Keeping a Young Toddler Busy in the Car
November 3, 2015 10:23 AM   Subscribe

Two upcoming road trips for the holidays plus one young toddler who could make it all pretty miserable. Please share any tricks for keeping the little guy busy in the car.

Road trips are 5+ hours each way. Toddler is 14 months old now and will not yet be 16 months old by the end of the second trip.

Yes, we are considering the possibility of leaving late in the day (around bedtime) and hoping that he sleeps through most of the drive. However, I am looking for tricks for keeping an awake toddler busy.
Yes, we have had success with constant interaction and entertainment provided by a parent in the back seat, but that is exhausting. Tricks that keep an awake toddler independently busy (just for a few precious minutes at a time) would be perfect.

I am ok with electronic toys, though I guess I'd like them to have some educational value.
He is only recently interested in hearing storybooks, but he doesn't have much attention span unless there are songs involved, preferably with the parents singing the songs. (Pete the Cat is a big hit.) I'd love to get some kind of electronic read-along storybook but I am not sure what the right route is for those these days (CDs? Those seem kind of old-fashioned.)
We don't have a tablet or portable DVD player (I do have an old iPhone 5 that I'm willing to let him break), but he hasn't shown much interest in TV shows/movies so far. Is there an age when TV seemed to click for your kid? Is it possible it will click with him in the next couple months and so this might be something to invest in now?

We have puppets and toys and books and all kinds of non-electronic toys, but they hold limited interest when strapped into a rear-facing carseat for hours on end.

Please share your magic tricks!
posted by aabbbiee to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What about music? I would think that's the perfect age when kids want to hear the same Raffi song over and over again.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:52 AM on November 3, 2015

New/novel toys from the dollar store or thrift store, things you can attach to a "toy leash" so you aren't having to constantly retrieve when the game becomes dropping it, music (not necessarily kids music, but my kids always do better in the car when some upbeat/happy music is playing), snacks, all the snacks you can pack. With a child that age, I would also try and time it around nap time if you are driving in the day. Be prepared to make more stops than you probably want for diaper changes, and to just stretch out everyone's legs. TV/screens didn't really hold my kids attention until after 2, but ymmv. Good luck!
posted by rozee at 10:55 AM on November 3, 2015

Bandaid. Stickers. (large) Magnets with a cookie sheet. Lots of snacks.

Look on pinterest. There's all sorts of ideas.

The best thing, though, is to assume it will take an extra 1.5 hours, and to stop periodically. Unless the night thing works for you. (Our kids always slept in the car, no matter what time we left. When they wake up, they are inconsolable until we stop and walk around a little bit, then they are fine. We've learned to just be flexible.)
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:36 AM on November 3, 2015

We got ours a "kids tablet" pre-loaded with simple games and whatnot. It's usually good for an hour or so of quiet in the car. We use that in combination with driving overnight whenever possible, and many Caspar Babypants CDs.
posted by Scattercat at 11:43 AM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, at 5ish hours, if you can make two 20 minute stops at rest stops with playgrounds, you'll be in decent shape. Take a small ball with you so there's something to run around after, even if there isn't a playground. If the trip overlaps with naptime and the kid conks out for a bit, that's even better.

Otherwise, you're sort of asking for the impossible. That 1-2 year is a tough confluence of mobility, limited attention span, and total imperviousness to grownup reason.

I think parent in the back seat, handing over snacks and an assortment of new doodads, is the best you're going to do. You could try something like giving him a roll of painter's tape, and/or tearing off pieces for him. That might work for awhile.

Basically, this is probably going to be challenging, but as we say in our family, "Fun comes at a price." It is a finite number of hours, so do your best, stop as often as you need to, and figure the destination will be worth it. :)
posted by telepanda at 11:47 AM on November 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

Did that three years ago. Constant stream of food, three breaks plus kid-friendly songs on the radio did the trick for about four hours. She napped for maybe 1,5 hours of these.
The last hour was pure misery and crying.

Interestingly, by the time we hit the road again on our way back, she had understood what was to come and responded by putting herself to sleep for most of the way. No more crying!
posted by Omnomnom at 12:28 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

As for movies...kid2 has watched whole movies with her older sister since she was your kid's age.
Kid1 started way later. It really depends.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:30 PM on November 3, 2015

The happiest 5 hour roadtrips for us include a mid-way stop where we get food, play on a playground, potty, and then get back on the road. Really. It made kiddo and parents a MILLION times happier overall, even if the trip took longer.

All kiddos are different, of course, but mine will enjoy lift-the-flap books (new ones and favorites), a magna-doodle type board, and for the final leg of the trip home, we'll just have his favorite cartoon episodes downloaded on the Kindle for him to watch or watch his favorite YouTube videos on my phone.

