The Messy Play Lady and baby in front of Roxanne the Messy Play Van.

 

Family road trips are a great way to spend your vacation days. You can save some money on airfare and see a number of sites along the way. On the other hand, long stretches of time stuck in a small space can be difficult for anybody, especially growing children with lots of curiosity and uncontainable energy. So keeping your little ones engaged and entertained through those long hours driving from your starting point to your destination is crucial for everyone’s care and enjoyment. Here are a number of road trip hacks and car activities for kids that can help make road trips and car time more fun for everyone!

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 Road Trip Hacks for Kids & Parents to Keep Organized 

The Messy Play Lady holds the Messy Play Baby over her shoulder.

 

Parents who love to travel have been passing down road trip tips with kids for generations. Like famous family stories told around the campfire, these road trip hacks will help your family have more fun on vacation. My family just got back from a road trip, so all of these tips are personally tested! No matter if you’re driving in a sedan, a large Subaru, a camper, or an RV, these road trip tips for kids will keep you organized and your kids engaged so everyone has a great time. 

Load the vehicle for easy access

Load the vehicle so that important things are easy to access. We kept a tub of baby toys within reach, so we could always get a new toy to the baby when he needed something. Our daily toiletries were easier to access than the ones you only need sometimes or "just in case." We kept one travel cube of clothing within reach of the bed, while others were packed away to get out only once the first cube was empty. Snacks were up by the driver and passenger, while extras were stored in the van hallway as backups.

Pack clothes in travel cubes

Travel cubes are a great way to keep your outfits organized. We packed our clothes in our own color coordinated cubes. Then we had two for Baby H’s daytime clothes, as well as one for bed and nighttime supplies like Tylenol, diaper cream, nose sucker, etc. They were so handy! Pack outfits together (not clothing types) in one travel cube, so you can grab out everything you need without having to open your entire suitcase or multiple travel cubes.

Put everything else into a car organizer

Do you love to have an organized house? On a road trip, your car is basically your home on wheels, so a great road trip hack is to keep your vehicle nice and organized. A few car organizers that can attach to the back of seats, sit on the ground in the trunk, or be placed between seats is a great way to keep everything you need in one place.

Buy a car trash can

From gum, to snacks, to used tissues, trash collects throughout long car rides and can make its way on the floor of the car. Instead, buy a car trash can so everyone knows exactly where to place their waste.

Place cleaning wipes in every door

Having extra cleaning wipes on hand is already a great idea when kids are around. From diaper changing to cleaning sticky hands and faces, being able to quickly access wipes because you strategically placed them in the just-the-right-size door pockets will feel like a huge win. Water wipes are always great for faces!

Attach a kid’s travel tray to the seats

Kids’ travel trays are a great and easy way to keep kids engaged in a number of activities throughout the road trip. From drawing to playing pretend with toys and dolls, this attachable table top will provide the surface your little ones need to stay entertained in one place for long periods of time.

Hang a shoe organizer for toys

A shoe organizer is a cheap and simple way to keep extra outfits, diapers, wipes, and toys organized and just an arm’s reach away in your vehicle. 

Place silicone baking cups in the cup holders

This is one of my favorite new tricks to keep the car’s cup holders from getting sticky or crummy. Just place a silicon baking cup into each of the cupholders. Then when you reach your destination or return home, lift the cup holders out of the pocket and rinse them off. Your car’s interior will be preserved from the consequences of little hands eating messy snacks. 

Attach a car window shade with cubby holes

A car window shade can keep the sun out of your kids’ faces, as well as help them to nap to help observe sleep schedules. Some models include cubby holes for extra storage space!

Attach mirrors or a car camera so you can see them

Attaching mirrors or a car camera to seats will keep your neck from straining and your eyes on the road. However, you can also quickly glance at your kiddo to make sure everything’s alright, especially when they get fussy. I loved the car camera because it works at night, takes up less space on the seat, and you can keep an eye on your kiddo without them being able to see you back! .

Bring a laundry hamper

If you’re driving a larger vehicle or RV and you have extra room, bring your laundry hamper along. Ours fits perfectly in the van hallway under the bed, so all our dirty clothes go away separately from our clean clothes. It opens up space in our travel cubes so those are easier to use and makes doing laundry really easy since you just grab the hamper! Plus we kept detergent and our laundry line in there too! 

Car Activities for Kids

Road trip activities for kids like the list below will make everyone’s trip between where you’ve been and where you’re going much more enjoyable. 

Play music

Music is an easy and fun way to keep kids engaged in the car. Encourage them to sing and dance along to their favorite songs throughout the roadtrip.

