Activities for Long Drives with a Preschooler

October 16, 2012

On Friday, Bella and I will road trip to San Antonio – a 9 hour drive. Just the drive. That’s not including pee and lunch breaks. Then the next day will be about 4 1/2 to get to Galveston.

You know.

For the cruise.

Oh? Did I mention that? Going on a Disney cruise?

Sorry. :p

I need ideas of things to do with her while driving. Things she can do on her own as well. Because my friends?

That is a heck of a long ways with just her and I while my hands are rendered incapable of doing anything but volume control and tossing back food.


We do not have a TV in the car, but I’m thinking a portable DVD player may need to be bought. Although I’m trying to figure out how she can set it on her lap without it sliding off, or being able to touch buttons that stop the movie?

Any ideas for baskets that are high enough up to her carseat or attach so she can grab food/books/toys herself?

Books on CD we both can listen to?

She is forward facing at this point because she reached the rear facing weight limit (Thank the sweet Lord for that one right about now) so I can hand her things on my own.

I’ll take any and all suggestions.


  • Miranda

    October 17, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    You MUST take a look at this post:
    I came across it in my reader today and thought of it as soon as I read your post. I always let my daughter watch movies on my iPod on long car rides. It’s a huge treat for her :).

  • Sarah

    October 17, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    I just drove 10 hours from Michigan to Tennessee with my 4 year old who tends to not sleep much in the car…argh!! We don’t do the DVD player thing.

    Our go-tos are her headphones and iPod. She rocks out to her music and I can still listen to stuff that will keep me awake, sane or both!

    Color Wonder markers are good and they have bunches of trays and things for using them on the go. Crayons & colored pencils for the regular old coloring books.

    I taught her I Spy in desperation at a restaurant and now she wants to play it everywhere so we did a lot of that on this last trip.

    Good luck on the road trip and hope you have a BLAST on the cruise!

  • Sue Rizzo

    October 17, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Hi — I’m with you on not wanting a DVD player in the car, but I think you’ll be VERY glad you have it for a trip like this!
    I’m almost a gramma now so this is an old-school suggestion, but it worked for me as a child and worked great for my kids: we had wrapped “gifts” that the kids got to open at prearranged times — depending on how many gifts you buy would determine how often they open one. Cross country it was every time we crossed a state line. Sometimes it was one gift every two hours. These are/can be dollar store items but they’re NEW and they’re WRAPPED and they’re EXCITED because they can play with the new toy while they’re waiting for the time to open the next one!
    So pleased you have this opportunity to go on the Disney Cruise! Wow!!
    Sue Rizzo

  • morgan

    October 17, 2012 at 8:39 am

    My 3 year old loves to do his Thomas WaterWow book. It’s a paint with water book that can be used over and over. We put a cup with a small amt. of water in it in his carseat cupholder. He uses a small paint brush instead of the pen that comes with it (he was a little too rough with the pen and scratched the pages with it). Here is the link

  • astrid

    October 16, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    We do an 8-hour trip home to see our parents every few months (yay Army life!) with our now-3-year-old son, and I’ve done it myself with him several times. We have a DVD player, and we also do dramatic stories on cd. He LOVES Peter and the Wolf (the Leonard Bernstein version that also has Carnival of the Animals) and a series called Classical Kids that has radio theater-type stories set to classical music like Mozart’s Magic Flute. I usually keep a bag of toys in the front seat that I can toss back to him-usually new ones or rarely played with that are “new” to him. Also naptime music: I play music for his nap,and I take along the same music in the car for naptime. Hello, sound cues! It usually works really well for him. Good luck!

  • Colleen

    October 16, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Whenever we go on road trips we take a small book bag, the size that they sell for preschoolers, and put the straps around the head rest of the seat in front of our son. That way he can reach toys and books that are in the bag, and it is secure enough that it won’t fall out of his reach easily. This wouldn’t work if you do go with a DVD player, but it has been awesome for us. Plus when you stop at night you can take it off and take it in with you.

