Car entertainment for 4-year-old
July 19, 2022 10:22 AM   Subscribe

Our 4-year-old has to take two trips every weekday to/from school - one hour each way. It's non-negotiable, so please don't comment on that. He is getting bored. We'd prefer to avoid screen time, what would you recommend?

He spends most of his time now with books (is an early reader), chatting, or podcasts. We'd be open to games he can handle himself, maybe a comic book subscription, good podcasts, but it has to be something that doesn't require the adult driving to fiddle with it. We want to avoid screens if possible. We're open to spending money.
posted by Toddles to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Old school travel bingo was made for exactly this.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:26 AM on July 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Etch-a-sketch or similar + audiobooks were hits with my kids around that age. They also started being able to do friendship bracelet type crafts but with parachute cord which led to the Klutz book of knots. We also had some of those Djeco kits - the colour and assemble ones were a hit as were the card ones (you could make your own, but our trips were emergency family support ones) and we had a lapdesk in the car.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:44 AM on July 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Audiobooks

Music (My kids liked Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell and Peter, Paul and Mommy.)

Simple games like finding every letter of the alphabet in order on signs or license plates, or finding something that begins with every letter of the alphabet.

Drawing, coloring, connect-the-dots, sticker book, simple math workbook

Books where you have to find things, like Where's Waldo or I Spy.

Give him a calculator to play with and let him use it to figure out math problems you give him. What's 24 + 31? If you have 7 apples and 6 oranges, how many pieces of fruit is that? Explain what "divided by" means and walk him through how to use a calculator to solve a division problem. (If you have 24 cookies and you want to divide them among 6 people, how many cookies does each person get? To find out, enter 24 divided by 6 on the calculator and you get 4. Each person gets 4 cookies.)
posted by Redstart at 10:48 AM on July 19, 2022 [7 favorites]

Guessing games like I Spy or 20 Questions. In my family, we played something like 20 Questions but with no limit on the type or number of questions. The traditional first question was "What letter does it begin with?" If someone asked something that seemed like it would give the answer away too easily (e.g. "What's the second letter? What's the third letter?"), you could just say that it would give it away too easily and refuse to answer.
posted by Redstart at 10:53 AM on July 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

The erasable LCD tablets were a hit at that age.
Invisible ink coloring - crayloa makes a bunch
search and find books
Melissa and Doug makes a bunch of stuff. Their sticker pads are wonderful - just make sure you peel off the nonsticker part of the sticker page to make it easier for him to get the stickers off himself.
Magnets on a cookie sheet.
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:54 AM on July 19, 2022 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The Story Pirates podcast was our go-to for road trips at that age.
posted by dr. boludo at 10:59 AM on July 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Simple games like finding every letter of the alphabet in order on signs or license plates, or finding something that begins with every letter of the alphabet.

Yes, the alphabet game! But the key to make it fun is for the parent(s) to compete - and people cannot re-use the same signage for each letter, and the word must start with that letter to count, the only exception is "X" - that can be inside a word. This entertained me for hours as a kid.
posted by coffeecat at 11:01 AM on July 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Non potentially lethal handwork. Finger knitting requires only yarn. And there are a few super lightweight hand looms like the potholder loom etc.
posted by Text TK at 11:01 AM on July 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

Does he like to sing? We spent a lot of time singing in the car when I was little. I’m sure my father didn’t appreciate it, but it kept boredom at bay. Because of the car singing, my siblings and I now have an impressive knowledge of lyrics (folk, oldies, classic rock) ready to go.

We listened to the Wee Sing and Disney tapes growing up, but there must be newer options available.
posted by umwhat at 11:04 AM on July 19, 2022 [6 favorites]

The thing about the Alphabet Game is that it gets pretty repetitive after a while, especially on the same route. You learn where certain letters are and use them each trip, or even worse, you just use the same generic things ("R for road!") every time.

Far superior is the License Plate Game, where you try to find license plates from as many states and provinces as you can. This will change every single trip, and even if you tend to see a lot of the same state(s), you can build complications into it. For example: trucks don't count, or only vanity plates count.

