For many parents (myself included), taking a road trip with a toddler or preschool-aged kids can be a LITTLE bit terrifying. With everyone strapped in safely, kids kinda need to be able to function on their own. And for younger kids, that’s just not gonna happen most of the time. Add in sibling squabbles, spilled drinks, bad driving conditions, and it can feel totally overwhelming.
But with a little preparation, a solid plan (but not too solid just in case things don’t go your way and you need to adjust), and a big bag of car-friendly activities, you and your toddler or preschooler will handle any road trip like a pro. Or at least… survive it!
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Planning Your Trip: Stops and Food
When road-tripping with a toddler or a preschooler, planning your route, stops, and meals become MUCH more of a necessity. No on-a-whim road trips like your college days. These road trips take WORK. But your work will definitely pay off after a successful, minimal-screaming, and not terrible road trip with your kiddos. And most importantly, you’ll get where you are going, which is HOPEFULLY a fantastic vacation!
How Far Can You Drive?
This question, perhaps the MOST important when planning a road trip, is also the toughest. It kinda depends on you.
Some families are willing to drive all night while their kids are sleeping and deal with the consequences of no sleep later on. My family is not one of those families. Sleep for parents is precious around here.
Some kids are tolerant of car rides, and others are NOT. But generally, kids can handle more as they get older. Throughout the toddler and preschooler years, you might see a DRAMATIC improvement in your kids tolerance for road trips as they begin to understand that the destination makes the journey worthwhile.
In the baby and early toddler years, 6 hours of driving in a day might be all they can handle. But by age 4 or 5, 10+ hours of driving might be possible (though admittedly still quite difficult).
Preparing your vehicle
Do you know what’s worse than having a flat on a road trip? Having a flat on a road trip with a toddler. No one wants to be stranded on the side of the road with young kids. So before you head out on your trip, make sure you schedule any maintenance for your car and take a quick peek at your tires. Generally, just make sure everything is in good shape. Even though you aren’t GUARANTEED any car trouble, it’ll reduce your chances. And you won’t be stuck on the side of the road thinking ‘how did I forget to take care of this?!’
And, while you’re at it, give your car a quick interior cleaning. Road trips can mean lots of messes and extra garbage, and you won’t want to start with garbage already IN the car.
Movement is SO important for little toddlers and preschoolers. So planning stops that allow your kids to get out and move will make the trips 100X more pleasant for everyone!
Rather than wasting our stops on meal breaks, we plan to eat in the car so we have more time to get out and run.
Plan Your Stops!
Before our trip, I like to map out a number of rest stops, playgrounds (with a public bathroom), or any outdoor public space we can get outside. Sometimes, you might get lucky and find a totally unique and fun place to stop. We’ve done a quick berry picking session (for an excellent car snack), explored waterfalls, and quick snowy hikes on stops.
When planning, I like to even have a couple of backup stops in mind just in case things don’t go as planned, kids need a stop earlier than expected, or even if the kids are asleep or don’t need a break for some other reason. Having these stops mapped out ahead of time is super helpful just in case I have no cell service, or things in the car get too chaotic for me to think.
We plan to make a stop every 2-3 hours. Sometimes, we just take 15 minutes to run around and play. But, for longer road trips, we do make sure to take at least once extended break with LOTS of physical activity.
Physical Activity Ideas
And during these breaks, you’ll want to make sure you kids are really getting some exercise. Here are some of our favorite active activities for our road trip breaks:
- Simon Says
- Dance party
- Race/run laps
- Throw a bouncy ball and see who can get to it first. Whoever gets it gets to throw the ball next.
Even if the weather is bad, just 15 minutes in it will make everyone in the family feel refreshed, a bit tired, and more able to sit still.
My kids love fast food stops just as much as the next kid, but here’s a little secret. They don’t ACTUALLY like it. They like the idea of it. They like the cute kids packaging. And they like the $0.39 toy most of all.
My Secret Weapon – DIY Happy Meals
So I started making DIY happy meals. And the kids TOTALLY love it. Here’s what I do:
I pack a lunch box for them with a variety of healthy, and sometimes not super healthy snacks. Things they like and will actually eat. We love our Pottery Barn lunch box because it’s big enough to hold all the snacks a toddler or preschooler needs for the day, easy to clean, easy to manage in the car, and CUTE.
I pack their food in cute little containers, like these Rubermaid LunchBlox that we use and love, and use adorable reusable bags that are begging to be opened. I include a treat that they are allowed to eat whenever they want (even BEFORE their meal), and a small toy. The toy can be something special and new for a particularly long road trip. But honestly, I usually pick out a Hot Wheels car from their bin of a million of them and hide it somewhere in their lunch box.
If Hot Wheels are as well-loved at your house as they are at mine, buy a package of them ahead of time and hide them away. Then you’ll have one new, fun car your child can have for each road trip. Or perhaps one Daniel Tiger Figurine, or a tiny construction vehicle.
My kids love these special road trip lunches. It’s SUCH a hit, they now ask for it over fast food.