  • Dee P.

    October 16, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Great ideas! . When our two were younger we travelled to come back “home” at least twice a year (16 hour car ride broken into 2 days). As mentioned above, little “gifties” were fun and exciting. What I used to do was put one or two into little brown bags (maybe a box of raisins and a little book – or some stickers and a piece of paper). I would staple (or tape when they were younger) the bag shut. Every hour the children would get a new bag to have fun with. It was exciting to see them excited, and something new and different always helps with boredom – even if it only lasts a bit. The other thing I wanted to share was I always had to tell myself that the back seat of the car was “their space” while we travelled – and not to get all out of shape because of the mess! Enjoy the trip and hang onto the memories you are going to make!!

  • Shelly R

    October 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Expanding upon some ideas above:

    A bag full of little toys on your front passenger seat, for an added thrill, gift wrap each one, she can try to guess what is inside before unwrapping.

    Large variety of snack options fruit, veggies, even some unhealthy treats. Give something different each time.

    Many bookstores carry books with an accompanying CD. Get some. All of us, from the adults to the teen, preteen and toddler all love: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.

    A travel DVD player is great. Bring a couple favorites from home and a couple new movies too.

    Color searches. “Let’s find 5 things that are outside/inside the car that are orange”

    Count on license plates. If she recognizes numbers, look for a plate with the number 1, once found, move to number 2. Same can be done with the alphabet.

  • Katrina @Hix in the Stix Army Edition

    October 16, 2012 at 2:12 pm

    I am now the QUEEN of long road trips with toddlers! lol – after traveling over 5,000 miles in a little less than a year I’ve got a lot of experience!
    A portable TV that attaches to the headrest is a MUST! Along with some new DVD’s of favorite characters – we alternated between Dora, Diego, and Curious George. I also have a little box of “car” toys and some “car” books (these are toys and books that they only get to play with in the car); some of them are noise making and some of them are quiet toys. One of them is an educational toy – you press the letter and it tells you what it is, it also has a setting to encourage them to find the letter that they say. Then I also have a cd of kids songs that we can all sing along too…just for a little variety. Bella might be old enough for an “activity” pouch – colors/stickers and a coloring book also. And we had lots of snacks…I had a mixture of pre-packaged snacks and snacks that I had packaged myself along with a cooler. It made it easy to just reach over in the passenger seat and grab out a little bag to hand back to them 🙂

    Here is another website that has lots of great ideas for road trips with little ones

  • Smldada

    October 16, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    I routinely do 6.5 hrs with my two girls (4 and 1) and a 70 lb rottie. Habit helps since we have been doing this since oldest dd was a newborn, usually every 6-8 weeks.

    Is she potty trained? If newly, think about some sort of waterproof pad or pull up for in the car. Don’t want an accident sitting for a week without washing thoroughly.

    Go to the dollar store or target and buy tissue paper and a dozen or so small appropriate toys. Wrap all the toys in tissue paper and divide into two bags. You can also wrap snacks to be opened like raisin boxes or similar that she can open buy herself. What isn’t made more awesome by wrapping it.

    Honestly, the DVD player is the best. If you think she can handle it, get headphones to go with it. We have bluetooth headphones for the built in DVD player in the van. Which means I can listen to the radio while she is listening to her movie. Dd1 has been using the DVD player since about 2.5 with the headphones. I keep plenty of movies in the car, but only turn the DVDs on for trips longer than 1.5 hrs.

  • Amber

    October 16, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    We splurged (and it really wan’t that bad) on a DVD player when Jonas was about 18 months (?) and we had to fly cross country. It was a total lifesaver. Most of them come with something you can attach to your headrest so it doesn’t have to sit in her lap.

    A contract job I did last year landed me an iPad – that has been a savior. It’s not a bad investment with all the educational games available, so if you have it in the budget, it will come in handy.

