pick it up every time they drop it!) and a selection of snacks. Raisins, apple slices, protein-packed bliss balls, chopped vegetables with hummus and crackers are our picks.

3. Stop regularly – for bathroom breaks, meal breaks and general boredom breaks.
Whenever possible, try to stop somewhere your tot can run around and burn off some energy. Hopefully this will mean that, when they get back into the car, they’ll either fall asleep or at least want some quiet time.

4. Get your toddler into your music
This will make the trip much more bearable, and it’s also a fun way to share your interests with your tot. In the weeks leading up to the trip, play some albums you love (that don’t contain swearing or any other language you wouldn’t want your tot hearing) to your tot and ask which ones he or she likes. There’s your road trip soundtrack, sorted.

5. Give them a companion.
Play-Doh in the car? No, thank you. But Play-Doh contained within a balloon (and then covered with ‘eyes’ and ‘hair’)? Yes, please! Enter the Play-Dohll, your tot’s new, temporary best friend. Roll a baseball-sized ball of Play-Doh into a snake, and then insert it into a balloon (you may need two sets of hands to open the balloon mouth wide enough). Once it’s in, mould it to an egg shape and either draw or glue on googly eyes and wool for hair. Your tot can squeeze and shape the Play-Dohll however he or she likes, and create different facial expressions. Don’t question it, just go with the Play-Dohll.

6. Play Simple I Spy.
Instead of saying, “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘A’”, say, “I spy something that’s blue”. Your tot will get a kick out of being a real participant in the game and asking you for the answer!

7. Audiobooks are a great way to keep young kids enthralled.
There’s Dr Seuss, Eloise as read by Bernadette Peters, Winnie the Pooh (read by Stephen Fry and Dame Judi Dench) and Matilda, narrated by Kate Winslet.

8. Print out a map of your journey and add stickers or drawings of landmarks you’ll pass.
If there’s water, add a wave, or if there’ll be fields and farms, add a cow. Every time your tot spots a landmark on the map, he gets a small present from you. Genius, right?

9. Make an “I Spy jar”.
If actual I Spy isn’t age-appropriate, take a small jar and fill it with ordinary household items (grains of rice, a tea bag, paper clip, an eraser). Glue on the lid and make a game out of finding what’s inside.

10. Give your tot a bag of colored pipe cleaners for hours of imaginative play fun.
They can make stick figures, animals, balloons or just a big ol’ mess.

What you’ll need to take.

  1. Surviving a long car trip is easier when you’ve got what you need. Use this guide when you pack!
  2. Easy wipes (for spills, accidents and toilet breaks)
  3. A potty, if your tot is still toilet training
  4. Paper cups, to serve snacks in
  5. Band-Aids, diaper rash cream, kids’ Tylenol and sunscreen
  6. Water bottles (yes, multiple. The Toddler Water Bottle Law means you’ll lose at least one over the vacation)
  7. A change of clothes that’s easy to access
  8. Diapers (at least three more than you think you’ll need)
  9. Aspirin. For you. Just in case.