Summer is often a time for family road trips for vacations, or longer day trips. And keeping toddlers occupied can sometimes be a hassle when you’re in the front seat of the car (or driving) and the kids are in the back. It’s tempting to turn on the DVD player and rest peacefully for the entire trip, but that’s the equivalent to plopping them on the couch for the day. What can you do instead? Luckily, I have the Screen Free Mom of screenfreeparenting.com to share some of her best tips for road trippin’ with a toddler.
My family has been going on road trips to the beach every year since I was a small child. We visit a relaxed beach town in the Outer Banks of North Carolina: Corolla.
Part of the appeal is that it is small, uncrowded and somewhat back-in-time. A potential downside of this get away is that it is a roughly ten hour drive with stops.
We just did it twice and lived to tell the tale. Our daughter is 4 ½ years old and our son is 16 months old.
Younger kids are definitely a bit more challenging in the car.
Here are our tips for keeping a toddler entertained during a day long road trip (or try these tips for flying).
Any parent of small children will tell you that timing is everything with a family road trip.
We have tried a variety of different timings for our road trips. We have tried waking our kids up early in hopes of logging some hours while they fell back asleep in the car.
That did not happen. They were too excited and never went back to sleep. So, they were awake and ultimately pretty cranky.
We have also tried leaving first thing in the morning after their normal wake-up. This definitely worked better than our previous attempt at waking them up early.
However, we had our best results on our most recent road trip.
We left shortly before lunch. I ran the kids ragged all morning – walking to the park, playing chase and tons of rough-and-tumble play. My husband took the extra time to pack up the car and take care of loose ends.
We left around 11 am. This gave my two kids the opportunity to get the physical exercise and be outside before being strapped into a five-point harness for ten hours.
The first hour in the car, my kids were happy to look out the window and bug each other.
After that, I passed out lunches and then my toddler took a two hour nap. That helped the first few hours pass quite easily.
For the second half of the road trip, we relied on the tricks and entertainment below.
Snacks and Naps
This goes along with timing. Regarding his nap, I made sure my son had all his “sleep cues” at nap time in the car.
Try to recreate their napping environment like you would at home. I put on a CD he usually listens to. He has a prized taggy blanket that lives in his crib and I kept it packed away in the car until his nap time.
Even if your child doesn’t nap in the car, having his/her napping “stuff” helps him/her relax and calm down for a period of time.
Regarding snacks and lunches, I think it’s a great idea to pack individual lunches complete with individual trash bags and napkins.
We don’t stop to eat at this stage. All our stops are for physical exercise. Toddlers just learned to move and so when given the opportunity to get out of that car seat, the last thing they want to do is sit down and eat.
Eating in the car helps pass the time. I also keep a special little snack bag of things they don’t usually get at home (ring pops and dum-dums are two of these items!) and I break those out for their road trip snacks.
Pit Stops & S.P.O.I.L
While we are talking about stops, I’ll tell you how to maximize your pit stops for a toddler’s needs.
We have an acronym to remember the daily needs of our kids: we like to S.P.O.I.L. them daily
We are actually able to do a lot of the S.P.O.I.L. activities in the car – reading, independent play, bonding through games, free play prompted by small animals and puppets.
What we cannot do in the car is outdoor play, which often includes exercise. Therefore, this is what I focus on during stops.
We usually chose rest stops with nice bathrooms and a large picnic area. Then, we take turns running those kids ragged.
We play chase, hide-and-seek, and explore nature as best we can. (If no good rest stop is available, a McDonald’s play land works well).
I want them to ready to sit back down when we get in the car.
15-20 minutes of vigorous exercise every couple hours will repay you handsomely on a long car trip with toddlers. Your own body will thank you as well.
Take Your Hands On As We Grow Activities with You!
So many of the fabulous activities housed on Hands On As We Grow are great for toddlers in the car.
The car is a great place to work on fine motor skills and toddlers are often enthralled in the work of fine motor play, allowing you some quiet driving time.
We also grabbed our toddler focused busy bags and brought them along.
Keep the Entertainment Within Reach
The key to a great road trip with small kids is some entertainment for them. Ideally it is accessible and visible for them.
We have decided to use these shoe like organizers and individual back-packs to keep all their road trip stuff organized and within easy reach.
I try to pack things that will double as toys when we get to our destination.
Songs and Finger Rhymes
Toddlers love music! Having some toddler CDs in the car was a lifesaver.
Our son has recently taken a toddler music class, so we brought along those CDs. I was amazed at how well it calmed him down if a fit was brewing.
My son also loves finger rhymes. For some stretches of the road trip, one of the adults sat in the back with him and finger rhymes helped passed the time.
If you are like me, my mind blanks on all the great finger rhymes and plays when I need them most. Having these sheet in the seat back pocket helped us out!
What tips do you have that keep your toddler entertained on road trips?
Screen-Free Parenting wrote three articles about keeping kids happy in the car. We have a toddler and a preschooler.
Check out this article for car games a preschooler can play and this article for all the things we packed in the car with us. We want to encourage all families to have great road-trips, so head over to our site to enter for a chance to win our Road Trip Prize Pack!
Screen-Free Mom is a psychologist, writer and a university psychology instructor. She is happily raising her two kids sans screens. She runs a website: www.screenfreeparenting.com where she writes about tech-wise parenting and provides tons of screen-free activities. She has developed psychologically-based system to help organize the activities young children learn and grow from: the S.P.O.I.L. system.
Before you turn on the screen, she asks, “Have you S.P.O.I.L.-ed your child yet today?”