We have spent more than 16,000 miles on the road with our three young children over the past 18 months. It probably goes without saying that we’ve figured out a few ways to keep our kids happy during all that time sitting in a vehicle. We’re not going to recommend an elaborate box full of new activities to hand out every hundred miles or any other trick that requires you to spend hours or days planning ahead. We prefer to take the easy and stress-free route, and that includes screens, so read on for our realistic ideas to help everybody stay happy and quiet(ish) during your drive.
Our three kids are ages 10, 4, and 3, and they only get along about 25-30% of the time. We figure that’s on par with most other families if we’re all being honest here! Any combination of two of them is definitely better, and one-on-one they’re all awesome, but when you throw all three into the back seat it takes a bit of effort to reduce fighting, crying, and general unhappiness. It’s certainly not news to you that a noisy back seat makes for a less-than-pleasant drive in the front seat regardless of how far you’re going.
These tips work pretty well with our kids, but they’re certainly not perfect. Sometimes a kid is just going to cry and there’s not much you can do about it. For all the other times though, here’s our arsenal of accessories and activities that make our really long road trips possible.
Road Trip-Approved Electronics
One tried-and-true method of entertaining kids is to put fun things in their hands. The 21st century has definitely made this easier than when we were the ones riding in the back…
Kindle Fire Kids Edition Tablet
Speaking of the 21st century being great for road trip technology, let’s talk about an awesome kid-friendly tablet for only $99! This Kindle Fire Kids Edition Tablet, available in a few sizes and storage capacities, is our #1 go-to when the kids are getting restless. Not only is it pretty cheap for tablets of this size, it also comes with a bunch of extra goodies that make it really shine for our kids.
First up is the squishy, brightly-colored case that protects it from most drops. I don’t know about your kids, but ours get pretty irrational when it comes to what color their things are. Brooke is the self-proclaimed “pinkest girl”, and heaven forbid Ben have anything but yellow plates, cups, straws, toy cars, crayons, etc. Luckily pink and yellow (and blue) are color options for the Kindle Fire Kids Edition Tablet. You can also find any number of colors and patterns from other companies if one of those three colors isn’t right for your little one.
Also included with your tablet purchase is a year of FreeTime Unlimited. My biggest hang-up with giving children an iPad (aside from the cost of the inevitable repairs) is the challenge of locking everything down and making sure they only access things I can approve. With FreeTime Unlimited you just set an age range for your kid and hand them the tablet. They’ll have unlimited access to age-appropriate books, games, videos, and educational apps. The best part – they can’t get out of FreeTime without your password, even if the tablet is restarted.
And speaking of repair and replacement costs, that’s also another thing that is of zero concern with this great little piece of hardware. Amazon will replace one of these no questions asked for two years after your purchase. If anything goes wrong, just send it in and they’ll repair or replace it 100% free of cost. We’ve done this three times across two different tablets. Two times were from broken screens and once was because the tablet’s battery stopped charging. All three times we just hit up Amazon Customer Service via their web chat interface and we had a shipping label within about 5 minutes and a new tablet in the mail to us the next day.
If you poke around on Amazon you’ll see that the same Kindle Fire hardware can be found for a bit less, and you can always buy a case and a subscription to FreeTime separately. For my money though, that two year return policy is where it’s at. Our kids are pretty careless with their tablets, but we just don’t have to worry about it. One last heads up though – the only thing Amazon won’t fix is a lost tablet.
On the slightly more passive side of screen technology we find the tried-and-true DVD player. If your vehicle has a built-in screen (like our van) then you’re good to go. If not, there are definitely options out there. Back when we just had one child and no built-in screens we picked up a portable DVD player that could be used in the car or anywhere else. This was also in The Before Times when tablets didn’t exist.
For our most recent lap around the country, all five of us were packed into a Ford F350 without any built-in screens. We figured that the best option in this scenario was a set of headrest screens.
The key here is to make sure you can display two different things on the screens. I can guarantee that your kids won’t always want to watch the same movie at the same time. A lot of these headrest sets only have one DVD player with the second one just being a screen, so make sure to read the box carefully.
Bonus: Streaming Entertainment
Now I know you’re probably thinking I’m nuts for talking about streaming in your car, but hear me out. If you have an unlimited data plan, why not use it in your car? We were grandfathered into an actually unlimited AT&T plan about two years ago so our hotspot goes with us everywhere. Many vehicles with entertainment systems have an HDMI input, and if yours does too you can attach pretty much any streaming stick on the market. With a Fire TV Stick in our van the kids can fire up anything they want on Amazon Prime, Netflix, YouTube, etc. It’s pretty great!