    Everyone else covered any other ideas I may have had. 😉

  • NJ @ A Cookie Before Dinner

    October 16, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Ideas on the cheap. We drive 17 hours two to three times a year (with our now three year old). Malone will play a bit on his own but really loves to do things where the driver is also interacting. Does she have a favorite CD? Play it and sing along. Play I Spy. We also like to “Play” with the other cars on the road “ooooooh… Look Bella! Up ahead! A big semi! I’m going to catch it. You tell me Go Go go! And I’ll see if we can pass him!” Travel bingo cards (road trip printable… google it) are fun too. We would give him a printed one and he would tell us what he was looking for. He’d mark it off with a Do A Dot marker. Stickers will also get you far. So will pipe cleaners and brochures from rest stops. Can you hand stuff back to her while you are driving and she’s in the seat? If so, keep some goodies up front to hand back as she gets bored!

    1. Marie

      October 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm

      We are big fans of audio books – check out your local library, there might be free downloads available and usually there’s a great selection on CD. My kid is 4 and adores Junie b. Jones, but that’s probably a bit much for Bella. Check out audible dot com for good kids’ audio books too, and then see if you can get them on the cheap. In the car we’ve played Wild Kratts and Pokoyo with pretty high success rates for long car trips (9 hours including stops, 7 hours of driving), and the kid will usually watch one or two episodes over again rather than needing a new video all the time.

  • Hannah

    October 16, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    I grew up without a DVD player (heck, I grew up without a TV) in the car and I am undecided (read: against) having one in the future. There are plenty of car games, sing-along taps/cds, and conversation. Lucky for me, I can read (out loud) in the car while the hubby drives

    With a 20mth old, we take the time to make the trips leisure, stopping at playgrounds and water parks.

    1. Diana

      October 16, 2012 at 1:35 pm

      We haven’t had cable in 2 1/2 years and are totally against most electronics in the car. But for a 2 day trip with just her and I and no way of entertaining long term, and no time for detours and long stops? We’re going to splurge on that one for both of our sanity. 🙂

  • janell

    October 16, 2012 at 11:19 am

    Here are my go-to travel items for my 2.5yo daughter:
    1. Rear Seat Entertainment. Our Tahoe has a DVD player installed, but before we turned H’s car seat around we used a cheap portable DVD player. She has movies that are ONLY watched in the car, and only on trips longer than 2 hours, so they are a treat for her.
    2. MAGNADOODLE. Seriously, she will doodle on this thing for hours.
    3. Car games. H’s current faves are I Spy (with my little eye, something that is…), finding a letter/number I’ve told her to look for on signs, looking for semi trucks/buses (girlfriend is obsessed). She loves little “tasks” like that.
    4. Toddler travel neck pillow. Makes car seat naps comfy without the awkward head roll.
    5. Kid music. We are currently learning all the songs from the Disney movies of my youth.
    Hope that helps!!

  • Jessi W.

    October 16, 2012 at 8:07 am

    A DVD player that attaches to the headrest will be your life saver. Get a dual screen player – keep one screen up front with you (the main screen that you place the DVDs in so you can easily change them while driving if you need to). We keep the main player inside the arm rest up front (volume turned off so I can listen to my own music) so I can change the DVD or replay if she wants to watch the same thing again. It’s very easy. I’d also give her a snack cup and keep the refills up front with you. One thing that helps a lot is putting together a “gift” for her – a little gift bag with new little toys in it so she has a new world of wonder to play with in the car. You could put in a mini coloring book that can fit in her lap, some new crayons, a couple new books that entice activity (there are some with little tabs that slide over, etc). Good luck!!

  • Diane @ DixieJulep

    October 16, 2012 at 7:49 am

    If you’re not opposed to electronics, an affordable tablet like the Kindle Fire is wonderful in the car. You can load movies on it, but you can also put on children’s books and interactive apps and games.

