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Car Trips with Kids: Ideas and Tips to Keep Them Occupied

Updated on April 30, 2012
Keep your little riders smiling with these ideas!
Keep your little riders smiling with these ideas!

Car Trips with Kids: Ideas and Tips to Keep Them Occupied

With a little planning, you can have a relaxing (and quiet) trip!

I am a mother of 5 small children, ages 7, 5.5, 4.5, 3, and 10 weeks. We travel around the country with my husband's job. We are currently on our 12th move (not counting all the times we've moved 'home' in between jobs) and in our 5th state in just under 5 years.

I know long car rides. And I know long car rides with a bunch of toddlers and small children.

Here are a few ideas and tips that we have used to keep the kids busy and quiet so we could have a relaxing and stress-free trip.

1) "Free box" toys

Most of us who frequent garage sales during the Spring and Summer months have seen the typical box at the end of the driveway labeled "FREE". A few may rummage through the box but a lot of people pass it by not even giving it a second thought. Well, don't pass by it anymore without checking it out first as it may contain a secret for long trips with children! Small little gadgets and kids' meal toys are usually plentiful in this box and are the perfect thing to keep little hands busy in the car. And don't be afraid to take them all! They are in that box for a reason and most likely will be thrown in the garbage once the sale is over. Many of times I have asked to take the whole box when there are lots of items to choose from. I stock up on my collection of free box toys and gadgets (without letting the kids see them!) and once it's time for the car ride, I separate them into ziploc bags and give each child a bag of toys. It's like Christmas-time! They have tons of fun going through and playing with each little thing. Once they are done looking at and playing with everything in their bag, they can swap bags with another child and start all over again. And the best part.....it was free!

2) Homemade "I Spy" game

Take a jar or clear container of any size (a 32oz peanut butter container washed out with the label pealed off works great!) and fill it about 3/4 full with rice. Then find small items around the house that you can place in the jar for them to find. Items could be things like: small rubberband, penny, dice, corn kernel, bead, dry bean, button, paper clip...anything "mini" would work fine. Put them all in the jar with the rice, put the top on (securing it would glue would be a good idea), and shake it up! Give it to the child to find all of the items by turning and twisting the container.

3) "Find it" picture game

Make a page of pictures of items for them to find during the trip. Depending on the age of the child, you can make it easy with things like: a cloud, a tree, etc or a little more challenging like: a pink car, a firetruck, etc. Other ideas could be: dog, stop sign, airplane, semi, squirrel, police car, traffic light, etc. Use your imagination and include anything you think you might see while traveling! The easiest way I found to make this game is to find free clipart pictures off the internet and copy and paste them onto a document page and print it off! Remember to save it so you can use it again and again! (You could also make it into a bingo board and have it be a contest between kids)

4) Snacks

Obviously most of us would pack some snacks for the kids during long trips in the car but in it's in the way you 'package' them that makes them fun! Give them the snacks in ways they are not used to. Seeing what we have lots of children, we usually buy things in bulk so my kids hardly ever get cute little packages of their "own" thing. For example, to shake it up a bit, for car rides we will buy the little individual packs of raisins which they think are the best things ever since they each get their own box! Another thing could be their own box of those animal crackers or special treats they normally wouldn't receive or in a way they normaly wouldn't receive them.

5) DVD player or Laptop

If you have a portable DVD player, great, bring it! If you have a DVD player in your vehicle, even better! If you have neither, like us, but you have a laptop, it'll do the job! Just get a power inverter (like this one) to plug your computer into a cigarette lighter and you'll be good to go! Buy a movie or two (the $5 ones work great!) that they haven't seen before so it keeps everyone's attention.

6) iPhone and iPad Apps

There are SO many different apps that are both FUN and FREE that you can "purchase" and use during cars rides (as well as many other times!). My 3 year old has a blast playing on my iphone when we've exhausted most other activities on long car rides. A few of her favorites are Tozzle, ABC Lite, Shape Builder (fav!), Cookie Maker, If You're Happy, Old McDonald, Phone 4 Kids, and Match Animals. The other kids enjoy Fruit Ninja Lite, Bike Race, Angry Birds, Glow Hockey, Lep's World, and Talking Gina.


