Gabrielle Balkan’s The 50 States and 50 Cities of the U.S.A. (ages 7 to 10) offer info-packed illustrations of a destination’s landmarks, notable residents, historical nuggets—even famous food trucks—that kids can pore over as you drive along.
Balkan likes: Story Pirates. “Fantastic musicians and actors make short plays out of stories that real kids have written and sent in,” she says. “Sometimes they grow from letters as short as a single sentence, and each story is utterly bananas.” Ages 3+
The DuckTales reboot (ages 6+), available on the DisneyNOW app, feels every bit as great as the show we remember from the late ’80s because executive producer Matt Youngberg grew up an avid fan of the original series.
Youngberg likes: Moana. “My daughters usually watch it multiple times on longer drives,” he says. “Movies save our parental sanity on road trips.” Ages 6+
Tinkercast’s Wow in the World (ages 5+), helmed by Meredith Halpern-Ranzer, gets kids asking questions about the everyday things around them, such as how horses got their hooves.
Halpern-Ranzer likes: original music by Tim Kubart or The Laurie Berkner Band. “We throw it on,” she says, “because our family loves to sing at the top of our lungs on road trips.”
Kenny Curtis is host of The Animal Farm radio show on SiriusXM’s Kids Place Live, a channel beloved for its familyfriendly songs, skits, and games. He suggests keeping these tunes on hand for a long drive:
● “Keep Calm and Carry On” by Rabbit! Made by veteran indie rockers, Curtis says the “infectious upbeat tune evokes the pop music of the ’60s.”
● “Paletero Man” by Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band. ”The Latin Grammy winner serves up a sing-along ode to the ice-cream man.”
● “Let My Love Open the Door” by Andrew & Polly. The Pete Townshend classic is covered by two children’s podcasters. “They add playfulness to a tune that’s already lovable.”
● “Imaginary Friend” by Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. ”A summertime feast, with hip-hop, horns, and choice beats.”
● “Lemonade” by Justin Roberts. This perennial pop-rock favorite is “a happy toe-tapping song” perfect for listening to with the windows rolled down.
These toys have attached pieces or parts that can be stored within the main component. Etch-A-Sketch and Magna Doodle are sold in travel-size versions and kids can "draw" and erase pictures without creating a mess. Colorforms and magnetic play sets allow kids to use imagination by creating an endless amount of new scenes. When kids use their imagination, they engage in self-expression that builds confidence. Keep these toys in a backpack for trips to the doctor's office, the supermarket, or other places that may lack playthings.
Electronic toys are fine for road trips, but if you're on a plane be sure to choose quiet ones. LeapFrog offers a great selection of electronic toys that keep little ones interested and educated, such as personal toddler laptops ("Leaptops") and a guitar that teaches numbers, animals, and animal sounds in English and Spanish. V-Tech offers educational electronic toys like the Call 'n Learn Phone, which teaches colors, numbers, and shapes, and the Counting Time Measuring Tape, which teaches numbers, colors, and tools. Many electronic toys have multiple modes (such as music, learning, and creative) to offer a variety of play options that teach basic concepts for understanding the world.
Interactive books have flaps to lift, tabs to pull, laces to tie, wheels to turn, stickers that can be moved around, and other ways to enhance a child's motor skills. They stimulate the child's thinking and hold his attention a little longer than a standard book. Interactive books offer visual cues that help children identify words, which can reinforce word recognition. The Cheerios Play Books series get little ones to use actual Cheerios to fill in the empty spots throughout the books. The Tag Junior Reading System from LeapFrog offers books with a handheld device that "reads" to 2-to-4-year olds.
Coloring and drawing keep kids quietly occupied anywhere. Carry a bag with crayons or washable markers in your purse or diaper bag, along with a coloring book, a notebook, or a small sketchpad. You can draw basic objects for your kids to color in or give them free rein to draw what's around them or what comes to mind. According to Sean Brotherson, Extension Family Science Specialist in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at North Dakota State University, "art involves a variety of the brain's areas that help children learn emotion, cognition, and memory. Children should have many opportunities to draw, paint, craft, and create using different types of art." Kids will nurture their artistic side by learning how to identify and mix colors, how to stay in the lines (or not!), and how to express creativity.
If your child likes to engage in pretend play, it's smart to have lightweight toy cars and figures on hand. It doesn't take a lot of space to play with a few Hot Wheels or to play "zoo" with a set of miniature lions and elephants. Toddlers like these objects because they have the independence to create their own scripts; they decide what happens with the cars and animals, and that bit of control may help keep them at ease in an otherwise uncomfortable situation. "Although structured recreational activities and games do have value, the best activities are open-ended. Allow time for your child to choose and create her own play scenarios. She will benefit the most when she has the opportunity to explore the themes and ideas that are most important and relevant to her," says Joni Levine, M.Ed., author of The Everything Toddler Activities Book.
Ask your child to find things and then ask her to pick something for you to find. This game is super easy to modify in any environment. Play "I Spy" in the car and have your kids find things on the side of the road or on passing cars, such as colors, shapes, letters, numbers, and animals. If you're on an airplane, pick out items in books and magazines, or look at other passengers. You can offer clues about what you want them to find instead of telling them exactly what to locate. For example, say "I spy a shape with three sides" instead of "I spy a triangle." Get your little ones absorbed in complex thinking by teaching them how objects and letters are related to words.
A deck of cards can keep you and your toddler busy for quite a while. Play kid-friendly card games such as Go Fish, Old Maid, Slapjack, Memory, and Uno, or try to build a house of cards. Amaze your child with magic tricks. Allow your child to experiment and create his own game, and be flexible with the rules. Kids seem to have the most fun when they can make the rules up as they go. Not only do cards keep kids busy and amused, but they're also a good way to teach skills such as taking turns and, if they lose, how to be a good sport.