Barring that, I'd read, personally. I mean, I did read. My mom and dad lived about an hour away from each other after their divorce, and so every weekend I'd be in the car reading library books or magazines. Magazines are great, because the content is always new, and there are so many magazines in the world that it can accommodate almost any interest. Four is a little young for most of those interests, but start him out with Highlights or National Geographic for Kids, and in a couple of years he'll be ready for everything. I got my first subscription to Sports Illustrated when I was seven.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:17 AM on July 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is a common process or not but when I was little the adults driving me around all the time passed the time by explaining how we were getting to where we were going and then eventually asking me to tell them how to get home. This early training in way finding made a lot of things much easier for me that I saw my peers struggling with. If he's amenable it's a fun game for everyone.
posted by bleep at 11:28 AM on July 19, 2022 [9 favorites]

Singing. Raffi is great for this. There may be sing-along podcasts for kids; if not, there should be.
posted by theora55 at 11:59 AM on July 19, 2022

Depending on the scenery, the game we always used to play was:
1) Parents get a side of the road, child gets a side of the road
2) A thing is named to count. For instance hay bales, churches, cows, etc.
3) Tally up the thing on your side of the road. Your child could also draw lines for each thing they spot on their side if counting too high isn't their jam yet.
4) If you pass a thing that "undoes" the thing you're counting, the tally on the side it occurs goes back to zero.

Example: I am on the right side. We pass 17 bales of hay, so my score so far is 17. But then we pass a fire station on my side, so my tally goes to 0.

Hay and firehouses
School buses and arcades or movie theaters
Stop signs and gas stations
Cows & Mc Donalds
Hospitals and cemeteries
jackolanterns and churches
posted by haplesschild at 12:11 PM on July 19, 2022 [4 favorites]

1. Masking tape or washi tape, stickers, and a piece of paper.

2. Markers and a paper mask to color. link

3. For fantasy play, a felt board and some felt characters.

4. Pipe cleaners
posted by mai at 12:43 PM on July 19, 2022 [4 favorites]

Regarding stickers, it can be fun to get some basic shapes like squares in addition to characters and scenic elements.
posted by mai at 12:45 PM on July 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My kid is 3.5 and enjoys the following during car time:

Mini Etch a Sketch (available at Dollar Tree, the stylus is attached so you aren't fishing it off the floor while driving). She also has a larger magnetic drawing pad, I think by Battat.

Busy board

Latch board

Magazines (Highlights, sure, but she also likes random stuff like Better Homes and Gardens)

A lacing board could work as well.

The goal is to keep the hands busy, without bits and bobs that can roll everywhere.
posted by champers at 12:48 PM on July 19, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: pencil and puzzle games like mazes, connect the dots and word search (If you can find ones he's up to).

comic books could be great fun

by the time I was that age I liked to do simple mental math. The adult just keeps giving new operations ("now add 5", "now subtract 7", divide it in half, twice as many) and he answers with the a new total. The game always ended when the number reached 100. YMMV highly with this last one.

tell made-up stories where you take turns saying sentences (paragraphs if he gets going)
posted by meinvt at 1:00 PM on July 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Water wow! My daughter loves this for like 30min at a time
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:42 PM on July 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A musical instrument like a keyboard or tongue/tone drum? The idea being something they can play around with that isn't going to be too loud or drive you crazy at the same time.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:43 PM on July 19, 2022

I strictly limited my kids' screen time until middle school because I wanted them to be doing more interesting things with their minds and bodies. In cars and other boring situations, I put in a lot of effort to engage them so they wouldn't be miserable. But with two hours a day in the car already limiting what he does with his time, you might want to think about whether specific sorts of screen time would actually be better than the alternatives.
posted by metasarah at 2:47 PM on July 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Have you considered a screen free audio player as part of your kit, so your kid can be responsible for track selection etc?

We recently bought a Yoto Player for our kid, at 2 she is still a bit too young but is happy to listen to audio books and music we setup for her. At 4 I think your kid will be totally independent about selecting a card and moving through tracks etc. There is mini player, but I think the standard size would be good for both home and car use. There would be some content wrangling for you especially if you make your own cards, but not while you were driving.

