Screen-free road trip tips with preschoolers

25 March 2021

With so many of us planning road trips these days, and spring break coming up, I thought it might be helpful to share some of our family’s tips and tricks!

John and I love a good asphalt adventure, and once our kids joined the party, we kept right on rolling. June clocked six significant road trips in her first six months of life, we’ve been known to make multiple 10+ hour road trips in a summer, and I kid you not, when we asked June what she was most looking forward to about our upcoming trip to Jekyll Island, she said, “the car ride and the pool.” In that order. So those are our credentials, ha!

One thing to note up front: our kids (currently 5 and 2) do not have or use personal devices (iPads, etc.). A few further things to note:

— If your kids use devices while traveling and you’re happy with the situation, great! You do you. This is not a moral failing and you do not need to explain yourself to me or anyone else, ha!

— If your kids use devices while traveling and you’d rather they didn’t or you’re considering going screen-free, I’ll be the first to encourage you that YOU CAN DO IT! Yes, there might be a rough transition period. Yes, it requires a little more prep and parental engagement. And yes, even once you’re well into it, it’s not always going to be pretty (best to keep your expectations in check!).

For us, though, the benefits outweigh the negatives — benefits like increasing our kids’ patience, attention spans, resilience, and capacity for wonder. We also think it helps them learn to accept uncomfortable situations with good humor and to make friends with boredom, and can strengthen our family bond. (You might find other ways to accomplish these things, if they’re important to you!)

— If you’re traveling solo with kids, all bets are off (almost!). A short (2-3 hour) trip? Sure. Experienced screen-free kids? Sure. Older, more self-sufficient kids? Yes. But the mechanics of parental involvement just become much more complicated when you’re trying to drive at the same time as facilitate.

— I can see a future scenario where we might play a movie on my laptop for both kids to watch for a portion of the trip. Again, you do you!

— This post is specifically about car trips. We have no problem with our kids watching something on a phone, laptop, or back-of-the-seat screen on an airplane because we travel by air MUCH less frequently (so it’s a fun treat) and in an airplane, our neighbors don’t have a choice about sitting near us, so we want to be extra courteous and quiet :)

In short: going screen-free while traveling by car might be harder at first, but it gets easier – and you’ll hopefully find the foundational skills you’re building will pay off in a BIG way down the road.

Now, on to some of the practical tips we’ve found helpful for keeping our preschoolers happy and busy while cruising the highways and byways!

1. Pack great snacks. I am not overly concerned with health or redeeming qualities in road trip snacks, though a variety is helpful to keep things exciting! Goldfish, gummy bears, graham crackers, peanut butter crackers, apple chips, popcorn, blueberries, granola bars, and applesauce pouches are all popular with our crew. In the past, we’ve packed larger bags and brought snack cups to parcel them out, but for this trip I think the kids are old enough to handle individual snack boxes. I ordered these boxes and am going to add their names to the tops with washi tape! I think this will be VERY exciting and keep them busy for awhile.

[Updated to add: here are the boxes in action! They turned out to be a little excessive, ha. The 17 compartments were like snacks for a week for our kids!! Might try repurposing them and getting these for next time, which can be reconfigured.]

P.S. Don’t forget favorite snacks for the parents, too!

2. Pack fun activities. Each of the kids has a L.L. Bean tote bag that I pack with special activities – a mix of their favorites and brand-new surprises. (We have the open top Boat & Totes in size medium – I would size up to larges if I had a do-over!) The bags fit perfectly on the floor in front of a car seat and are easy to access with the open tops. This is helpful since at their current ages I am usually the one meting out the activities, though I’m sure that will change as they get older.

For this trip, June’s bag will include a few favorite books (including an I Spy one like this), a few ponies, coloring and activity books (Octonauts!), a paint-by-sticker book, her Paw Patrol coloring pad, her pouch of markers, printables, and the Guess Who travel game. (A new addition for this trip! The passenger will play with her – Shep isn’t ready to partner yet.)

Shep’s will include favorite board books, a Water Wow, some cars (this set is INSANELY beloved), and this sticker book. Both will include stuffies, little animals, and their animal flashlights (v. v. popular). One of their bags always has wipes tucked inside.

There are tons of free printables online, but here are two I’ve made: a highway search and find and a cars-by-color search and find.

Since one of you asked, here’s what the second row of our packed car looked like on a recent trip! Snack tote underneath June’s feet (she can rest her feet on it), Shep’s tote within my reach (on the floor), and June’s tote in between the car seats. Cooler on the floor in front of Shep!

3. Be ready to actively engage. Like I mentioned above, going screen-free (especially at this age) means you can’t just disengage and expect to have a distraction-free trip to indulge in your own book, listen to podcasts, or catch up on your magazines (all personal favorite road-trip activities pre-kids!). You might have small pockets of time to dip into these activities, but much of the passenger’s time is spent facilitating. Some activities that have been popular with our crew:

— Reading books from the front
— Playing family DJ (taking turns picking songs in a rotation)
— Singing songs
— Playing I Spy or The Alphabet Game (where you choose a category (animals, foods) and name something in that category for every letter)
— Listening to audio books of the kids’ choosing (Narwhal and Jelly was a hit last time).