    Bella’s a little older than my son, so your situation may be different, but when we took my son on a road trip this summer, books were a lifesaver. I surprised him with a new touch and feel book, as well as packing some of his old faves, and he spent as much time with those as with the Kindle, I think.

    The only other tip I have is take plenty of breaks. We stopped at rest stops with green spaces, so we could let him run around a little before we got back in the car, and we stopped for a sit-down lunch to get us out of the car for a while. Every little break helps.

    Good luck and have fun on your cruise!

  • Caitlin MidAtlantic

    October 16, 2012 at 7:46 am

    I drove – by myself – from Maryland to Massachusetts over the summer. It was a 7-hour trip that took me 12 (albeit leisurely) hours. I wasn’t in a hurry to get North, so I took my time and rested when we needed a break. I did buy two things that really helped:
    1) Laura like it best when I only attached one side. She could let the tray dangle next to her seat when she didn’t want the tray, but could pull it up over her lap by the strap when she wanted it again.
    2) A magnadoodle. Holy cow the awesomeness.

    1. Diana

      October 16, 2012 at 1:33 pm

      How have we lived without a Magnadoodle so long when everyone seems to swear by them? On my Target list now.

  • Alexia @ Babies & Bacon

    October 16, 2012 at 7:42 am

    I would get some of the Kate DiCamillo ‘Mercy Watson’ books on CD. They are really cute stories about a loveable pig. Also, there’s the Berenstain Bears books, I think they come on CD. Or ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ by Shel Silverstein.

    As far as activities I’ve pinned a million on my ‘Family Travelin’ Board. My favorite was taking a tea set or doll house parts, putting little pieces of velcro on the bottoms of all of them and putting corresponding velcro on a cookie sheet or foam board. They can play with their little pieces and not lose them too bad cause they’re velcroed. It’s from Modern Parents Messy Kids. Brilliant.

    We just bought Cedella a Aquadoodle Travel N Doodle board for our upcoming Thanksgiving road trip (13+ hours with two. Shoot me now.) I think it’ll be good for at least two of those hours. lol

    Good luck!! And have a blast 🙂

    1. Diana

      October 16, 2012 at 1:32 pm

      I love the idea of the velcro on her toys. I’ll have to swing by hobby lobby and see if I can grab some.

  • t.bird

    October 16, 2012 at 7:28 am

    ditto on the dual dvd player that attaches to the headrests.
    i have one for the girls & it’s a lifesaver.

    other than that- snacks, books, coloring supplies (the girls have a lap rest coloring type thing), magnetic stuff (metal tray + magnets = genius)

    have fun!

  • Allie

    October 16, 2012 at 7:21 am

    I would highly suggest buying or borrowing a DUAL screen DVD player that attaches to a headrest. On our last road trip just me and the baby, it was a life saver not to have to turn around to hit the buttons. I could have the controls right next to me.

    As for everything else, have snacks pre-portioned out and in the front seat, easy to hand to her, and lots of books.

    1. Diana

      October 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      PRE-PORTIONED SNACKS FTW. Best idea ever.

    2. Beth Anne

      October 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm

      YES. THIS.

      Keep the DVD player with the controls on the passenger seat beside you.

  • Noelle

    October 16, 2012 at 6:34 am

    I have an iPad for movies and games and its great. We’ve never done a drive that long though! For flights I always get a bag full of Target dollar days stuff to keep him entertained. Good luck!

    1. Diana

      October 16, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      On my Target list is now the dollar section 😉 thank you!

  • BeccaV

    October 16, 2012 at 6:11 am

    Get the DVD player, it will be a lifesaver! I would try and get one that attaches to the back of a headrest, maybe you can lean the seat back a little bit so she can reach it?
    We always let our son bring a small bag of toys along that he picks out himself and that also seems to keep him entertained.
    Good luck! Have a great time on your cruise!

    1. Diana

      October 16, 2012 at 1:30 pm

      Love the ideas – especially the small bag of toys! Yes!

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