Remember age appropriate snacks and drinks.
posted by jillithd at 1:18 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Forget educational value, you just want entertainment on road trips.

Here's what we do:
Seat back DVD players (~$90 on Amazon, totally worth it),
DVDs (mine still love Umizoomi and Pocoyo),
Stop at rest stops so they can run around for 10 min,
Plenty of snacks and drinks,
iPads are good too but car sickness was an issue with us.
posted by LoveHam at 2:24 PM on November 3, 2015

I wasn't the parent but I was in the back seat.

I sang. A lot. All the nursery rhymes, christmas carols, the national anthem. For some bizarre reason (since my voice sucks), singing keeps him quiet.

He also had toys and books but I got sick of reading them and the toys were being flung overboard.
posted by kitten magic at 2:30 PM on November 3, 2015

We did 3 trips of at least 3 hours one way with our son between 14-16 months. I'm afraid that one parent was indeed "on duty" as entertainer for almost all of the time, but we have a few tricks...

1. Snacks that take a long time to eat, doled out slowly. Chocolate chips, corn puffs, cheerios, raisins.
2. Kindle Fire with episodes of Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street. We actually didn't introduce this until we took a transatlantic flight when kid was 18 months old, but it resulted in a solid hour of totally motionless fascination. He had never seen TV before so there was novelty value, but he LOVED both shows. We have now also let him watch parts of Planet Earth - he loves to watch animals and bugs.
3. Old cookie tin filled with random odds and ends, like a retractable badge holder, old subway tokens, plastic animals, little cars, poofy clown nose, whatever. Highly entertaining. Make sure the collection is novel. This might buy you a whole 30 minutes.
4. We discovered books on tape (by which I mean books streaming from iTunes...) when kid was 18 months old as well, but it might work for 14-16 month olds if there are any story books your toddler likes. Ours will listen to "Where the Wild Things Are", "The Little Engine That Could", and similar, with rapt attention. I don't think it would work if he didn't already know the books.
5. Give a small task, such as putting a pen into a narrow-mouth water bottle, stuffing puffballs into a tissue box, putting a juice-box straw in and out of the hole, putting hairbands on a stick, or moving buttons from one bowl to another. Depends on your toddler's propensity to mouth things - ours had mostly stopped by that age but it varies a lot.
6. Flash cards. Our kid LOVED a second-hand set of Baby Einstein flashcards with pictures of nature items, and now loves flashcards with a word on one side and a picture on the other. Depending on fine motor development this might be a challenge while strapped in the car seat.
7. Stickers, if fine motor skills are there. I can't remember when ours started being able to use stickers, but I think it might have been more like 16-17 months.
posted by Cygnet at 3:59 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used to do a 24 hour trip split into two twelve hour days with three kids under 4, a dog, and two cats, several times a year. Sometimes alone. I feel you.

Lots of great suggestions above. I'll add filling a couple or three plastic bins of never before (or rarely seen) goodies and toys. Switch them out as kid bordem sets in and they act like it's Christmas.

And kid-friendly music. Oh god, so much singing.
posted by _Mona_ at 5:25 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of great ideas above, and I especially like Cygnet's suggestion of little "tasks" to do. I flew cross-country flights with my young toddler a few times. A few things that helped: take favorite toys away for a week or two before the trip. Then reintroduce them in intervals during the car ride. If you buy new toys, consider wrapping them to make it even more exciting - and the unwrapping buys you time. At 14 months, your little one may not know about "unwrapping" yet, so ymmv. I would give my daughter a small toy or book to unwrap each hour (often this was a toy she already had, but hadn't played with in some time).
I remember a magna doodle being a pretty big hit at around that age.
Our local library has kids books with corresponding CDs for kids to check out. They even have tablets with games! That would be a no-cost way to try new media. And yep, songs with hand motions can help delay a melt down. Patty cake, wheels on the bus, 10 little monkeys jumping on the bed, twinkle little star ... maybe your library would have a book with more suggestions. If you do take breaks, pack an extra special snack to help entice him to get back into his car seat when it's time to go. (I know some people don't like to use snacks as bribes, but those people have Jedi car seat skills that I don't have. I use cookies).
In addition to the games, small gifts and planning a break at a rest stop, my best suggestion is to "lean in" to it and try to stay calm and take it as it comes. I was often pleasantly surprised when my daughter was so excited about the novelty of travel that she was actually a fun companion. Certainly better than some grumpy adults I've traveled with! Plus, your little one might be so pleased to have hours of your undivided attention that he behaves pretty well. Oh, and consider giving him a bath when you arrive at your destination. I think this helps calm them if they're over-excited and provides a familiar experience in a new surrounding. Plus it gets them ready for bed or nap time!
posted by areaperson at 6:01 PM on November 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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