How to entertain kids under 5 on a car trip

Entertaining kids in car

How do you entertain kids and keep them happy on a 16-hour car journey?

Definitely prayer! I never in my wildest dreams thought my kids would survive a car trip that long, without complaining. But when you are driving in front of a tropical cyclone, relying on God’s grace, He makes a way!

Before we travelled up from South Africa to Malawi in under 4 days of driving, the longest we could manage to travel during the day was about 4.5 hours. Any more than that and the toddler would start crying and refuse to be comforted. We had recently done a few trips at night, and those had gone better than expected, so that may have prepared them for what was going to come!

But as I was mulling over the journey and how well it had gone, a realization dawned. So if you are looking for tips to helping your children survive long journeys in confined spaces, this is what I have gleaned over the last four years. I will share with you my experiences, and what I have felt is the key to success!

When my older daughter was 2 and a half, we went on a trip to Europe. It was a travelling holiday – we would spend a large portion of our time on various modes of transport. We used trains, buses, taxis, boats, funiculars, cogwheel trains, and, of course, aeroplanes. Aware of the many hours we would be in transit to places, I planned activities for my daughter, to keep her busy. I scoured the internet for ideas on how to entertain 2-year olds and toddlers and pre-schoolers on journeys, and I didn’t find all that much. So I made a plan and did some DIY. I put together a colouring book with pages relevant to where we would be visiting. I bought stickers and a sticker book and sticky notes. I sewed pencil caddies. I packed scissors and glue. I was still packing and cutting and sticking the night before we left for our holiday.

The day arrived for us to set off on our adventure. My daughter had a backpack stuffed with fun and educational activities. A couple of reading books. A soft toy. He backpack was so stuffed, in fact, that often she couldn’t carry it, and we ending up carrying it or her. And an interesting thing happened with most of the stuff, though. It came home, unused.

My daughter loved every minute of the holiday. We had a wonderful time. And it turned out that we didn’t need to pack all the paraphernalia. She entertained herself, without the need for specialized accessories. She looked out of the window. She hid under the chairs. She took photos with our camera. She counted things. She sang songs. She made up stories. She made styles in her hair. She thought about what she would do when she grew up. She was fantastic. And all she needed was maybe a notebook and a pen.

When my daughter was just over 3, we went on a road trip holiday to Cape Town. Again, I packed crafts for her to do so she wouldn’t be bored in the car. I also packed a large quantity of healthy snacks for each day, apportioned in a snack box for her to eat when she felt like it. The snacks were a total hit. The crafts, not so much!

Now that she is four, my daughter packs her own entertainment when we go on long car trips. This time was no exception. Two books to read. A notebook and pen. An assortment of hair ties and a pair of sunglasses. And she happily entertained herself for 16 hours! Sure, we sometimes play I Spy (with colours instead of letters), or ‘Would you rather?’, and we sometimes sing songs, and there is usually a snack for her to share out, but that is all we need.

And the key I finally figured out? Besides grace to have been blessed with kids that just travel well (I am still in awe of that)? Less is more. My kids aren’t entertained every moment of every day at home – they have to use their imaginations and think for themselves. Usually the only ‘screen time’ they get in a glance at some photos on a phone a couple of times a week. They know how to entertain themselves, and that is a huge blessing.

So here is my list for preparing for travelling with kids under 5:

  1. Prepare healthy snacks you don’t mind your kids eating
  • I pack in dates/date balls, cheese biscuits, popcorn, biltong, veg sticks and hummus, whole fruits
  1. Prepare to be available to sing, chat, or play word games while you travel
  2. Prepare minimalist activities. A book or two. Paper and a pen for drawing.
  3. Prepare your kids for entertaining themselves by giving them the gift of having to use their imaginations

What are your best tips for travelling with toddlers and pre-schoolers?

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