I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the car with my now 2 and 4 year olds. We have made a ton of road trip mistakes with toddlers. Some trips have been so painful, from trying to manage upset kids and my own overwhelmed feelings to struggling to find food and activities along the way.
Each of those trips, however, has helped us learn both what works for our family, and also what not to do. It is absolutely different for each family and kid and parent and trip and circumstance. Not all of these may apply to you. Some kids can last a heck of a long time in the car, and some don’t last more than 15 minutes (like my oldest before the age of 2).
That said, here are 5 of the top mistakes I’ve made on road trips with toddlers.
1. Not scheduling free play
When trip time is so limited thanks to work and school and finances its easy to over-schedule trips with all the fun activities and pack in driving from place to place.
But toddlers need free play time. It’s not just a want. They need to feel in control of their time and energy for a portion of the day. If that need is not met, they’ll let you know it with all those challenging behaviors parents of toddlers know and dread: sensitivity, whining, yelling, inability to follow even simple directions.
I learned this one the hard way. Don’t be like me!
Now, I make sure to schedule free play in a very toddler-friendly space every day of a trip, and especially on travel days when there are extra rules to be followed and time to be confined.
The more freedom they can have, the better! Some of the places we most frequent for free play include:
- Lakes and streams for water play
- Places with good rocks to climb
- Forests or other nature spaces where I can let them roam without an end goal in mind
2. Not researching enough ahead of time
It’s hard enough to be spread thin between parenting and managing a trip. But adding researching – an activity that involves little to no attention being paid to your kids – and it’s often just too much.
Our toddlers will fair lightyears better when they get some solid attention from us in the in between moments. When I leave the researching to the last minute, that just doesn’t happen.
So now, I create a list ahead of time of our rough schedule for trips. It includes 1 or sometimes 2 outlines for each day, meal times and locations, nap times and locations, drive times between planned activities, where we’ll be sleeping, free play times and location options, and all the other details we’ll need for our planned activities.
It’s saved us a ton of stress when I can say to my husband, “I was planning on either eating lunch in this parking lot or driving 20 minutes to the river which will be cooler but also more driving. How are we feeling?”
The alternative is sitting there trying to study Google maps and AllTrails and the internet for cool places to picnic and then analyzing whether the drive time is worth the effort when we are probably already a little hangry and possibly slightly fried for our morning activity while trying to manage our kids safely in a parking lot.
Phew, I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it.
3. Not bringing developmentally appropriate activities.
Activities for the car can make or break a trip. It is usually easier to prevent a meltdown than to try to recover from one. So I plan a steady stream of activities and toys to hand back to my kids during a drive to keep them engaged and busy.
The older kids get, the wider their range of activities becomes, so it is a whole lot harder with babies and young toddlers. It is also, again, greatly dependent on their personality and preferences. But, in general, there are developmentally appropriate activities suitable for the car seat for each age range that your child might enjoy.
Types of activities to consider:
- Fine motor skills
- For younger toddlers: opening and closing lids, zipping zippers, putting on socks or hair things onto their ankles, beginning beading with large beads and pipe cleaners, stickers (with help)
- For older toddlers: beading, hand sewing or embroidery, sticker activities or sticker books
- Arts and crafts
- Pipe cleaner or wiki stick creations
- Drawing on a notebook, doodle pad (like Boogie Boards), Water Wow, or Color Blast
- Including audiobooks
- Other small toys:
- Soft play books
- Sensory toys like squishy balls
- Bendy straw toys
- Mr. Potato Head
- Magnet tiles or blocks
- Polly Pocket
Also plan on having music your kids like, playing games like I Spy, chatting about what you see out the window, telling stories, and singing a whole ton of songs, especially those that get the kids involved with hand motions or animal sounds.
For more details check out the 19 Best Travel Toys for Toddlers.
4. Not having enough snacks.
A classic mistake. Even though we all know this is the kiss of death, it’s still somehow easy to do. So bring snacks. Bring meals. Bring salty and sweet. Bring fresh fruit and veggies and crackers and treats (if you can). Bring more than you think you’ll need in case it’s one of those days they randomly eat an insane amount (or in case of emergency).
And if it’s in your budget, make it extra fun by stopping for treats or take aways too.
5. Not being flexible.
I am generally a planner. I like to have a schedule so I – and everyone with me – knows what to expect. Having kids has helped me learn to have a rough schedule, with included back-up plans or alternatives, and then to play it by ear depending, mostly, on the kids’ mood.
It is just not fun to try to stick to a schedule if it isn’t working for the group vibe that day.
So may I just recommend that you do your research, and then practice flexibility and adaptability.
Be prepared to make unexpected stops and play for an hour in the field at a rest stop, to skip a planned activity or two, to have none of your carefully planned snacks or activities be appropriately appreciated.
Take a breath. You got this.
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