Is that not nerdy enough for you? Let’s take it a step farther! Bring your hotspot along (or fire up your phone’s hotspot) and put an Echo Dot in your car. Run the Dot’s audio out to the input on your stereo and now you have the entire internet as your radio, not just the random local stations you’re driving past. You can also ask questions about weather, news, traffic, and it will even tell you jokes if you want. And it’s all voice controlled. Now we’re really in the 21st century!
The two of us and our oldest are gamers. We’re all gamers in this house. Playing around with games on a tablet is fun, but sometimes you just need a real controller in your hands and real games in your library. The best option for gaming during a road trip, hands-down, 100%, no-questions-asked, is the Nintendo Switch. It’s not the most powerful system out there, but it is a full-fledged console that you can take on the go.
Add in the hotspot from above and you can play anything you want anywhere you want. Terra is even able to play Fortnite with her friends while we’re cruising down the highway – how cool is that?! As an added bonus, it is incredibly easy to play with other people on their own Switches via some near-field communication wizardry. We’ve had a bunch of kids clustered around our campground picnic table playing Mario Kart together more than once. It always makes my nerd heart grow two sizes!
Lazy-Parent-Approved Road Trip Activities
Let’s move on to everything else that we use that doesn’t require electricity.
Like I said above, I’m keeping this list realistic. More often than not our kiddos get cranky when they start getting hungry on a long drive. Movies and music and games will keep them occupied as the miles fly by, but when their tummies start growling they get hangry real fast. Our kids like gummies, pretzels, goldfish, fig newtons, raisins, veggie straws, and applesauce packets. We also make sure to pack a small cooler for longer drives to keep milk and juice cold as well as some yogurt tubes and string cheese.
If we’re traveling with our RV, we make sure the fridge in our outdoor kitchen has sandwich fixings packed. Our particular floor plan requires us to open the living room slide to get into the kitchen, so if all we can find is a tight spot in a rest stop we can still make food for everyone on the go.
This mostly applies for our youngest, but we always make sure to have the most recent toy obsession in the car on longer drives. It might be a new Lightning McQueen car, the latest Chick-fil-A kid’s meal gadget, or a random old toy that was rediscovered at the bottom of the toy box. The girls frequently like to have one of their dolls along as well, and Brooke loves a little Minnie Mouse-themed Magna Doodle we got her forever ago. They may not be a long-term distraction, but toys are frequently in the rotation as we fight boredom.
Along the same line as playing with actual toys, what kid doesn’t love looking at all of the toys? The best part is that you can easily find everything from store flyers to actual catalogs pretty much free in tons of stores. This also doubles as good research for us. We get a good sense of what they want for birthdays and Christmas, and we also get to see what the latest noise- and mess-making abominations are so we can avoid them.
These come in all shapes and sizes, so find some that are tailored to your kids’ ages. We’ve been on a Disney kick lately (four months in Orlando will do that to you), so you’ll find Mickey and Minnie activity books in our van. I’m talking about the books that have a bunch of different things to do – word searches, mazes, matching, coloring, puzzles, etc. The ones with sticker pages are even better! We’ve had a lot of luck finding really cheap activity books at dollar stores. We learned early on that they’re just as good as the $10 ones and you care a lot less when your kids just want to rip all the pages out instead of actually doing the activities.
Maps & Tourism Brochures
Here’s another great freebie that can be found everywhere. Raid the tourism box thing at the next rest stop and your kids will have all sorts of free things to look at. Our kids, Brooke in particular, love looking at maps. Lots of tourism brochures have simple area maps that they love deciphering and larger area maps are great teaching tools for the oldest. We also make sure to give them old campground maps too – they all love identifying what spot we were in, how we got in and out, how far away the playground was, etc.
Last but certainly not least, good old-fashioned books are always available for the kids to read. We have a wide range of reading levels in our car, so the oldest brings her own array of chapter and tween books while the two littles have Kindergarten-level titles. While we can’t sit next to them and point letters and colors out while driving down the road, we can definitely still keep teaching and helping their love for learning grow from the front seat. We’re hoping as the kids get older that they’ll start to listen to audio books – they’re a fantastic way to both hear a story and learn a lot of new words.
What are your favorite ways to entertain the kids on road trips? Let us know in the comments down below!