Listen to an audio book

Play an audio book that the entire family will enjoy! If the place you’re going is well-represented in age-appropriate literature, play the book that is set in that place. Or choose a history, botany, or geography book so your family can learn all about where you’re going!

Play games

Car games can be a great way to entertain the entire family. Try a collaborative activity like the alphabet game: a person names something they see that starts with the letter A, then B, then C, etc. If your kids are older, the license plate game can also be fun: keep track of the states you see on the license plates of cars on the road. Another fun one is to tell a story just one word or sentence at a time!

Tell them about their surroundings

Encouraging your kiddos to look out the window by describing their surroundings is a great way to avoid car sickness, while helping them to appreciate the view. This can also be a great way to reinforce learning about sense of direction starting with the difference between right and left.

Messy Play’s Travel Kit

The Travel Messy Play Kit includes a number of engaging sensory activities that can all be completed in the car, on the train, or on the plane! Note that this kit is NOT messy, so just perfect for car rides. 

Quiet Book Queen Felt Books

Check out Quiet Book Queen. Quiet books are felt activity books sold completed, as well as templates to DIY. These can be great for all ages. The Ultimate Road Trip Journal for Kids is perfect for older kids.

Bring art materials

If you purchased an art tray or have a lap desk for your kiddo, then they can draw and color on a hard surface during the road trip! 

Allow for educational screen time

Let your little ones watch a movie while they move through the mountains! Focusing their eye on the screen may keep them from getting car sick. Additionally, educational games on tablets are a great last resort to get through the final stretch. It can afford ultimate peace and quiet in those last miles, while helping your little ones to learn on the road.

Road Trip Activities for Toddlers 

As you may know, kids are rear facing until at least two years old and then get turned to forward face sometime between ages 2-5. Be sure to monitor and modify activities for kids who may get car sick. Have them look out the window more often and not at small words or be reading in front of them. Specifically, they should look at big things outside that are far away and not things that move by quickly. Here are a number of activities for two, three, and four year olds.

Make a sensory bottle

Sensory bottles are a fun way for kids to experience sensory play without the mess. They can shake the bottle, talk about what’s inside, and even make up a story to fit the shapes moving around in the bottle. Check out my DIY Sensory Bottle Packs that include the plastic bottles and the fun mix-ins!

Bring sensory bags

Sensory bags can be a great regulation tool. Put some non-toxic paint into a resealable baggy and let your little mix and squish the paint inside the bag. It can feel soothing, as well as give your littles something to do with their hands to experience sensory play without making a mess.

Provide stickers

Give your kiddo stickers and paper to create designs and tell stories! 

Try post it notes and masking tape

If you’re sitting in the back with your kiddo, attach sticky notes and masking tape to places they can reach and have them pull them off. They can pull and organize them by color to practice chromatic ordering!

Play wiggle worm

Turn on some music and have your little one dance like a wiggle worm. They may be securely connected to their car seats, but they can still move their heads, hands, legs, and feet!

Make up a story

Talk about where you're going, and pretend play or make up a story about it. This can help especially with the transitions and planning. You can talk your toddler through what will happen when you arrive, who they will see, etc. Or talk them through the next stop, etc. "When we arrive at Grandma's house, it will be dark outside. Remember her dog? We'll probably hear him bark a few times to tell Grandma we've arrived! Do you think she'll come outside to see us? Will you give her a hug, or a high five? I know she's so excited to see us!"

Rotate toys

Offer your child one toy at a time and let them play with it until they're bored. Then offer them a new toy. Keep new toys out of reach and hidden from their view, then offer them a new toy only when needed. This helps the toys last longer and makes it more exciting when they do get a new toy!

Buy new road trip only toys
Buy a few new toys before your trip. I love shopping at thrift stores or I borrow and trade with friends when I can. This keeps some excitement saved for the trip because who doesn't love a new, exciting toy?!

Road Trip Tips for Babies

The Messy Play Baby touching a tree on a road trip.

 

Toddlers and preschoolers may have the capacity to play independently during long car rides, but babies are an entirely different story. While some babies love road trips and will sleep or play with a toy quietly, others will wail from being trapped in a tight car seat for long periods of time. It’s important that you get to know your baby's patterns and preferences in advance from smaller trips and plan ahead. For trips with multiple adults, it may be best to have one adult sit in the back with the baby. Here are some other tips for a successful road trip with a baby.

Pack a Pack n Play

Messy Play Baby asleep in bed on road trip.

No matter your family's sleeping arrangements, a pack n play is a great place for kids to play in a contained space. 

Try an inflatable bathtub

Messy Play Baby in bath tub on road trip.

