Let’s get straight to business. If you’re traveling with children soon, you probably don’t have time to read my eloquent introduction with adorable anecdotes about how amazing my children behaved, and how patient and entertaining I (the mom) was on our 8-hour road trip to Ohio for holiday travel. It’s possible, of course, that I don’t have these lovely stories to tell…but that’s not the point. You need novel stuff to entertain your kids…and you probably need it fast. This I can help with.
*For my most up-to-date article on the best travel toys for kids — tech and non-screen time — which just dropped May 2021, go here. The post links here have been updated for 2021, but check out the comments at the bottom of the post from 2018 and 2019—so many AWESOME ideas!*
Traveling With Kids: Toy Prep Tips
3. For road trips, I throw in some extra toys (besides the backpack toys) that are especially good for car travel (from the Top 10 list below). This is the perk of road tripping, right? You can just throw in a bunch of fun stuff that might come in handy (even if it’s bulky).
Road Trip Prep: Best 10 Toys For Kids
- Car Seat Tray 2. Plus-Plus Play Tube 3. Easy Origami Book 4. Mini Squigz 5. Puro Headphones 6. Travel Bingo 7. Magnetic Drawing Board 8. Brainstring 9. Schylling Sports Video Game 10. Robot Claw
1. An Organizing “Toy”
Okay…these aren’t toys, but I do think it’s important to have a thing or two to help keep toys organized in the back seat. To start with, it’s often helpful to have a surface to play on. A surface with an edge is even better, so little pieces or pencils or whatever else they’re playing with doesn’t slide right off immediately. It’s also helpful to have places kids can put “stuff”… this could be plastic cups that fit nicely in the cup holders (which can hold pencils and little building toys) or a full-on back-seat organizer that the super-organized kids may have more fun organizing than playing with the toys themselves. Or if you have two kids, a cooler in-between them (filled with healthy stuff they can eat on their own any time they want) can also serve as a joint play surface. Don’t forget someplace to put trash — how cute is the little trashcan below that fits into a cup holder!
2. A Building Toy
For building play in the car, I’ve found the key is to have enough building materials that when the pieces fall on the floor (because they WILL fall on the floor) the kids don’t freak out. Besides having a largish quantity of building materials, it’s also important to make sure the materials are pretty much all the same (so there’s no way they can drop the one specific part they need to complete their engineering masterpiece). We sometimes set a timer and see what creation everyone comes up with during a set amount of time. A big set of WikkiStix, a ton of pipe cleaners, or a big tube of Plus-Plus works really well for open-ended building play on a hard surface or even in laps. If you have never played with Plus-Plus, stop and order them right now. They are SO fun and so addictive.
3. A Crafty Toy
You have more space in the car than in the airplane bag for creative craft kits, but it’s bumpy and supplies are going to drop on the floor, so again….having a lot of the same materials is important. Origami is great for older kiddos (just make sure to pack a ziplock for the paper). Or put kids’ extra time to use making holiday gifts with a potholder set. I’m not usually a fan of these types of “have to follow directions” kits, but my son was super into making these potholders for EVERYONE a few years back. He was so excited to be able to make something that grandparents could actually use. A reader suggested finger knitting during travel days, which is genius — I don’t know how to finger knit, though, so my kids would need the guide below.
4. A Window Toy
You can get a little more creative with the car windows (vs. the tiny airplane windows). Window gel clings or a big set of reusable stickers are fun and there’s a bigger surface to work with in the car. For more elaborate window art engineering, get Squigz. In the car, they are so fun on windows or even in laps, and once you’ve reached your destination they are awesome for restaurants or floors or bathtubs (If you have two kids, though, I’ve found it easier to buy two tubs…plenty of material for each window.) We use the mini ones, but they are small(recommended for ages 5 and up), so if you have a little one who still puts things in their mouths…this is not the toy for them. I’m intrigued also by these funny spinner things made by Squigz. Even though they are made for babies, I think my kids would be thoroughly entertained by sticking these on the window and keeping them spinning. Squigz also has a new version called 2.0 that offers more building versatility.
5. A Listening Toy
One of my kids’ favorite activities in the car is playing DJ. We rotate selecting one song at a time. It’s amazing how much time this takes up and of course how fun it is to at least try to appreciate everyone’s taste in music. For those times that I’ve had enough of appreciating everyone’s musical taste, headphones come in handy. We used to use these, but based on my good friend V’s advice (an expert family road-tripper with 3 kids), we switched over to Puros, and they are totally worth it. There’s also a newer noise-canceling version that look fantastic. Audiobooks from Audible or free audiobooks from the public library (Libby App) are also an amazing car activity (the kids can enjoy some passive chill-out entertainment, but still look out the windows and appreciate where they are in the world).
6. A Car Specific Game
It’s fun to play at least one car-specific family game. We usually play a range of alphabet games…finding things that start with letters of the alphabet, finding license plates using the whole alphabet, signs, etc, but the games below look really fun too. The Melissa and Doug game has those flaps that I love from the airplane guide that are fun for kids to fidget with even if they aren’t actually playing the game.
7. A Drawing Toy
I love the little drawing sets and boogie boards in our airplane guide that fit nicely in a backpack or purse, but here are a few more options for something a little different. I like keeping white boards in the car, even for shorter trips. The kids can draw, write notes, and use it as a play surface. Plus, they come in a pack of 6, so you can leave a couple in the car, a couple in their rooms, and have one in the kitchen too. They come in very handy. I find the click dry-erase markers easier in the car so the tops of markers don’t get lost. Etch-a-sketch, of course, is a classic, and it’s especially fun for kids who don’t have one that they play with regularly. Folks love the travel-sized Magnatab from the airplane guide, but below is the bigger one that would add some additional fun for the car.
8. A Puzzle Toy
NOT traditional jig-jaw puzzles…no way…road trip disaster. I’m talking brain puzzler puzzles. My 10-year-old loves his Perplexus, but this size is a little better for the car. Easier mazes are great for little ones as are those fun little water “pusher-upper” things. Riddle books can be a great brain puzzler for the whole family.
9. A Video Game Toy
10. An “It Dropped-on-the Floor, I Can’t-Reach-It…Help, Mom!”…Toy Grabber.
No more words needed. This was my 10-year-old’s suggestion, and I have to say…I think it’s quite brilliant and probably the best thing on this list.
Happy and Safe and Fun Holiday Travel to you all! And as always…please let me know what suggestions you have for fun road trip activities and toys. I’d love to keep this post updated for future travel seasons, so let me know what other toys and ideas work for you.