A Family Trip to Washington, D.C., Part 9: Busy Bags

In case you missed the first few posts in this series, we will be chronicling our family trip to Washington D.C. over the course of the next couple months.  The first post in the series is here.  You can find the rest under the travel menu on our main page.  Last week Todd talked about our hotel choices.  This week I explain how we kept our youngest daughter happy in the car.

Embarking on a road trip with a preschooler is an adventure.  By their very nature, small children dislike confinement, monotony, and boredom.  Really, who does not?  Our youngest daughter dislikes these discomforts more than most people.

We knew before leaving on our family vacation to Washington, D.C., that we needed to plan ahead for the time spent in the car if we were going to make it back home without any major incidents.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the prevention of motion sickness.  I also detailed several ways that everyone over the age of nine entertained themselves in the car.

Thankfully, our youngest daughter does not suffer from motion sickness.  She can play games, complete art projects, and look at books for the duration of any trip in the car without feeling ill.  I knew if we were to have a successful vacation, we needed to bring along some very intentional things for her to do.  The solution?  Busy bags.

Busy bags are not a new concept in the parenting world.  They are essentially any small craft, toy, or game that can be brought in the car.  Their name implies that you store them in a bag (often the resealable plastic variety), but any convenient, small storage device works just fine.

A quick Google search will turn up countless ideas that can be purchased or made from scratch.  Being the frugal person I am, I decided we would make, rather than buy, our bags. I gave myself a budget of $30.00.  Virtually everything I used came from the Dollar Tree, Hobby Lobby, or a stash of supplies we already have here at home.

Todd’s parents gave me a handy little tote bag shortly before our trip.  I decided that all of our busy bags (25 in all) would fit nicely within the confines of this tote.


Honest-to-goodness, this little bag held essentially all of our preschool-aged daughter’s toys and entertainment for a two-week period of time.

With the exception of small magnet and felt boards, I was successful.  I decided it was okay to break my own rule for three reasons.  First, these two flat surfaces worked well as lap desks.  Second, they were necessary for many of the small felt and magnet pieces used in some of the busy bags.  Third, they stored easily, out of the way, under a seat.


 I prepared everything before we left home.  I made a list of all the bags and tucked it in a pocket of the tote.  I explained how each of the bags worked to all the older family members so they could provide guidance and directions to our preschooler if and when she needed.  Then we placed it neatly on the floor beneath our daughter’s feet and took off down the highway.

Every half hour, when she turned in a travel ticket, our daughter was allowed to choose a new bag.  We encouraged her to vary her bag selections so that consumable bags (like stickers) would not be used up all in one day.  If you want to know how our travel ticket system works, you can read my post about that here.

Our process worked well.  I would use most of the bags again.  Some were not very entertaining, so we ditched them.  The possibilities are endless, and I cannot list them all here.

To get you started, though, I will include a few of my favorites:

1. Chenille Stick Creations


The name implies the activity.  Kids can entertain themselves for a very long time making flowers, animals, crowns, etc.  This mess has served us well for almost a year.

2. Felt Board Play Sets


We had a couple different store-bought sets already, but I made some new sets, too.  This is a build-your-own cupcake kit.

3. Puzzles


These are our homemade puzzles made by gluing a magazine picture to a set of popsicle sticks laid side by side.  Regular 24-piece puzzles would work, too.  I would take those out of the box and put them in a plastic bag to save space, though.

4. Matching Games


We have several of these.  A mother/baby matching game and road trip bingo are two examples.

5. Sticker Sets

I purchased a few sticker sets at the Dollar Tree and split them up into four different bags.  In addition to stickers, each bag also had some paper.

6. Easy Workbooks


Kumon has some excellent small-sized workbooks for young children.  The Dollar Tree has several as well.  Sometimes you can find them in the dollar aisle at Target, too.

7. Adapted Card Games

Many board and card games can be adapted for travel purposes.  Some are easy to toss in as-is, like Uno.  Others, like Headbanz or Green Alligators, can be played successfully with a partial deck and no extra pieces.  I brought all three of these games along on our trip to Washington, D.C.

What are your favorite tips to keep young children entertained in the car?  Send me an email or comment below!