7 Screen-Free Travel Activities for a Three-Year-Old

7 screen-free activities for a preschooler

We recently went on a trip with our extended family that took us six hours north of our home.

I really, really hate traveling. I get every kind of sick (carsick, seasick, airsick, you name it), and I just hate being strapped down for hours at a time.

We were traveling with our almost-three-year-old, which I knew was likely to make the experience even less enjoyable; but I really wanted to make the drive as tolerable as possible for all of us.

We don’t own any electronic devices (apart from our outdated Androids), so I knew I’d have to be a little creative to keep her occupied for so many hours in her car seat. Naturally, I also wanted these activities to be as mess-free as possible. (But I was not about to prepare elaborate handmade activities for two days. I am just not that productive.)

I looked through Pinterest for a few ideas, and headed to the dollar store for a few supplies. I think I spent about $13 in total, and most of the items I bought can be reused indefinitely. In fact, I decided that all the items would remain in a “travel bag” that my daughter would only get to use when going for long trips, to keep them special and interesting.

To my amazement, these few activities kept her perfectly content throughout the trip — both ways. She didn’t even nap on the way there, so that was about 11 hours combined.

The advantages of screen-free activities?

  • No annoying noises for us to listen to while we drove. Just delicious silence for us to enjoy as she concentrated on her tasks.
  • No post-screen hangover. I know from personal experience how hard it can be to go from staring at a screen to doing . . . anything else. And I imagine that transition is even harder for little ones. You know how miserable and whiny most kids get after extended time staring at cartoons or hunched over an iPad, right?
  • We avoided feeding the monster of screen addiction. (It’s a real thing.)

Here’s what we did instead:

Water Magic Colouring Book

Water Magic Book

I found a book like this one at our local Dollarama for $3. (It was a Carebear one).

I normally don’t buy gimmicky things like this for my child — this activity doesn’t foster any creativity, skill, qualities or knowledge whatsoever. You just make the page wet and colors magically fill in the pictures. And I generally dislike registered characters. But I made an exception for the trip.

Totally worth it. She played with it for a full 45 minutes on the way up and an hour on the way back. She would “colour” in every page, one at a time; and by the time she was done the last one, the first had dried enough that she could start all over again.

We actually found she liked it better to use a damp cloth rather than the magic water pen that came with it.

The only downside was that she so saturated the pages that by the end, some of the white coating started to scratch off. So it might not get much use after this trip.

Foam Clay


I found some generic “Floam” at the dollar store. It wasn’t as big a hit as the Water Magic book, but it was novel enough to intrigue her and keep her occupied for about ten minutes each way. I wonder if the name-brand stuff would be better — this stuff stuck to her fingers and came apart a little too much.

On the upside, it was quite tidy; and when I showed her how to use a big clump to pick up the little balls that were sticking to her fingers, she enjoyed working at that.

Stickers on a Sketchpad

stickers on a sketchpad

I got a couple of sheets of stickers and a good-sized, coil-bound sketchpad for her to stick them onto as she pleased. She LOVED it. Again, this kept her occupied for 45 minutes each way.

Stickers are great for strengthening manual dexterity, and the activity was great for exercising concentration.

New (To Her) Books

new book

I believe novelty is key when it comes to keeping little ones entertained on a boring trip.

I had pulled out a book from the closet where I keep thrift-store finds that I want to save for later. I intentionally chose a completely unfamiliar book full of detailed illustrations to captivate her attention. She enjoyed examining the images for a good 15 minutes.

Looking out the Window

looking out window

Remember when we used to do this? Before handheld video games were common?

I imagine this was no big deal for Lydia since she’s used to doing nothing in a vehicle.  (Half the time we don’t even have music playing when we drive.)

When she got tired of the above activities, simply looking out the window occupied her for a good hour. It’s my belief that kids CAN and WILL sit and look around quietly if their world isn’t normally dominated by screens.

Drawing on Sketchpad with Special Crayons


Again, I don’t normally buy this kind of thing — I generally avoid plastic as much as possible for environmental reasons — but I wanted to get my daughter some kind of new and interesting colouring utensils, just for the trip. So I got her a pack of Crayola Twistables (they were only $2 at our dollar store). The point is just that they were something she hadn’t used before, so they seemed special. They also don’t have caps that will get lost and don’t need to be sharpened. She used the same sketchpad she’d used for the stickers.