I also looked at Tonie boxes but settled on the Yoto both for aesthetics (it feels suitable for a tween and a toddler)the cards are easier to store, there is a also a low resolution (16 x 16 bit) screen which displays a clock and basic feedback like track numbers / track icons. Content needs to be downloaded while connected to WIFI, but once loaded the player can be offline and cards will still trigger playing preloaded content. It has a magnetic charging plug but once charged there is about 10 hours of battery life.

Also, I reckon a Dictaphone / simple audio recorder could be fun if you're small human likes telling their own stories, jokes or travel observations.
posted by pipstar at 2:52 PM on July 19, 2022

given you’re open to spend money, how about hiring someone to play with him and give him one on one attention for these journeys?
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 2:58 PM on July 19, 2022

I was also going to recommend a Yoto player. My 4.5yo uses his for pretty much all rides between 15 mins and 2 hours. Just don't buy the Christmas music card unless you want to hear that non-stop.

We also got a lot of use out of a hard-backed coloring book on a recent road trip.
posted by carolr at 3:04 PM on July 19, 2022

Best answer: Water Wow books - Melissa and Doug makes them, maybe others too. Special paper that turns transparent and reveals colour when a water pen writes on them. They make “Magic Ink” books too but they need a specific marker which is toxic smelling. The water wow ones just use regular water and a paintbrush, q-tip, or finger tapped on wet paper towel would work (but the refillable water pen they come with is great).
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:45 PM on July 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

If you do break down and need to use a screen (been there), I recommend getting a big set of the Schoolastic Storybook videos - these are extremely slow, low-animation read alouds of great classic kid books like Curious George or Maurice Sendak. We bought a very small portable DVD player and a giant set of DVDs like this. I think you can also buy them in streaming format. They are great - very low-visual-action/higher-attention-span stuff - we used to joke that it was like watching an old fashioned film strip in elementary school. But our kids loved them because that's all they got to watch!
posted by Mid at 4:11 PM on July 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

Our daughter had (has!) one of these Ikea folios and used it a lot in the car when she was 4 — it has individual loops for pens/pencils so they don't go everywhere, it keeps everything tidy, and the tabletop makes drawing/colouring practical in the car.
posted by robcorr at 4:34 PM on July 19, 2022

I might try to learn a new language together for at least some of that time, even if just with educational songs.
posted by vunder at 4:38 PM on July 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

How does he listen to podcasts now without a screen device?

I'm with Metasarah that there could be limited types of screen time. I have no experience with parental control on any devices, but if they can be locked down to an e-reader or a digital comic book subscription, that might might work well as an alternative to other suggestions here. Also, it would be another way of adding to his podcast collection.
posted by lhauser at 5:48 PM on July 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Good luck. Everything mentioned above my kids got bored with so quickly. Or they got motion sick and threw up everywhere. They love reading and coloring up until that strikes! Or (like singing) drive the driver insane. Frozen again, and it's only got like 6 worthwhile tracks, or 15 minutes of music? Oh yay.

Screens are an amazing lifesaver. This is not to recommend them, but just to know what you are up against. Seriously, good luck.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:18 AM on July 20, 2022

- N-thing Water Wow books.
- Sticker books
- Laurie Berkner
- Pop beads
- finger puppets
- I think when my kid was 4 she liked the “Little Stories for Tiny People” podcast
- magnetic drawing board
- Clixo

Also, I’d strongly recommend not just having a big bin for the kid to rummage through at will. Maybe Monday morning is music, Tuesday afternoon is pop beads, etc. so time with each is limited.
posted by Kriesa at 11:41 AM on July 20, 2022 [1 favorite]

4 might be a little young for audiobooks, but worth a try… the best ones I can think of that might work are Charlotte’s Web or Beverly Cleary’s Mouse and the Motorcycle books or Ramona books.
posted by Kriesa at 4:21 PM on July 20, 2022 [1 favorite]

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