As a mom, I believe that one of the requirements for getting a driver's license should be passing a road test with young children in the back seat. Being able to change lanes, parallel park, or do a road trip with a whiny toddler is a true measure of driving skill. To get your license, you'd have to know how to keep a toddler busy in a car for more than a minute or two. That, my friends, is the true meaning of "defensive driving."
In all fairness, I have to admit that it can't be easy being a young car passenger. You have no say over where you're going or when. You're strapped into your car seat so tightly that you can't even retrieve a dropped sippy cup or binky. It's usually too hot or cold. If you're still getting the hang of the whole conversation thing, you can't ask Mom when the ride will end; if you are able to ask, all you get in reply is "Soon" or "Not long" or "I just told you! We'll get there when we get there!"
For your child's sake as well as for the sake of your sanity, it helps to be prepared for those bored and restless moments, even if you're only driving as far as the supermarket. Have some of these kid-pleasing car entertainment strategies at the ready when you leave the house, and you and your child will be all smiles for the duration of the trip.
1. Offer a snack.
Few people get the hangries quicker than a toddler in a car seat. To ward off those hunger pangs, pack one or two easy-to-eat snacks that your child can eat independently. Cassie of the Wholefully blog recommended fruits that won't bruise easily or stain the upholstery (bananas and strawberries are iffy), or finger-food veggies like broccoli florets or baby carrots. Squeeze pouches of fruit and vegetable purées are also easy for little hands to manage. And don't forget dry cereal. Put it into a spillproof snack container and let your child munch independently (and quietly).
2. Play an audiobook.
Reading to children is important, bonding, and enriching... but not always possible when you're trying to focus on the road. Enter technology: Play an audiobook either on a CD or on Audible (like this collection of Disney stories), and your toddler can listen to their favorite tales without your having to remember whether the goat comes before or after the fox in Green Eggs and Ham.
3. Let them get creative.
Depending on your child's love of art, letting them create pictures might just keep them occupied all the way to the next rest stop. The trick is to find a way to do it without having to clean off messy hands or smeared cushions. My own kids loved using paint-with-water books (like these Sesame Street ones, available on Amazon), with pages that reveal hidden colors when brushed with water. Mess-free markers, like Crayola's Color Wonder set, are also a mom's best friend; the markers are designed not to mark anything but the specially designed paper.
The great thing about singing with toddlers is that a) they don't care that you can barely carry a tune and b) they love just about any song you care to belt out. Turn on a kids' station on Pandora and join in, or go a capella with toddler classics like "Five Green and Speckled Frogs," "Itsy Bitsy Spider," or (yes) "Baby Shark." Songs with lots of verses are best, especially if you can add extra ones. Once you've run through the cows, horses, and pigs on Old McDonald's Farm, you can tack on lions, llamas, and alligators if need be.
5. Make a sensory board.
For toddlers, "all the feels" is a literal term: They love to run their fingers over, under, and through anything tactile. Give your little one a variety of materials to touch and rub, and they're in sensory paradise. There are boards you can buy on Etsy (like this one), but you can save money by making your own. For car trips, try a lightweight foam-core board, then attach bits of whatever you have around the house that's finger-friendly: satin ribbon, burlap, bubble wrap, sandpaper, styrofoam peanuts, rubber, metal nuts. If you can, add a slide bolt: Your child will be fascinated figuring out how it works. Need something simpler? A squishy stress ball or water wiggler toy will satisfy your toddler's need to fidget.
6. Bring out "car toys."
As energetic and demanding as toddlers can be, they're also pretty easy to distract. Developmentally, they have shorter memories than us grownups, so you can offer an old toy or game they haven't seen for a while, and they'll welcome it as if it were fresh out of the store. That's the strategy Julie of Peanut Butter Fingers said she uses for her little one. Go through your child's playthings and pick out a few that they haven't touched in a while. Keep them in a bag in the trunk and bring them out for car rides.
7. Let them play with stickers.
Peeling off and placing stickers may not be your idea of a good time, but for a toddler, it's almost as much fun as a party. You can either buy a sticker book with scenes for attaching the figures, or just buy a few sticker sheets at your local dollar store and let your child slap them on a piece of paper.
8. Make a magnetic station.
Got an old cookie sheet? You've got the makings of a perfect car toy. The A Mom Explores blog recommended using a new or used baking tray as a portable board for magnetic letters, animals, or whatever you have available. To make the activity even more fun, show your child how to slide a magnet under the tray. What happens to the magnetic objects on top?
9. Car Games
Depending on your child's age and abilities, you can make a car trip less tedious by challenging them to look for certain objects or colors on the road ("Can you count three red cars? Five cows?"). Preschool-age children can handle a printed "car bingo" game that lets them check off specific items and try to complete a row before their siblings do.
10. Go for the electronics.
No, of course you don't want to be "that mom" who solves every situation by letting their kid stare at a screen. But let's be real: Sometimes you need to turn to tech when all else fails. Particularly on long road trips, letting your toddler play a game on your phone or watch a favorite show on the tablet may mean the difference between a peaceful ride and a total meltdown. If you keep the screen time to a reasonable minimum (say, 30 to 45 minutes as opposed to two hours), you can be sure of a little quiet without sending your child into video overload.