These travel activities kept my 5-year-old daughter happily busy for 4,000 of our 5,000 mile road trip.
Last summer I spent 10 hours per day for 10 days on the road with my daughter. That’s 100 hours and 5,000 miles; yes I did say 5,000. We had to organize enough travel activities for the trip. She was only happy for most of it, some of it she was asleep and sometimes she got bored. I’m not going to lie and I am not a miracle worker. I am just a mom and for me 8 out of 10 is a home run.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to do the driving, because my dad prefers to do it all himself. Plus he would rather I be the one to deal with “the kid” as he affectionately calls her, also “sweetie pie”.
It was a bit daunting, being solely responsible for entertaining my daughter and keeping her from disturbing my dad or annoying my aunt, both of whom would be on the trip with us. My aunt was experiencing back problems and although she is a great sport, I knew that the car trip was going to be hard with the pain she was in. I wanted my daughter to be “on her best behavior”. But how do you ask that of a child for that long?
So I planned ahead, and so should you. I didn’t have a lot of time, so a lot of the great ideas that inspired me online were really impractical. I loved the Travel Trays, I Spy Bags and Snack Trays; they were awesome, and if you have time, try them, they look like fun. I didn’t have time. So I took shortcuts; wherever I could find them.
Z’s Organizer & Bag
First thing I loaded up were the basics. The items she would need to reach from her seat without help. The ones that she would likely need for everything.
She was behind the driver, so on her left was a pocket with 2 coloring books, a blank drawing pad and her clipboard. On her right was her organizer. It had 2 cups, one with markers and one with crayons. A plain pencil-case of pencils, erasers and a pencil sharpener. And of course wet wipes, napkins and tissues. Everything else got swapped out from bags near her feet.
In her main bag were all the things she like best:
Sticker Activity Books
I cannot get enough of these. They are great for almost any occasion, even when you have no crayons or pencils available. They keep her busy by the hour. I took 3 different ones, so that when she got bored, she could switch between them.
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Magnet Board & Lap Desk
Technically this was a cookie sheet from the dollar store.
I gave her a pretty notebook with blank pages and got her to draw pictures of how we spent our days. This gave her a picture journal of our trip. Now that she can write, I would get her to do both.
I put all of her smaller items in pencil cases to keep them tidy and together. I didn’t want stuff all over the floor of the van. It didn’t take her long to memorize what items went with which color.
- A pink pencil-case with scissors, yarn, a few Popsicle sticks, a glue stick and tape for crafting. This should give them what you need to do any cut and paste activities.
- A blue pencil-case with magnets for her lap desk/magnet board. I bought shapes like this, so she could “build” things.
- A green pencil-case with Wikki Stix. These things are awesome; I found them last year and fell in love with them. I bought her the big bag, and just took the pencil-case full on our trip. She can use them on her connect the dot books instead of crayons. She can build 3-D objects from them and even make pictures on the windows. And they don’t make a big mess.
- A yellow pencil-case with her music player, ear buds and batteries, as well as a charging cable for her tablet.
I know it is a little strange for a kid to have a purse, but for this trip it made sense. In it we kept her sunscreen, sunglasses, chap-stick, etc…
We picked out her smallest backpack for her to fill with whatever her heart desired. It was one of those toddler sized ones and was small enough to fit inside a duffel, if necessary. She put small toys, a few favorite action figures, cars and a mini stuffed animal or two.
Daily Activity Envelopes
I decided that if we were going to be in the car for 10 days, I would create an envelope for each day and fill it with activities; I would give this to my daughter each day, when she got restless. To give her something fresh and new. The best part: all I did was print them out at home each night and put them in the envelopes. Took about an hour. I finished them in the car on the first day of driving.
The biggest challenge was that Z was 5 and couldn’t read yet, although she could spell a few basic words. In hindsight, every time I read in the car at her age I ended up sick, so I decided that maybe it wasn’t a disadvantage.
The best activities were the ones that had her looking out the window, but sometimes the view was going to be miles of fields, so I decided I needed a good mix to shake things up.
To prevent boredom; I only gave her each type of game 2-3 times per trip. For example: I gave her a hangman sheet every 3 days because I knew she would get tired of it otherwise.
