My husband and I once spent 12 days making a round road trip from Seattle Washington to The Canadian Rockies. We didn't calculate the number of miles covered, but it sure was farrrrrrrrr! We did all this travelling with a 14 month old toddler onboard.
My young toddler was very active and energetic since she discovered her walking legs and mobility at 13 month old so prior to the trip, I got really worried about how to entertain and occupy her time meaningfully in the car for long hours. We expected to drive 3-4 hours every day.
2 weeks before the trip, I started preparing lots of toddler entertainment for the long car rides. I was adamant about keeping to my rules of no screen time in early childhood.
The toddler entertainment options I had prepared worked so well that my toddler didn't even want to leave the car sometimes when we got to the destination :p
I felt like a winner at the end of the road trip. No tears, no fuss, lots of fun and laughter in the car journey, we made it!
Would we do road-tripping again with a toddler in tow?
HANDS DOWN YESSSSSS. Can't wait for our next road-trip!
Toddler Entertainment Ideas for Long Car Rides Without Screen Time!
My tested and proven ideas:
1. Healthy fruits as snacks
Food exploration makes for an interesting sensorial experience for little ones, on top of making their bellies happy. These are healthy fruits that give nutrition, and provide lots of opportunities for fine motor refinement!
- Peeling of bananas
- Peeling of tangerines
- Scooping insides of a kiwi fruit with a small teaspoon
- Scooping out the flesh of a mini personal watermelon (halved)
You'll be surprised at how much time it takes for a toddler to complete the peeling task. I love that this activity was literally zero prep, and honed my toddler's focus and concentration.
My toddler mastered the ability to peel her banana on this road trip lol.
2. Sing Fill-in-the-Blank Songs
I'm very conscious of my imperfect pitch so I never ever sing in front of other people (grownups). But since becoming a mama, I sing everyday lol.
Little ones just love listening to our singing voices... and joining in when they can.
How to teach toddlers to sing missing words for nursery songs
A toddler's vocabulary can be very limited, so pay attention to the words your toddler utters frequently. Then, find nursery songs that have these words in them!
- Sing the complete song a few times to get the melody and lyrics in their heads.
- Tell them you would like them to sing the missing words for your songs.
- Sing until you reach the word, then encourage them, "Say
", before singing rest of the song.
- Repeat a few times until your toddler gets the hang of it!
Using this method, my toddler has now committed "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean", "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?" to memory and regularly sings these songs with me in the car.
We now look forward to our duet time in the car.
3. Play Upbeat Dancing Music
Toddlers instinctively move (and even groove) to catchy, rhythmic music. Save a couple of these songs in your playlist and put them on when your little ones get restless.
The songs don't even need to be children's songs! Here are a couple of kids dance songs that grownups love too:
- 15 playlist recommendations by Babble
- 15+ playlist recommendations by Good Housekeeping
- 17 playlist recommendations by Happy You Happy Family
While your toddlers can't do big body movements in their car seats, they can wave their arms and legs about, turn their heads, shake and rock... you get the idea.
Sometimes that's all that's needed to get the wriggles out.
4. Drawing, Coloring & Painting
An old-school magnetic drawing board is a handy accompaniment for a car ride! But if your child gets bored of that... try these art ideas:
- Bring a clipboard and prepare lots of drawing paper, along with chunky pencils, washable crayons and color pencils. Washable markers aren't recommended because they get all over your child's hands and they would resist being wiped down (plus chances are you can't get that many bathroom breaks on a road trip). Coloring books are a good idea too.
- Toddlers who love to express themselves artistically may be intrigued by a different medium and art materials, such painting with water on a reversible calligraphy cloth. This DIY Magic Water Doodle Board dries within minutes and the marks vanish into thin air, yes like magic. Your toddler can paint with water time and again, and will be fascinated by the disappearing act.
A store-bought alternative would be the Melissa & Dough Water Wow Books.
5. Brain Puzzles
You can provide your toddler with store-bought puzzles but if you need a fair quantity for a long road trip and don't wish to break the bank, here are DIY ones you can make:
- DIY Weather Shape Puzzle - includes a brilliant tip on how you can ensure your tot doesn't throw all the puzzle pieces out of the seat
- DIY Cardboard Pizza Puzzle - this one teaches early math concepts like fractions!
- Easy Flash Card Puzzles - upcycles flash cards your tot has grown out of!
