Road trips are a traditional experience for many American families, and with the arrival of COVID-19, they are considered a safer form of travel compared to other forms of transportation, such as air travel. With travel limitations and safety concerns at hand, road trips can be a much-needed vacation option for families.
However, a long road trip can be stressful on a young child. Long hours on the road necessitate productive stimulation and entertainment to keep passengers with a shorter attention span occupied. With that in mind, it’s imperative that as a parent you make the traveling experience engaging to keep spirits high and reduce anxiety or stress as much as possible.
What is road trip anxiety in children?
Road trip anxiety is essentially the fear of traveling or experiencing new things. Because children mirror their parents, if you are anxious, your child is likely also going to be anxious. Road trip anxiety can quickly become a cycle if your child becomes bored or agitated during a car ride. Their anxiety can fuel yours (which may have already resulted from driving all day), which in turn can further stress the young passengers.
So how do you break a potential cycle of stress during a road trip? One trick is to make the experience so enjoyable for your little one that they do not even notice any anxiety you have while traveling. Activities and toys may be helpful in creating distraction, and may even have beneficial learning and stimulation effects.
21 interactive road trip activities for kids
Mess-free car art
- Crayola Color Wonder Stow & Go Coloring Studio: For children 3 and up, this color wonder kit comes with markers that will only appear on Crayola Color Wonder Paper— meaning the ink will not get on your car, child’s hands or clothes. The storage container is specifically built to be used as a lap desk, and the pad comes with 30 pages. Current price: $9.99.
- Melissa & Doug reusable stickers: Reusable stickers easily peel off and can be repositioned in a different position or on another page. This is great for road trips because the ongoing ‘story’ within your child’s imagination can easily continue once a sticker has been placed. Recommended for children 3 and up. Priced at $5.99.
- Magnetic toys and letters: Magnetic letters are a great way for budding minds to become acquainted with the alphabet and can be used a variety of ways. Whether you use it as a seeking game (‘Find an uppercase G’), name practice, hangman or a fun way of communicating, there are a lot of possibilities with magnetic toys to make the time go by. Intended for children 3 and up. Prices vary from to $4.99- $50.99.
- Color Wonder Mess Free Metallic Paper & Markers: For ages 3+, this color wonder line features characters from Disney’s hit series Cars. Your child can color each and every page from bottom to top and will not get a drop of ink on their hands or clothes. Color Wonder markers can only appear on Color Wonder paper. Comes with 12 pages and 5 Color Wonder Markers. List price: $11.49.
- Crayola Washable Window Markers: Crayola’s window markers will give your kids a surface they might normally not be allowed to color on— your car’s windows. This set comes with 8 vibrant colors that easily wash off whenever you or your child is finished playing or wants a fresh canvas. Recommended for ages 4 and up. Priced at $4.99.
- White board with markers: If your child could color all day, but you would rather not worry about bringing enough paper, then a white board may be just what you need. This set comes with 6 colors and is also magnetic, so you can pair it up with some magnetic toys, too. Intended for ages 3+ and currently listed at $14.99.
Portable road trip games
- Magnetic activities: Magnetic toys can be used for hands-on learning or sparking your child’s imagination (and many can even do both). Melissa and Doug have a lot of options at a variety of different price points ($11.99-$59.99). If the toy doesn’t come with a board to stick the magnets on, you can pair it up with either a cookie sheet or a small, magnetic white board (which can often be found at many dollar stores).
- The alphabet game: The alphabet game can sharpen your child’s mastery of the alphabet as well as exercise their perception. The rules are simple: Going in order, find each letter in the alphabet as you drive. You can use license plates, exit signs, cars, restaurant or store names and even billboards. Make it a cooperative experience by working together, or create competition by recording points as you go. Depending on where you’re traveling, it can be a fast game or a slow game. Add rules as you see fit. For example, you may even allow your child to use things that they see, instead of relying only on printed words.
- Would you rather: Most people have played would-you-rather at some point in their lives (you may have played it without even realizing it). The objective is to come up with two scenarios and have each participant choose which one they would rather do (typically the lesser of two creative or unfortunate situations) and explain why. You may prefer to come up with your own situations, but there are also many family-friendly suggestion lists online, too. Use it to pass the time, or make it a competition by awarding points to the most interesting responses.
