You’re planning a family road trip, and you envision tantrums and whining before the car pulls out of the driveway. After all, your toddler isn’t keen on spending several hours in the same spot. Relax. If you use your imagination and plan ahead, you'll see more smiles than frowns on your little one's face. Gather and organize the materials you’ll need for activities that will entertain your child on the long drive and educate him at the same time. He just might forget he’s still in that car seat.
Fine Motor Skills Grab Bag
Toddlers are just beginning to coordinate the muscles of their hands and fingers. Use this time to let your child hone his skills. Put together a small backpack of fine-motor activities for your little one to take in the car, recommends Linda Santanam, occupational therapist for KWS Bear Road Elementary School in North Syracuse, N.Y. Encourage visual perception at the same time with the use of crayons and a coloring book, lacing cards or a small, inset puzzle.
"I Spy" Telescope
Toddlers love repetition. Play an “I Spy” game that builds vocabulary while directing his attention to the area outside the car, says Santanam. You can start the game: “I spy a red stop sign” or “I spy a brown truck.” Then your child takes a turn. Kick the fun up a notch by using a open-ended, cardboard tube from a paper towel or toilet tissue roll. Your child can look through the “spyglass.” This game sharpens his skills in classification, recognition and observation.
Children love surprises, and new toys always intrigue them. Go to a dollar store and buy some small, inexpensive toys or books that are appropriate for your toddler’s age, suggests Judy Voigt, mother and former Nevada educator. Wrap them for added excitement. Pull out a new surprise every couple hours for your child to open. Tell her she gets a little treat for being extra good in the car. The gifts can be as simple as plastic animals or stickers and a sticker book. “Since it was something new and different, these types of surprises held my children’s attention for quite a while,” says Voigt.
Toddlers are right at home in the world of make-believe. Create sock or brown-bag puppets to take along for the ride. Pull Pete the puppet out to tell your child about exciting sights he’s going to see: “Tyler, if you look out that window, you’ll soon see a big lake with boats and kids swimming in the water.” Later, give your child a puppet. Patty the puppet can tell Pete about the first time she went swimming. If you have more than one child in the car, their imaginations will take over as they interact with the puppets.
Glue felt material to a large piece of cardboard and you’ll set the stage for story-telling. Before you go on the trip, cut out pictures of characters and props from a story, such as “The Three Pigs.” Glue them to a piece of felt so they’ll adhere to your board. Tell the story and, as the scenes change, take the characters and props on and off the board. Toddlers love to hear stories over and over again—next time, you tell the story and let him handle the characters. The third time you can simply be his audience as he tells the story to you.
Squeeze in some alphabet fun as you travel to your destination. Take along magnetic letters and your toddler can put them on a small baking pan, Voigt says. Ask your little one to show you various letters she knows. Make up silly, alliterative sentences that repeat the letter sound: “Brave Bobby brought his blue bicycle to the bakery.” She can also find the letters of her name. Help her spell simple words like “cat.” For an added touch, play the alphabet song on your CD player for background music. She can point to some of the letters that she sings.
Liven up the mood with a family sing-along. Sing songs with patterns, such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” advises Voigt. Give your child an oatmeal container to use as a drum. He can tap out a rhythm as you sing. Put nursery rhymes to the beat as well. Choose rhymes that have numbers in them, such as “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.” This could get a little noisy, so save it for a time when the driver isn’t stressed in a traffic jam.
Picture board books will entertain your child and develop her language skills, Santanam says. Choose books with colorful illustrations. A brand new book will spark your child’s interest. Toddlers are famous for wanting to hear the same stories over and over again, so take along the tried-and-true books also. When it’s time to wind down, play a quiet story or poetry readings on your CD player.