Free printable activities
- These letter coloring sheets were too easy for her, but you know kid, sometimes she just wanted to show off.
- Seek and Find Sheets
- Travel Bingo – I printed a bunch of cards and put 2 kinds in each envelope, so every day she could play a different version of this game. As a result, she didn’t get sick of it.
- Drawing Prompts were great because sometimes she’s in the “but what should I draw mom?” mood. I printed all four and then grabbed a few others for the site, so she would have a different one each day.
- Story Starters I and Story Starters II – I printed one each on a sheet of paper and got her to tell us a story and draw a picture. I would have given her a voice recorder to tape her story, but she was still yelling into them.
- Hangman was fine as long as we stuck to words she could spell like ‘tiger’ and ‘house’. As a result, each game went very quickly, so I gave her 4 sheets every 2-3 days. Then she played until they were gone and looked forward to next time.
- I also included a printed google map of that days trip for each day, but she wasn’t interested. I loved tracking the trip when I was a kid, so maybe it would be a bigger hit if she were older.
Cut & Paste Activity Book
My daughter loves to build, and these activity books provide some great projects that can be done from the seat of a car. I cut the pages out and gave them to her one or two a day.
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My Bag of Surprises
I wanted to reward my daughter when she cooperated, especially when the day was long and boring, so I packed a bag of surprises and gave her a couple of them every day. It was mostly small things, but there was some really cool stuff too. I also stocked some extra freezer bags, so that I could keep an activity together if she couldn’t finish it.
The special activities were a great reward during the drive, but some of the other things I gave her at the hotel in the evening as a thank you for handling the day so well. I didn’t want the messy stuff to make a mess of my dad’s van. I also carried a few packs of ‘good job’ stickers to put on her art work and activities if she liked.
- Googly eye stickers for drawing monsters and funny animals, etc…
- Dinky cars that flash when they run (Dollar store again)
- Sticky jewels
- Sticker mosaics
- Invisible ink coloring books
- Hair chalk
- Flash cards
- Wooden beads and plastic string
- Rubber bracelets
- Travel manicure kit (a pretty one)
- Mini activity books
- Early reader books (small soft cover ones that travel lightly)
- Fish stickers for her to create an aquarium
- A color by numbers coloring book. She’d never seen one.
- Tell Me A Story cards
- Nail polish for the wedding
- Plan N Go Activity Pack
- Glitter gel
- Googly eye magnets
- My daughter’s favorite activity? This make it yourself bracelet from the dollar store. This is the closest thing I could find online.
Yes, we had electronics. And we used them, a lot. She watched a movie every day, sometimes two, if I could recharge the battery fast enough. But even with 2 movies that still left 5 hours for her to entertain herself.
In the electronics bag we had a small binder of DVDs, a DVD player, the charging cable and kid friendly headphones. We bought her these pink ones, so that she could use them with a friend. They allow you to plug a set of buds into them.
I brought a few things we had in the house, just in case, but that’s it. For the most part, we bought our snacks on the road. We decided it was a holiday, so, although I made sure she didn’t buy too much junk, I let her choose based on her mood.
As I said, my daughter couldn’t read, so we didn’t bring many. But, if your child can, I highly recommend bringing some fun fact guides about the areas through which you will be traveling. No dry historical tomes! They make light and silly travel guides for kids and there is nothing kids like better than knowing stuff you don’t. Pick up a few online before your trip and odds are they will find something interesting in them. Another travel friendly book is a joke book. These kept me busy for ages when I was a kid, but beware, my parents quickly tired of the cheesy puns and bathroom humor.
Things went well. She was busy and happy most of the time. Yes, we stopped as often as we could. I let her watch movies as long as the batteries lasted. And I tried to keep her active when we stopped. But it was still amazing that she was busy for so many hours a day.
We talked to her too, and some of the games were for two people, so we played with her. But I get sick when I turn around for too long. Constantly turning back to interact with her wasn’t an option for me. So for most of everyday she did it on her own. She accessed most of her own things and helped herself. She kept herself entertained.
Sometimes, I even got a chance to read my book.
Want to know how I squeezed all of this into the van with 5 people, cottage supplies and a full wedding wardrobe? Check it out: 5000 Miles with a 5-year-old or Family Road Trip