- Scavenger hunt: In a scavenger hunt game, you look for items as you drive that are on a predetermined list. (Example: 2 people on a motorcycle, out-of-state RV, sheep, a garbage truck, etc.). Your family can either check off items together, or you can award points to the first person to spot the item. For more fun, have each person create their own list of items.
- Spelling bee: A spelling bee may not sound like too much fun, but with the whole family involved it can turn into quite an event. You can either bring a dictionary with you or look up grade appropriate lists.
- DIY lego travel kit: Get a ziplock bag, a handful of legos and a baseplate, and your child will be entertained for a good while during your car trip. If they look like they’re getting bored, try giving them challenges to spark their creativity. Because legos are small, please review the age appropriate levels, as the small plastic pieces can quickly become a choking hazard for younger children.
- Connect 4 grab and go: Connect 4 is a great board game for the car because it’s so easy to pass back and forth. Though it is simple to learn, Connect 4 can be difficult to master, which makes it the perfect game for a budding mind. For ages 3 and up. Listed at $10.95
- No thanks! (card game): No Thanks is an easy game to learn, but might be too difficult for younger children just learning their numbers. For older, school age children, No Thanks is a good combination of luck and strategy.
- Lego tic-tac-toe: While you are packing that DIY lego travel kit, make sure to grab enough blocks for tic-tac-toe. Your child will love your ingenuity and fresh take on this classic game. This could be played with Duplo Legos if your children are too small to safely play with the standard size legos. Always check the age requirements on any toys with small pieces.
Apps for road trips
- Geo Touch: Learn Geography: Great for anyone looking to brush-up on their Geography, Geo Touch makes learning states, countries and capitals easy and fun. It is recommended for ages 4 and older, but adults may be entertained using it as well. If you are driving across the country, this app would be a great way for your child to learn about where they are going, as well as giving them context as to how big states actually are.
- Smule: Social Karaoke Singing: Got a singer in your midst? With Smule, you can sing along with pre-recorded videos of celebrities (such as Ed Sheeran and Luis Fonsi) as well as some of your favorite Disney characters. Think of Smule like going to your favorite karaoke bar, only with 10 million songs to choose from, the ability to record and add sound effects, or sing a cappella. Sing live with your friends or other enthusiasts around the world. Priced around $20 a month or $99 a year.
- World Atlas: World Atlas is a fun app that can expand your child’s knowledge of the world as you travel. This app comes with maps, currency, capitals and flags. It may be more appropriate for older kids because of its content and interface.
- My Car – Mechanics for Kids: My Car teaches children how cars work in a fun, engaging way, and is appropriate for anyone 4 and up. Developed alongside a team of engineers, it explains such things as how engines work, why cars need gas and oil, as well as how brakes work. However, it is not just a question and answer app. Your child can also design their own car, change its engine noises, as well as diagnose and fix problems that may affect their designed car.
- Skybrary – Kids Books & Videos: Whether your kid is an avid or budding reader, Skybrary comes with almost a thousand interactive books and videos that make reading fun. Hosted by LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow, Skybrary can make packing for your next long car ride quite a bit easier. The first month is free, but after that you can choose to do a yearly subscription or a monthly one of $4.99.
Car trips don’t have to be stressful or boring. As long as both you and your child have options, the next time you get in the car may actually be enjoyable for both of you.
Although it may be tempting to ‘surprise’ your child with everything they will be able to do while you are driving, we recommend you tell them about most of the things they have to look forward to in advance. This will keep the questions to a minimum (reducing your stress) and keep them excited for what is to come along the trip.
If you decide to try out a lot of the things we listed above, we also strongly consider creating time limits— meaning they must play with one game for a minimum amount of time while you’re on the road before moving to the next thing. This can keep them focused and calm, following defined timelines for play and interaction.
As much as possible, keep everything within reach or easily accessible so you are not stressed finding everything (it is important that you are able to stay calm, too). You may even prefer having everything close enough that your child can access everything on their own. Of course, with a long car ride this may not be possible for everything you bring along, and some items may need supervision from an adult, but you can probably keep at least a few things handy.
With activities like these, children of all ages can be entertained and engaged on long road trips, thus helping keep stress low and positive memories high.