Last-minute Travel Games for Kids

Child in a car seat

If you don’t have a quiet book, and there isn’t time to sew a homemade bingo game or buy a nice travel toy before you head out onto the road, try a few of these quick-fix car games to keep your child engaged and happy through a long Labour Day drive.

Licence Plate Hunt

It’s a classic. Games involving license plates are an obvious favorite when you are driving with children. The way to play depends on your child’s age and ability. Before a long trip, I went to a school supply store and bought a large stack of black-outline maps. When the children saw a license plate, they had to be able to read the state name then figure out where it was on the map. The goal was to fill in the whole map.

NOTE: To make writing and drawing easier in the car, we grab a serving tray for each child to give them a hard surface. Trays store easily under the seat or next to a child, so they won’t add bulk.

Are We There Yet?

On the long trip when I had 50 blank maps, I came up with all sorts of map games and projects. We were driving from one side of the country to the other. Every day, I had the kids start out with the same map and draw in a line showing our progress. Your map could be as large or as small as you like, depending on your trip. You can even draw your own map that shows you going over a river and through the woods to Grandma’s house. When you get to the river, mark the path that far. Once you reach the woods, keep marking your progress.

Rainbow of Cars

For a younger child who can’t yet read province or state names, you can play a similar scavenger hunt game by starting with a blank color wheel and a pack of crayons. When your child sees a red car, fill in the red section of the wheel, and so on.

Color Switch Drawing

While you have the crayons out, try a game of Color Switch. Ask your child to draw a house (or a lion or a scene of fall leaves), but they can only use a crayon the same color as the car in front of you. For a faster-paced version, they must use the color of the car next to you. Those cars change frequently, so you could find that they are switching colors every few seconds.

Hi, Cow!

For an easy game that encourages everyone to look out the window, try Hi, Cow! Every time your child sees a cow, they could eat a peanut (or a wasabi pea, in my children’s case) or put a penny in a jar to save for a souvenir. It’s a flexible game, far less about what happens inside the car than about seeing what is outside of the car.

Name that Tune

I play 80s songs from my iPod, and we quiz our children on the titles and bands. Some things are important to know. Everyone in the family could also play this from the radio, but someone has to have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of popular songs. If you already sing a lot of songs together, you could sing the songs rather than using the radio or a music player.

Sing Off

My extended family plays a game at holiday parties where we divide into teams and each team sings a Christmas song then the next and the next until a team can’t think of any more Christmas songs and they drop out. To adapt this game for the car and for a young child, have them sing any song they remember. Everyone can join in and sing. Then ask the next person to sing a song and go around until no one can think of more songs—or until you arrive without your child really noticing the trip.

Rest Stop Olympics

Young children can get especially restless on a long drive. Did you children watch the Olympics last month? A game of Rest Stop Olympics can keep them focused on the next leg of the trip as well as giving them the physical activity they need. The event at one rest stop might be A Timed Tree Running. This was one of my kids’ favorite games at the park. They run to a tree, ane I time them. Simple. The stop after that could be a 20 Cartwheel Marathon or Roll Down the Hill Like a Sausage. If you tell them in advance what the event will be, they can train in the car. This is a fun way to add some physical activity when you have a day of sitting a lot.

Puppet Show

For a very small child, give them a puppet show, or have them give you a puppet show. Use seats as stages and make a show of any story

Endless Stories

My family loves telling stories. My husband started before the children even remember telling them adventure stories starring themselves. He always added heroic versions of recent activities. After they went digging for rocks, for example, their adventure heroes had to cross an ocean and fight pirates to get to a rock quarry, then they had to figure out how to get back home. They had read Odysseus, so every story became a heroic adventure. My children, now teens, still tell one another stories. They call them Option Stories, and they have several accounts (storylines) going at once: one in Avatar (The Last Airbender) world, one on a desert island, one as a Greek god, and so on. The teller frequently comes to a point when the listener has to make a choice: will you take the plane or fly, will you go right or left, will you where the cloak of invisibility or the wings. You could do a short, one-trip-long version of these stories, but part of the reason they are so important to my children is the fact that it is all the same decade-long story. It’s one continuing adventure. So, if you start a story, you may be committing to it long-term.

You don’t need to rush out and buy new toys or games for your car trip. Grab some paper and crayons, a few puppets, and you are ready to make your own games, even when you have to sit in the car for hours.

Image © Greenland |

Children’s Travel Activities for Car Trips

When my family of four travels, we make sure we are prepared with plenty of children’s activities. Variety is the key. A few general rules will give you a start in the right direction, then consider what entertainments your children most enjoy.

General rules for Children’s Travel Games

  • Make the toys age appropriate. No small parts for babies.
  • Produce one new toy per hour.
  • Keep a carrier or bag for all of the child’s things.
  • Create play space.
  • Watch for signs of motion sickness.

Small Parts

Make sure your games and activities include no small parts if you have young children. Choose age-appropriate toys, and choose nothing that has parts that will slide around and fall on the floor. Movable parts that are all connected are great for babies.

For older children, you can choose magnetic games with small parts or games where the parts stick into a play board that holds the pieces tightly.

