Planning a road trip and need some quiet time in the car? Check out my five toddler road trip activities to keep your toddler content, quiet, and busy.
Sitting in a car with a busy toddler for hours on end can be an anxiety-inducing thought. This is exactly what happened to me moments after booking the Great American Family Vacation. I was sitting at the computer with a hot(ish) cup of coffee daydreaming about my two sweet boys playing together in the sand and uninterrupted, quality family time for one whole week.
I finished up booking our hotel room for the week long stay, and no sooner did I get my confirmation email did a terrifying thought cross my mind: I just committed to spending hours in the car with my toddler and infant. My mind started racing through a list of possible toys and activities I could pack to keep my two year old busy.
My main criteria to consider when choosing toddler road trip activities:
I don’t think I need to explain why this was extremely important. No one wants to listen to electronic toys repeat the same song over and over and over and over (if you have a toddler you know that continues about 400 more times). Additionally, we were traveling with our 5 month old who obviously needed a significant amount of quiet time for napping. Bottom line: quiet toys are a MUST. Non-negotiable.
I needed to bring the toddler road trip activities I knew my two year old could do on his own. I did not want to spend most of the 15 hour car ride climbing into the backseat to help with complicated toys. This is also the reason I didn’t pack any books for the car. One of my toddler’s favorite phrases “MOMMY READ THIS!” + motion sickness-prone Mommy = bad time for everyone. I knew the best option would be to find things that would hold his interest and allow him to play independently.
Two year old hands can be pretty clumsy, and most toddlers are still working hard on developing their fine motor skills. For this reason, I wanted to make sure I packed toys that would be easy for him to keep on his lap and things that wouldn’t easily fall into the car door/carseat crack abyss. I break this rule for #3 and #4, but I had a good reason.
Fast-forward: I am alive! The whole family survived what ended up being a total of 30 hours in the car. I came away with some solid Mom Points and five winning toddler road trip activities to share with you to help keep your little one happy, busy, and quiet!
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I bought this exact magnet doodle board specifically for this road trip. We had never owned one, but I thought my artistic son might like it. Heck, back in the day, my Wooly Willy would keep me busy for hours. (You remember this thing, don’t you?). So I figured, why not pass the tradition on? Well let me tell you: this is a winner. It now lives permanently in the backseat because my son LOVES playing with it in the car.
I love this one particularly for a couple of reasons: it has 4 color quadrants which encourage little ones to name their colors and think of things associated with that color. For example, I will say, “Let’s draw a tree! What color do you think the tree should be?” or “Can you draw a red circle?” He is so proud of himself when he can remember and identify each color. The other reason I love it is that it’s easy for little hands. It has a wide handle, and the magnetic pen is on the chunky side, so it’s easy to grasp and hold. It’s also attached to the board with a string which is perfect for clumsy hands. The magnetic slider on the bottom is also easy to hold and slide which makes erasing very easy. My son can draw on his own and then erase easily and start over again and again. This means he can spend a serious chunk of time engaged in artistic, independent play.
This is one of my son’s favorite toys at home, and we love Melissa and Doug products, so this was an easy choice for me to bring in the car. This has four compartments that each open and close using a different mechanism. This is perfect for my son’s budding hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Some of the locks and latches are more challenging which is perfect for keeping a little one engaged and interested. Most toddlers have an obsession with keys, and my son is no different. There is a key attached to the board that can be used to open one of the locks. This is PERFECT for the car because THE FREAKING KEY IS ATTACHED. This means it can’t be dropped or lost. I actually just let out a huge sigh of relief.
We play other games with this board as well that target object identification and memory. Once each compartment is opened, there is a unique scene pictured inside. I will say, “Where did that bunny go?! Have you seen the bunny?” He will have to recall which compartment the bunny is in and unlock to reveal it. There is one compartment that unlocks with a combination-style lock, so that also is a great place to practice his numbers. We love this one, and it’s super easy to travel with since all the parts are attached to the board.
As you may have guessed, we are fans of Montessori toys in our house which is one of the reasons I love these stacking pegs. They encourage fine motor development, creativity, counting, color identification, understanding and development of patterns, and they are really just good old fashioned fun.
But you’re thinking to yourself: Did you not just say “no toys that are easily dropped”????? You’re right. I did say that. HOWEVER, my reasoning for this choice and my next choice is that with an entire bag of pieces, it takes a lot of dropping before my son is done with the activity. He’s not the kind of kid to dump the whole bag over (they come in a nice carrying pouch), so if he accidentally dropped a few then it was no big deal because there were still a bunch left to play with.
We love this classic Montessori toy! This easy-to-hold design is perfect for the car, and it encourages fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Toddlers can even learn about patterns and basic shapes. MOM WIN! Quiet, interesting, educational. Boom.
*This may not be ideal for a road trip with only one parent as you’re going to need someone to un-loop the string occasionally so your toddler can play again!
5. Kids Kindle
No mom judgement here. I own a Fire 7 Kids’ Edition Tablet from Amazon, and it is my ace in the hole whenever I NEED to keep my two year old occupied. We have strict screen time rules in my house, so my son only gets to use this about 1-3 times a month depending on what’s going on. This is a win-win because we avoid many of the negative effects of too much screen time, and on the rare occasion we bust it out, my son is completely occupied. I have used the Kindle in restaurants when my little one is fussy and I can tell everything is going down hill, and I have also used it when I take both kids to the doctor’s office. (It’s difficult to be present and engaged with the pediatrician who is asking about my infant’s horrible eczema while I am chasing my two year old around and asking him to stop grabbing all the tongue depressors.) I gave him the Kindle, and BOOM. Sitting in the chair. Occupied. Just like that.
Right away I knew I was going to pack the Kindle for the long car ride and only get it out if all the other toys failed. I didn’t need to use it on the 15 hour ride down. The drive home was another story. My son was tired from a week-long beach vacation and DONE being in the car. I gave him the Kindle and he was a happy little clam. His favorite Kindle games right now are the Very Hungry Caterpillar and Dino ABC’s.
I almost always have the Kindle charged and in the diaper bag in case I need a powerful and quick distraction which doesn’t happen too often, but when you need that distraction, YOU NEED THAT DISTRACTION. I get it.
So I am totally not pretending to be perfect on the first shot.
There were some things I brought that didn’t work out so great, and I will share those with you also. I brought some foam puzzle boards which my son loves to play with at home, but these didn’t work out so well in the car when he didn’t have a solid surface to play on. At home, he will put them on the floor and push each piece down but wasn’t able to hold them upright and push the pieces in while in the car. I also packed this Melissa and Doug bead maze which is another favorite toy in our house. My son had the same issue with this. It was hard for him to hold it and play at the same time. No biggie.
Hopefully these ideas give you some inspiration for your own toddler road trip activities, and if you’re currently planning a vacation just know that I am super jealous but wishing you some relaxation, coffee, and quality family time!
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