Screen-Free Travel Activities for Young Families

The holidays are just around the corner, which typically means time in a vehicle with our little ones. Whether you’re heading across the country, or opting for something closer to home this year, preparing some travel activities for your toddlers and preschoolers can mean the difference between arriving with your sanity or swearing never to road trip again.

Here’s a list of our favorite screen-free travel activities for preschoolers and toddlers that work great on road trips as well as long plane rides. The key to making it for the long haul: rotation and surprises. Give yourself a variety of items in each category, and then intentionally rotate through them so they’re reading, doing something creative, and playing games together in a cycle that gives you a few minutes of peace every time around. Find a few things to wrap up as presents or whip out to help breathe a breath of “newness” into the travel monotony.

1. Books, Books, Books

But not just any books! There’s 3 categories that you can aim to include:

  • Look and Find books

    Literal look and find books like this one and this one are awesome, even for 2 year-olds, though you may want to practice it with them a few times before heading out so they are doing it more from memory than actually trying to find them on their own. But you also don’t have to buy a literal “look and find” book! One of our kids’ favorites is Cars and Trucks and Things that Go which is part reading, part look and find with thoroughly entertaining photos to explore.

  • Books they can read to themselves

    Every kid has at least one book they want you to read to them a million times. They basically know the story themselves and sometimes can even recite it. Bring those and encourage your kids to read them to each other or to themselves.

  • New books you can read to them

    You probably have a good idea of what type of books your kids engage with the best. Bring at least one brand new book (or new to you – borrow from friends or the library!) of each type they most enjoy. Even better if you can keep these as a surprise and use them to reward after periods of quiet play or once certain time intervals have passed. Anticipation of a surprise/reward can be super powerful on long trips!

2. Non-Messy Arts and Crafts

Some kids get more into this than others, but I’ve found as we rotate through the options, the kids always engage with these as a nice break from the other choices.

  • Drawing

    On our last long trip we bought a small magnetic drawing board and kept it as a surprise at a certain travel interval. It ended up being the biggest hit, especially with our 4 year-old! We took turns playing “guess what I drew’ and it was probably the most popular toy in rotation. (Of course it being brand-new also added to the attraction.) Another favorite are wipe clean books which work with any type of dry-erase marker. We bought a couple extras in the kids favorite colors to add to the fun. Just remember, they may or may not wash out of clothes as easily as mess-free markers, so keep that in mind.

  • Painting

    There’s 2 versions of this we like. For older kids, these Usborne Magic Painting books are great. I keep a tiny container of water I can put in a cup holder for them to dip in.  For toddlers, Melissa & Doug Water WOW! Books are a little easier, though my bigger kid still likes to use his.

  • Stickers

    I bring coloring books every time on our road trips and find they don’t get touched, but when I can find little books or activity packs with stickers like this one and this one they are all about it. You can also get reusable stickers, though you might look for something more unique like these puffy sticker sets from Melissa & Doug over the massive reusable sticker books, which honestly end up strewn everywhere because there’s just too many pieces and they don’t cling as well. And for one unique spin on “stickers”, if your kids can reach the windows, these gel window clings are super fun, and there’s a wide variety available online. They’re basically reusable stickers for windows!

3. Car Games

There’s so many silly games my kids love that we rotate among the art and book travel activities. Here are a few:

  • The Name Game

    You know it – it may get annoying, but my 4 year-old could do this forever.
    “Jane, Jane, bo bane, banana nana fo fane, me my mo mane, Jane!” Rotate through all the family’s names, then include relatives and friends.

  • Stereo DJ

    Everyone gets to take turns picking a song to listen to or sing together. Simple.

  • I Spy

    Most everyone should know this game, and our 2 year-old has even caught on. We do colors, location hints (under the ___, next to a ___), and descriptive words (something squishy, something hot.) Great for vocabulary development!

  • The Alphabet Game

    My kids aren’t quite big enough for this game yet, but we’re close! Start at the beginning of the alphabet and challenge them to find every single letter in order. They can use books and toys in the car, signs outside, whatever they can find that has letters on it!

  • Hide and Seek with a Toy

    Each person takes turns hiding a toy (usually with some part of it peeking out) while everyone else counts/closes their eyes, then the others try to find it.

Be sure to check out our favorite Family Game Night ideas for when you finally make it to your destination and need some ways to be curious and imagine together!

Do you have any go-to activities for travel? What helps keep you sane on long road-trips and plane rides?

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