One Toy Per Hour

Especially for babies who aren’t into imaginative play yet, I always followed the one-toy-per-hour rule. I usually made sure these were new toys or toys the children hadn’t seen in a while. If you rotate toys out of use, even an old toy can be a new toy again. Between naps, chatting, and familiar toys, one new toy per hour usually got us through any trip. The colorful HABA teething toys, which are also rattles with movable parts, can be a great diversion for a baby.

Cross-country trips require more planning and a bigger variety of diversions. Now that my kids are older, we don’t need to follow the one-toy-per-hour rule any longer. I make sure they have plenty of open-ended materials –- pens and pencils, notebooks, and clay.

Pack the Games Together

We pack a picnic basket for long car trips. It is a big, rectangular soft box with two sections –- snacks and drinks in one section and games in the other. We put this between our children in the back seat creating not only the means to entertain themselves but also a barrier between them. My kids now carry their own backpacks with their own activities, but we still pack the picnic basket for long trips.

Place Space

I make sure each child had a large lap tray. That creates enough of a space for drawing or games or just creating a driving course for toy cars.

We also have suction cups with hooks that we attached to the windows. The children then hang toys and pens from the hooks. These give them more control of their space.

Grandma also made a cloth hanger with pockets that fits over the seat in front of each child. They tuck their extras into the pockets.

Watch for Signs of Motion Sickness

Pay attention to whether your children show signs of motion sickness. For those who do, encourage them to look out the front window of the car. If they don’t, no problem. My son, for example, says he likes to read in the car, but my daughter says no way. Every child can be different.

What Toys Work for Car Travel?

I asked my children to list all of their favorite travel toys and games. We have taken several very long driving trips in the past few years to see family or to get to festivals and events. My kids are car trip pros now. The following suggestions are based on their ideas. You can keep it a bit simpler for a baby or toddler.

Dolls should travel with their own travel equipment. A baby doll with her own sling or a Playmobil figure with its own car.

Think Fun games are among our favorites for travel and all of the time. We like River Crossing and Rush Hour especially. Both come in Junior versions, and Rush Hour has several variations as well. My kids like the Think Fun maze game, Amaze, for the car because the pen used to play the game is attached to the play board, which is perfect for travel.

The classic game Fifteen has fifteen numbered squares in a 4-square frame, which leaves one empty spot to shift all of the numbers around. My husband remembers playing with this game when he was young. The goal can vary, but most aim to put the numbers in forward or reverse order within the frame. This requires a lot of concentration, and the pieces can’t pop out or fly all over the car. The game is small and thin, so it works well when you are packing light.

A toy car is perfect for car travel, since the child can imitate what is happening on the trip. My son makes massive landscapes out of sweatshirts, door handles, picnic basket, and sister. When he really gets into his own car trip, it turns into telling himself stories that can come back over and over throughout a trip.

Magnet sets stick together well – always a good choice for travel.

Look Out the Windows

We encourage our children to look out the windows. This is not only important in order to avoid motion sickness, but we want them to see where they are going. This works for a while.

We got a pad of blank maps from a school supply store. We use these to track our long trips, so they can see their progress. This is also helpful when we look for license plates. This is Granny’s favorite game. Where she comes from in Britain, there is only one license plate. She loves to see and TRACK the variety. We mark found license plates on the maps. They don’t even realize that they are learning geography at the same time.

We have a bingo game that includes images of things they can see out the windows of the car. When they see a stop sign or big rig, they close the clear, red tab with that image. Because this has images instead of words, we’ve been using it for a long time. Again, no parts to lose.

We play I Spy, which works better when the kids are older enough to have a sense of spelling. Before they can spell, they can do I Spy by colors: “I spy with my little eye something that is purple.”

Guessing how far to the horizon is one of our games as we drive across our wide open landscape. We choose a spot that we will recognize when we reach it, like a huge tree, a hill, or a mountain peak. We each guess how far away it is, then we see how close we were. When we get to that point, we start over.

Both of my kids like hand games: rock paper scissors, slapping one another’s hands, and a game they made up that involves knocking knuckles and popping a finger up when that hand is hit. I have never quite understood the rules, but I love that they create games that make perfect sense to them. As I asked them about it, they started playing it in front of me, and I still don’t get it.

My son says he likes just talking. Talking about what, I asked. “Conversations about stuff,” he said. Conversations about stuff can take on a life of their own with older children. The more conversations about stuff, the fewer toys needed per hour.

We sing Girl Scout songs, both mine and my daughter’s. Sometimes we find that our generations of songs overlap. “My Big and Tall Hat,” was a car hit for a long while.


Audio books are great for children and parents. Grandpa sent from England 50-60 of Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories; we’ve covered Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series right up to The Last Olympian; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories always go over well. Younger children often enjoy following along turning pages of books while they listen to audio books.

We play iPod DJ, teaching our children about the music we’ve loved.

They listen to sing-along nursery rhymes and other familiar songs.

And, sometimes, when they just can’t settle, they borrow my phone and play Tetris.

Of course, if you time things right, you can usually get a good nap in during travelling, so that the kids are well rested when they arrive.

Good luck with your travel. If you have great ideas for children’s travel activities for trains, planes, or automobiles, please let us know.