I really loved the inflatable bathtub we had. We would put Baby H in there while we washed dishes or packed up (one person staying with him of course!). But if we didn't want him crawling through dirt, it was great to keep him busy and entertained and he had a ton of fun. 

Bring a washable, waterproof blanket

Messy Play Baby on blanket during road trip.

Use a blanket. We have a beach blanket we put down on the ground so we have a safe spot for our little one. He can crawl off of it easily, but if we set him there with some toys, he’ll often stay for a bit. It’s thick and sturdy and is designed to get dirty, so we don’t mind throwing it on the ground at a dirt campground or on sand at the beach. But this way we have a safe spot for him to have tummy time and practice crawling no matter where we are. 

Buy a collapsible high chair

Messy Play Baby in high chair on road trip.

Try a collapsible high chair as another safe spot when you want your baby contained. We let our little one explore his food here and offer a variety of toys too. But when we’re not ready for him to crawl in the dirt, or if the ground doesn’t look safe or clean, the high chair allows us to put him somewhere safe.

Try a full-body bib

Messy Play baby with bib.

A full-body bib can avoid lots of clothes changes between feedings. We prefer the thinner ones to the more firm silicone bibs because they’re smaller and so easy to wash and dry. 

Drive during nap time or overnight

Messy Play Baby sleeps in car seat on road trip.

A baby in a car seat is much more likely to sleep during planned nap or sleep hours. So try driving during nap times or overnight for a quieter and easier ride! 

Expect to take a lot of breaks

The Messy Play family takes a break.

Kids’ brains need more time to process new information and stimulation. So although road trips can be exciting, they can also be overwhelming. Plan to take a lot of breaks for adult bathroom trips, gas, electric charge, or snack stops, as well as pauses for the babies so they can get out, stretch, and explore their new surroundings.

Road Trip Sensory Activities for Babies

Messy Play Baby explores a flower on a road trip.

The idea of engaging in messy play or sensory play on the road can seem daunting. But remember that sensory play doesn’t have to be messy and it doesn’t have to be all the time. I let my little one crawl in the dirt a bunch one night and then didn’t feel up to it the next morning. I just didn’t want to have to change his clothes again and wash his hands and monitor him so closely while he tried to eat rocks. It’s always okay to have boundaries and limits depending on your mood, availability, and energy levels. If your kid is still mouthing, make sure they’re not hungry and offer them a teether or your hand to chew on instead of the ground. Watch carefully for choking hazards. Here are a few ideas for sensory play for babies during road trips.

Explore natural surfaces

Let them explore their new environments on their terms. Let them get down and feel a variety of natural surfaces like dirt, rocks, gravel, grass, wood chips, pavement, sand, and sidewalks.

If they seem interested in the tree, let them feel it. If they want to play with a plant or rock, give them the opportunity to touch them. Take them to listen to the sounds of the sea or the river flowing. Be careful of poisonous things and be sure baby doesn’t put anything in their mouth. Otherwise, let them experience their surroundings with all of their senses. A good trick is to let them explore textures from your arms like trees, plants, large rocks, etc. This gives you more control over what they touch or how much. 

Try water play 


Water is amazing! We brought an inflatable bathtub that is super handy for bathing our little on the road. He can splash around and we can use it to cool him down on a hot day or clean him up after a messy feeding session.

Food play is always fun

Remember that eating is sensory play too, especially for babies! Local foods are a great way to help your babies try new things on the road. Let them explore the foods that you’re eating. We brought both reusable mats and disposable mats for restaurant tables to protect them from getting too messy. So he can squish and smash and play with his food and we know we can clean it up easily! 

Pack a variety of toys

Bring a variety of toys: soft stuffed animals, silicone teethers, and hard plastic shakers are all great examples. This is a good way to have sensory play without it being messy! 

Messy Play’s Travel Kit 

The Travel Messy Play Kit includes the following activities for kids:

  • A felt story monster: make a felt envelope that's designed like a monster and contains word cards inside. Your little can pull 3 word cards and then make up a story!
  • A DIY colored rice eye spy shaker bottle for auditory and visual fun!
  • A felt memory game where your child creates a set of felt memory pieces to match shapes and colors all in the box!
  • An alphabet travel journal where each page is dedicated to a different letter. Your kiddo can draw things they see that start with that letter inside the car, on road signs, on the airplane, things they imagine, things in alphabetical order, etc.
  • Felt box play that includes felt shapes plus a dinosaur and a toy car to make up pretend play scenes inside the box! 

From my Messy Play Family to yours, I hope that you have a great and safe travel experience with lots of creative play!

The Messy Play Family at a National Park on a road trip.



Hi I'm Robin

I'm so glad you're here. I love teaching how to incorporate messy play, sensory fun, and education into playtime!

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