She coloured with them for about half an hour each way, and also used them during shorter trips while we were out there. They will remain her special travel pencils.



Okay, this isn’t really an activity, per se. But they kept her occupied and happy.

I bought bottled juice from the grocery store (something she never gets at home) and packed homemade popcorn. Add a straw and you have a happy little traveller!

 What are some of your favourite screen-free activities for little ones?

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  1. Great post and ideas! Thanks!

  2. I’ll admit it, my kids get more screen time than I’d like (although much less than most kids) and car trips are the worst! We actually bought a special Fisher Price holder for one of our old iPhones and put some Signing Time and Veggie Tales videos on it and it only gets used on car trips. It’s called the ‘special toy’.

  3. I’ll have to look for the water magic coloring book. My girls would love one. We’re going on vacation next week, and it’s a 10 hour drive each way. We recently bought a minivan that came with a DVD player. We only use it when we’re going on long road trips, which means that it’s a HUGE deal when they actually get to watch something. But I try to limit it to one movie each way. Unless, of course, I’m pulling my hair out. Then all bets are off. But that coloring book would occupy them for hours. I went to the dollar store before our last big road trip and came out with all kinds of junky stuff I would normally never buy, but it was great for the long drives.

  4. Very timely for us as we’re headed on a drive on Friday–it’s at least 10 hours from Vancouver to Calgary. Because both sets of grandparents are a LOOONG travel day away from our home by car or plane, we actually bought a small DVD player for long trips like this. But you’ve inspired me to keep that at a minimum.
    Laura recently posted..Trust: The butterfliesMy Profile

  5. There’s always I Spy, but of course somebody else has to play that game with her. Still, it’s a good type of parental involvement, and it’s fun to teach one’s kids another way to look at things.
    Melissa H-K recently posted..You Don’t Like the Way I Look? Okay.My Profile

  6. She’s already learning some of her letters, right? Playing the alphabet game is another good road-tripping game to play!

    Or I’ve seen road-trip bingo. Maybe you could make your own. I’m sure they’ve got examples online.

  7. Victoria says:

    Just out of curiosity, what’s causes you to somewhat dislike registered characters?

    • For the most part, I just think they’re just ugly. They make clothes/toys/bedsheets ugly. And in the case of toys, I think they limit a child’s imagination. If a kid gets a Dora toy, she can only imagine that toy doing what Dora does. I prefer toys that are more open-ended; and I try to surround my daughter with beauty, not just money-making characters.

  8. Three weeks ago, I did 22 hours of travel (plane) with my three and I was nervous about how that would go but the they handled it well with some new tiny toys, a small art kit in a mint container, some strings for braiding and a knitting nancy for the oldest. Stickers especially are a hit with them. And snacks! We fly home tomorrow and I’m doing much of the same but adding in a little scavenger hunt that I think they will love!
    Marissa@BecomingKindred recently posted..Storm ArthurMy Profile

  9. Love your ideas! Also, we got a melissa & doug reusable sticker book for my daughter (about the same age as yours), and she played with this for two HOURS straight. I could not believe it. And she still wanted to play with it, but we were moving on to dinner and other things by that point. I like the reusable book because, well, it’s reusable, and because I think the scenes in it inspired creativity (it was full of house scenes).

    We are traveling by plane tomorrow. Plane is trickier, because there’s less room for toys and things (for example, the sticker book would be way too big to bring with us). So, yep, we are planning to use screen time with her. But it’s a treat for her and I also kind of feel like when we are on vacation, it’s okay to let some things slide. But I love your ideas! Had I gotten this post earlier, I might have planned some of the ideas for myself. I think I might add them to her church bag, though.

    If you could just tell me how to keep my 12 month old entertained, now that would be something :)

    • Oooh, the reusable sticker book sounds like a great idea. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for one! Air travel does sound trickier, and I’m sure I’d be much more lenient with screen time. (Although we still don’t own anything on which to watch things . . .)

  10. So far, T-Rex still sleeps for most of our car journeys. He’s always been a car-sleeper, though–he takes after me, I guess, since that is my own preferred road-trip activity (also I get carsick and so can’t focus on anything inside the vehicle–books OR screens!). But these are some good ideas!

    I’m always amazed at how people think kids “need” screens to keep them entertained during a car trip (or whenever, really, though planes would be much harder since you really CAN’T stop and there are lots of other people around to consider). We all survived our portable-screen-free childhoods just fine!

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