4. Prep your car. I like to take my car to the car wash a few days before the trip and vacuum it out. This makes me happy (ha!) and is a good excuse to make sure any junk is cleaned out so we have a clean slate at the start. Otherwise, make sure you have your reacher grabber (here’s why), several small trash bags, and have stocked the backseat with lap desks.

5. Stop along the way. Build in time to stop for meals and running around. We always try to find a park, a playground, a nice rest area, or just a patch of grass where we can picnic and stretch our legs.

6. Remember that you set the tone. In the weeks and days before a trip, we talk enthusiastically about how much we’re looking forward to the road trip itself, how we love road trips, and how it’s going to be a great adventure. We compliment the kids along the way whenever they’re behaving well, try our best to keep positive attitudes ourselves, and remember we’re on the same team. And we try to make it fun! For example, when we were all packed and buckled but before we pulled out of the garage, we all put our hands in a pile and shouted, “1, 2, 3, GO TEAM THOMAS!” Cheesy, but preschoolers love cheese :)

I know most of these tips are very specific to the preschool set, but I hope they’re helpful if you have littles in that age range! If you’re traveling with an infant, this post is for you. I have many more road trip ideas for older kids, but we’ll save those for a future post! :)

I would LOVE to hear: what road trip tips and tricks, kid-related or not, have you found helpful for smooth travels? Any upcoming road trips you’re looking forward to?

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March 25, 2021 8:23 am

Wow I loved this post!! I don’t yet have kids but was a nanny in college for a family that was all tech all the time which made me sad. Now, I work in tech and while tech is a tool to be utilized, I find myself pushing tech farther and farther from my personal life due to both research and persona desires to embrace a simpler, richer life (no alexas, smart watches, games on my phone, or the likes over here!!)
As I near parenthood, I know that this will be DEEPLY important to me. I would love to hear how you handle TV with kiddos, other parent’s/people’s tech comments, and your general manifesto around this counter cultural parenting method. Grateful to learn from you!! And your kids are so lucky to have parents intentionally making these choices for them!

March 25, 2021 9:24 am

As someone whose family summer vacations were almost exclusively “asphalt adventures” (I think we only flew three times in our 20-ish years of OG Baird family vacations, and that’s because we were going to the West Coast/abroad), I am adopting this phrase. ;)
Is June old enough to play the license plate game? That was THRILLING to me as a kid (and as a woman in her 30s …). We also listened to a ton of audiobooks growing up – the Ramona series is still so near and dear to my heart because of this!

March 25, 2021 9:59 am

Love this post! I find I’m most tempted to break our self-imposed screen time rules on car trips. ???? Our girls love podcasts, and they serve as a great “reset” in the car since they’re often less than 10 minutes. Our favorites are Thomas and Friends, Pinkalicious and Peteriffic, Blue’s Clues and You, Julie’s Library (bonus points for the soothing voice of Julia Andrews!), and Story Spectacular.

March 26, 2021 10:51 am
Reply to  Michelle

Thank you for the podcast recs! We LOVE Story Pirates but that’s the only one so far that both kids and myself have enjoyed consistently. Can’t wait to try these out!

March 26, 2021 4:07 pm

My kids are 6, 4 and 18 months. We do lots and lots of snacks. Lots of coloring and books too. My son (6) loves magazines like Ranger Rick, Highlights and Boys Life. We also are very much into audio books right now too. All of EB White’s books are great and my husband and enjoy them too! They’re really funny! We also are getting into the chronicles of Narnia books too. I request a lot at the library at a time so we have options. We also like Adventures in Odyssey, as well, which is a Christian radio drama series from Focus on the Family. We have some camping plans around Texas and a trip to Oklahoma, as well! Hopefully Florida in the distant future too!

March 26, 2021 4:10 pm
Reply to  Mary

We also love the Circle Round podcast! So many fun stories on there.

March 27, 2021 10:06 pm

I love this post! YES to fun snacks! That always works ;-) We also love audio books and music (even though sometimes it’s hard to agree on which one, ha!). We did get our kids each a FirePad before I flew solo with them to Germany. The kids know that those are only used for long flights or road trips and they really don’t ask about them at home. We also only use them for movies or their favorite shows – no games or anything. (Our son did figure out how to use the camera though and has taken some hilarious and very blurry photos along the way, haha.)
While their FirePads are definitely something they look forward to whenever we take a longer flight or road trip, they love playing games like “I Spy”, the “Alphabet Game” or an animal guessing game that they came up with. (One person gives two clues and the others have to guess which animal that person is thinking about by asking questions. It’s really fun!)
Since my daughter and I get car-sick pretty easily, reading (or even looking at books) in the car is not really an option unfortunately. Thank goodness for audio books!
As always, I love your ideas and perspective! Have so much fun on Jekyll!!

Victoria B
March 30, 2021 11:07 am

I love this post! Thanks for all of the info! I would I’ve to see how you pack all the stuff in the car. I know you said you out the kid’ totes in front of their car seat, but where do the snacks go and where do you store the lap desks?

Katie B
February 29, 2024 11:35 am

I’ve referenced this post so many times, and I wanted to pop on to say thank you!! I’m prepping for a spring break road trip with my now 5 and 2 year old, so these recommendations are perfect (and just in time as I gather goodies for Easter baskets). Just printed the two printables you shared, and I think the kids are going to love it. Grateful for you!