For a toddler or a preschooler, or let’s be honest, even for an adult, snacking can be solution to the boredom of road tripping. So there are really NEVER enough snacks.
But, to prevent upset stomachs or WORSE, we recommend keeping the snacks somewhat healthy, and not TOO exciting so your child won’t be tempted to overeat. We pack balanced, nutritious snacks so they can work as a meal as well.
Here are some road trip snacks that work well for us:
- Nuts of all kinds
- Dried fruit
- Z bars
- Cut up apples
- Goldfish crackers. We get the colorful kind for road trips
- String cheese
- Laughing Cow cheese triangles
- Peanut Butter Bites
- Beef Jerky
- Dried Edamame
What to Bring and How to Organize
A good organizational plan goes a long way towards a drama free trip! I am typically the passenger/navigator/retriever of kids things from the floor for my family’s road trips, and I have to say- if things are messy, or I don’t know where things are, it is NOT my favorite. I hate spending hours reaching around the backseat and trying to figure out where everything is, or what I can use since I forgot the thing I really NEED.
Getting organized is KEY!
Set Your Child Up for Success!
It can be really hard for kids in car seats to reach ANYTHING, which means someone is always reaching in the backseat to help them get a water bottle/toy/book/snack. It can be a pain in the neck, literally, and can feel frustrating for the parent AND the child. So before you head out on your road trip, take a minute to figure out if there is anything you can do to make it easier for your child to manage independently.
Things to consider:
- Does your child have a cupholder within reach? If not, try something like this for easy water access.
- Can they reach their activities or snacks? A back seat car organizer, or a car seat tray may really help them out. Or just a hook to hang up a tote or a backpack (and check out our post here if you toddler or preschooler is ready for a new backpack!), plus the hook doubles as a tablet holder, if your tablet case has a carry handle.
- Consider adding a sunshade, if you don’t have one. Your toddler may really be bothered by having the sun in her eyes. We like these universal sun shades.
- Will you need to place items on the floor under their feet? If so, dropped items might get more easily lost down there. Think about how to keep the area clean-ish so you won’t be constantly searching for dropped toys. And consider all the little things you’ll want accessible for the car ride that might need to be placed in the backseat as well!
- Will your child be using crayons or pencils? A pencil case can help them keep track of these loose items so they are less likely to get lost
- Do you have a way to easily charge any devices they will use frequently? Look for your charging ports and make sure you have a cord long enough to go from the port to your child.
What to Bring
You’ll definitely want to bring a few things to keep your toddler or preschooler happy and occupied for your road trip. Here are our recommendations:
- A bag of activities. See our discussion below for ideas!
- A lunch box filled with meals and snacks. LOTS of snacks!
- A water bottle. We also like to bring our insulated growler so we can refill water bottles with icy cold water.
- Baby wipes for sticky fingers, spills, potty accidents or whatever
- Napkins, paper towels, or a dishtowel for wet spills
- A little potty (we like this compact one) with a plastic bag – we use a small garbage bag JUST IN CASE your child needs to GO on the road.
- Some kind of garbage bag so any garbage won’t pile up on the floor
- Sunglasses. My kids always want their sunglasses in the car when the sun gets in their eyes
- Extra clothing somewhat accessible just in CASE.
- A clip-on book light, head lamp, or a flashlight for evening driving (the book light is BEST to avoid bright lights in your eyes while driving)
- A blanket if your car can easily heat/cool your preschoolers spot to his/her preference
So what will your toddler do all day in the car? That’s the toughest part of road tripping with younger kids. But luckily, there are TONS of great toddler and preschooler -friendly activities. Get creative- the ONLY thing we watch out for is activities that have a bunch of loose pieces. Inevitably, all loose pieces will end up somewhere under the seat and will only show up sometime around the time your child begins high school.
Here are some of our FAVORITE kid-tested car activities for toddlers and preschoolers.
Things Kids Can Do withOUT Help
We are not a screen-free family. But we definitely have strict limits on screen time and what our kids are allowed to watch. During travel, a lot of those limits go out the window. Of course, I still control what goes on the tablet (and without wifi, they are stuck with ONLY what I pick for them), but they are allowed to use their tablet as much as they want. We load up tons of their favorite shows, and toddler-friendly games on there before we leave, and let them go crazy.
- The Disney+ app. We love Moana, Mickey Mouse Roadsters, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and Doc McStuffins. Our preschoolers can easily manage the app, and have no trouble playing their downloaded shows without help.
- The Netflix app. We love Chico Bon Bon and Octonauts
- Bugs and buttons game– cute and educational, perfect for preschoolers
- Anything Sago Mini– fun, open-ended games, great for toddlers and preschoolers
- Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood – another open-ended, and delightful app great for toddlers and preschoolers
Activity Books and Sheets
Many older toddlers and preschoolers are excited to have activity books or sheets they can do on their own. Get them set up for the car, and it’s a great way to pass the time.