My awesome travelers!
My awesome travelers!

7) Obey Money

We tell the kids that they each have a set amount of money in coins (ie: 10 dimes) that is theirs to spend on a special treat when the car ride is over.....but here is the catch....each time they disobey, bug their sibling, act unruly, etc, they get a coin taken away. And whatever is left (if any) at the end of the trip, it is theirs to keep (or spend on a treat)! It might take a couple times for them to understand but they catch on quick!....especially if a sibling gets to pick a treat with their money but the other had all of theirs taken away and doesn't get anything. You'd be surprised at how motivated they are to behave when "their" money is on the line!

8) Color book and crayons

We did this on our last trip (8 hours) and it was wonderful!! I bought them each their own coloring book ($1 from the dollar store) and their own box of crayons and let them color. And a tip with the crayons...don't keep them in the box that they come in, it is too hard for kids to get them back in. Find another container, like a plastic one with a flip open lid or a zippered pouch if they can handle the zippers. Not having to share crayons in the car minimizes sibling fights. You could also purchase the color wonder markers and coloring pages for little ones so you don't have to worry about them coloring all over the seat (or melting in hot weather if one gets accidentally stuck in the seat!)

9) Make them a binder

Each of our kids gets their own 3-ring binder filled with color pages, blank pages, stickers, and a variety different activity pages. This keeps all those pages contained to their binder and not all over the car. You can give them each a different color binder to clearly see who's is who's or you can put their names on them.

10) Let them pack their own bag

Let the child pack their own small bag or backpack (we use lunch bags that zipper) with toys and special items that they can have in the car. It needs to fit in the bag or it doesn't come. Nothing more can be brought into car. They place their toys back into their bag when done and they are in charge of it.

11) ABC game

Depending of the age of your child, you can play this several ways. For us, we just have the kids idenitfy the letters of the alphabet on billboards and different signs they see, no matter where they are located in the word. This especially works well in the city. You could also play the word has to start with that letter, etc.

12) Disposable camera

For slighty older children, or ones who know how to point and click, you can give them a disposable camera and let them take special pictures of things they find along the journey! In the age of digital everything, this can be a good lesson in patience since they have to wait until the pictures are developed to see them.

13) Word game

And for the kid in all of us...this is a great game to play with your spouse or other adults (or older children that can spell) to pass the time. You can play it with really any category you can think of but I'll take "movies", for example. The first person says a movie title name...say "Finding Nemo" then the next person thinks of a movie that starts with the last letter in the previous movie, in this case, an "o". So they could say "October Sky". Then next person could say "You've Got Mail", etc. And you keep going until you can't think of any more. You could do this with book titles, tv shows, movies, professional sports teams, foods, anything!

Hope this helps keep everyone calm, happy, and occupied during your next car trip! Stay tuned for Part 2 as I'm sure I'll be coming up with more as our trips continue!

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    • kthix10 profile image

      kthix10 5 years ago from IL

      I love the obey money - I may have to try that one soon

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 5 years ago from USA

      GREAT ideas for keeping kids happy and occupied during a long car trip! I really like the idea of each child having an individual bag with their own toys in it. That must help avoid a lot of squabbling. Obviously, all of your experience has given you some great insights in how to keep kids entertained. Voted up!

    • HawaiiHeart profile image

      HawaiiHeart 5 years ago from Hawaii

      Lots of great tips - and always best to be overprepared. Great ideas and very useful hub!

    • Vampsdes profile image

      Vampsdes 5 years ago from Missouri, US

      I love the idea of making individual bags of little toys and gadgets. I only have a 2 year old son and a 4 year old stepson, but I know they would greatly enjoy this idea! Thanks for the suggestions!

    • Nora411 profile image

      Nora411 5 years ago from Chicago, IL

      These are great ideas for keeping kids busy. We are actually taking a 4 hr drive to Albany next month from Rochester, NY. So I will definitely need all the help I can use with keeping my 2 year old! happy! Great hub! I'm voting up and useful!