6. Posting Fine Motor Activities
For toddlers in the sensitive period for posting activities, these are fun posting toys to make them for the long car rides:
- Flash Card Posting Box - good for young toddlers
- Q Tip Cup Filling Game - easy for young toddlers
- Color Sorting Popsicle Stick Posting - challenging for young toddlers who haven't sharpened their differentiation and awareness of colors, but color-sorting is suitable from 18m+
7. Threading Fine Motor Activities
Threading requires heaps of focus, aim and concentration. It is one great quiet activity that works the pincer grip and fine motor skills.
These are DIY threading toys you can make from upcycled household materials:
- Paper Plate Shoelace Threading Activity - non-messy, just a paper plate and shoelace required!
- Paper Rolls Threading Activity - great for bathroom roll hoarders (like me!)
8. Tugging & Pulling Fine Motor Activities
For young ones who can't resist yanking at everything in sight, these DIY toys are just perfect for their experimentation:
- DIY Tugging Box - perfect for young toddlers and as fun as a store-bought activity tube can get
- Reversible Wet Wipe Container Toy - my toddler gets a kick out of this each time
I noticed was that my toddler loved to pull off their shoes and socks everytime she was in the car seat. Just for fun and to kill time, I'll put on more layers of socks for her to tug off during long car rides.
8. Reading Books
Equip little ones with their favorite books and books that have myriad interactive elements such as lift the flap, slider tabs, spinning wheels and sensory textures!
9. Fake Wallet
Rummaging through the contents of my wallet and bag was my toddler's favorite thing to do at one point in time. I ended up losing my apartment's access card and one credit card as a result.
My solution? Make my toddler her very own "fake wallet".
Here's a fake wallet tutorial for you to try. Fake wallets really keep little ones ultra busy! This post includes a play hack that keeps the cards mess-free during play.
10. Sensory Bottles
Sensory bottles are awesome for calming down children, relieving anxiety and training focus and concentration! There's no right or wrong way to play with sensory bottles and your child will enjoy some quiet time exploring interesting sensory bottles.
These are inexpensive sensory bottles you can DIY and bring on the road trips:
- 3 Ingredient Glueless Sensory Bottles - using upcycled drinking plastic bottles and common art materials
- DIY Nature Inspired Sensory Bottles - for a more thematic sensorial experience
Discussing the contents of the sensory bottles with little ones enhance language development and develop new vocabulary.
11. Surprise Treasure Bags
Toddlers love anything new to tinker and fiddle with! They especially love treasure bags with items around the household they have never explored before. This is otherwise known as heuristic play, which is letting children explore and manipulate ordinary household materials in new, creative ways!
Here's a silver themed treasure basket I made for Gwen (who was like a magpie drawn to shiny stuff) a couple of months ago. Instead of a basket, I put these items in a handy dandy portable bag for the car ride.
Tip: If your child's in the twisting bottle cap / opening and closing lids phase, put empty containers with caps and lids in the treasure bag for them to experiment to their heart's content!
12. Magnetic Fishing Game
Magnets hold such strong attraction and appeal for children.
This is one handy dandy magnetic fishing game you can place in a travel bag and whip out for some fishing fun when your little one needs stimulation in the car!
Other In-car Toddler Entertainment Ideas
Countless of parents have travelled long and far distances with little ones and lived to tell the tale (you're not alone!). I found inspiration and reassurance in their experiences and learnt much from their smart parenting hacks and toddler entertainment ideas.
The ones I like best:
- 10 Tried & True Ways to Entertain a Toddler in the Car by The Realistic Mama
- 50 Road Trip Activities for Toddlers & Preschoolers by Emily M Krause
- How to Entertain Toddler on a Road Trip in 15 Brilliant Ways by Vigor It Out
- Best Travel Toys by The Bump
- 8 Smart Ways to Entertain Your Kid In the Car by Kidlo Land
Not all toddler entertainment activities are created equal. Some are messier than others and require some clean up work. Pick your battles and choose activities that you won't mind cleaning up after to try in the car.
At the end of it all, remind yourself you made it to your destination with your hair and sanity intact! :p
Also, give yourself a medal for keeping your child calm, happy and relaxed in the car for such long periods!
If you're interested in reading about my travel experiences to the Canadian Rockies with a young toddler, check out our exploration of Lake Louise in Alberta Canada and Moraine Lake in Alberta Canada.
To follow Gwen's play adventures, check out @miraculove_sg (Instagram), save our pins or join A Toddler Activity A Day Facebook Group.
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Hi! I am Yunnie. I am the newly minted mama to a little baby girl and a mum friend to everyone on this special (and many times scary) journey of motherhood. Also a graduated bride with a penchant for weddings.