If you have the time and energy, look around on Pinterest and the internet to find free spot-the-difference sheets, hidden object sheets, coloring sheets, or anything else your child might like to do in the car. We don’t recommend too many practice writing sheets because they can be frustratingly difficult in the car.
Or, save the effort and just buy one of these great activity books:
- Wipe clean Seek and Find book is PERFECT for the car. Super fun, and reusable!
- Spot the Differences Book
- This sticker book has SOOO many stickers!
There are a million little things that might work really well for you and your child. Here are some of our favorites:
- Buckle Toys – toddlers LOVE these things
- Practice dressing doll – toddler, and preschooler friendly!
- Daniel Tiger figurines, Little People figurines, or really any figurines your child loves! They can play on their lap!
- Water wow books- and now there is even a deluxe version slightly older kids will love!
- Open the Flap books, like this – perfect for toddlers!
- Pop- up books- we love this Oceans book – ideal for preschoolers
- Wikki Stix
- Little monster trucks or Hot Wheels for the vehicle-obsessed
- A map. We make a map with notable stops, like where we plan to take a break, or where we’ll sleep for the night, and help our kids follow along. Our kids LOVE getting this extra information and feeling like they know a bit more about what we are doing.
Activities for Everyone In the Car
Car rides are also a great time to bond with the whole family. Plus, your child will likely crave some together time after lots of independent play, and not being able to sit WITH you. Here are some fun whole-car activities we love:
- Songs- nursery rhymes, lullabies, Baby Shark, Disney songs, sound tracks from their favorite shows (we listen to a LOT of Paw Patrol), or just anything you and your child enjoy.
- Dance party. This kinda goes along with the songs, but as my son says, not all songs are danceable!
- I-Spy – my kids LOVE this one
- What-is-an-animal-that-is game (i.e. What is an animal that has really big ears, and like carrots? A rabbit!)
- Podcasts- try What if World, But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids, Smash Boom Best, or Brains On
- Audiobooks like Winnie the Pooh and the Gruffalo
- Make up a story. You can let each member of the family make up a story, OR make it up as a group – everyone gets to add their own little part to the story (these get SILLY!)
- Catch up on chatting. Sometimes the car is the best place to get a little extra chatting out of your child. I know my kids are WAY more likely to tell me about how their week went, or what’s been the most interesting to them lately while we are in the car.
Road trips can really mess up a toddler or preschoolers sleep schedule. It is almost impossible to keep them on their regular schedule, and regular routines will, of course, go out the window.
One BIG problem is that you really can’t control the ambient light. At home, we’ll close the blinds, and make things as dark as possible for naptime or bedtime. Low light is HUGE for signaling that it’s time to sleep. And lights are generally left ON when it’s time to be awake.
Road trip naps for a toddler or preschooler can be tricky. If your nap schedule is not rock solid, there is a pretty good chance a road trip will shift the nap schedule. My kids were never big on naps, and gave them up well before their 2nd birthday. But, they do tend to get a little sleepy in the late afternoon. If we are in the car, they WILL fall asleep. And it WILL totally mess up bedtime, sometimes delaying it for 3+ hours.
So if you have a toddler that absolutely needs to nap, just try to give yourself some flexibility. Make sure your schedule doesn’t require them to nap at their regular time, or fall asleep at their regular time. That will just cause a lot of necessary stress.
If you preschooler doesn’t really NEED a nap, but, like mine, gets sleepy late in the afternoon, try taking an active car break. Plan it for the time you expect they’ll get sleepy, and get him up and run around just for a few minutes to get the blood flowing. If you miss your window, and they have already fallen asleep, or it doesn’t work, you’ll just have to accept the later bedtime. It’s tough, but accepting it and leaving flexibility in your plans is MUCH easier than fighting it.
Seasonal changes in sunset time can be tough for road tripping toddlers or preschoolers as well. We live way up north, so in the winter, it’s dark by 4:30 pm. Younger kids can find this frustrating because it feels like they are being put to bed even though they are not yet tired. Take a minute to explain to your toddler that they don’t need to go to sleep yet to help with frustration. A tablet or a book light will also help.
Alternatively, your child might just fall asleep HOURS before bedtime. A bit of peace and quiet in the car is nice, but it might mean they also WAKE UP hours before their normal wake up time. Again, we don’t find that there is much you can do about sleep schedule for younger children. But if you know you’ll be waking up pre-5:00am, we wouldn’t recommend driving until midnight. Make sure you don’t forget about your OWN sleep for these situations as well.
In the summer, we have the opposite problem. Up north, it’s not dark until 10:00 pm, which is way after my kids’ bedtime. But with sunlight streaming in, they just aren’t tired. For multi-day road trips, this actually works out just fine for us. They might not get enough sleep during the day, but they’ll likely end up taking a nap the next day on a road trip, if needed. Plus, we, the parents, still get adequate sleep and aren’t woken up way too early.
These are our best tips for road trips with toddlers or preschoolers. Let us know if they’ve helped you, or if you have any questions or comments on road tripping.