Break out the snacks, build a ‘peace wall’ … 10 guaranteed screen-free ways to entertain kids in the car

Separate squabbling siblings, listen to audiobooks or phone the teddies left at home are among readers’ cunning suggestions to fuel family happiness on long journeys

Play the pub game

When I was a child there were no screens, so we played “the pub game”. You look out for pubs on your side of the car, and receive one point per pub. However, if the pub name is something with legs, then you get extra points – one point per leg, eg the Man and Dog would be seven points (two for the man, four for the dog, plus one for the pub itself). I once got The Shepherd and Flock and was delighted! It’s also minus one point if the name has “arms” in it, eg, The King’s Arms. Kate Griffith, Shropshire

Girl (6yrs) wearing headphones in car
Deep in the land of story … Photograph: MoMo Productions/Getty Images (posed by model)

Listen to audiobooks

My children are grown now, but we always listened to audiobooks. There were occasions when they continued to sit in the car (even after a long car ride) to finish listening to a chapter. I believe that this activity enhanced their love of books, creativity, ability to tell a story and comprehension skills in an academic setting. Darlene Simmonds, director of community relations, Florida

Two sisters asleep on roadtripGettyImages-1015400126
Good fences make good neighbours? Photograph: Justin Paget/Getty Images (posed by models)

Install a ‘peace wall’

My two now grown-up daughters were constantly niggling each other and bickering in the back seat on long car journeys. My solution was to create a “peace wall” by fitting a large piece of triple-thickness corrugated cardboard between them. It fitted from the roof to the seat, and only showed an inconspicuous line in the driver’s rear view mirror. They were completely shut off from each other, but I made a small opening window so that they could pass items through. On a journey, they would decorate the “wall” with stickers and crayons; it was the perfect solution for a peaceful trip. They loved it and we probably used it for about three years. Jim Ford, retired, Watford

Hiccup in the film How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
Hiccup in the film How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World … the original books are very popular for long journeys. Photograph: DreamWorks/AP

Create a playlist

We use audiobooks for long journeys: How to Train Your Dragon (by Cressida Cowell) is very popular and the Horrible Histories are great, too. We also download radio plays and use child-friendly CDs to learn a little of the language of the country that we’re visiting. The best ones have songs we can then repeat. We use Spotify to create different playlists for our journey, featuring music from the country we’re visiting or favourite albums from our childhood. Film soundtracks are great and varied – Top Gun was a favourite. Or we ask a friend to create a playlist for us, as it’s a good way of listening to music you wouldn’t normally choose. We also try to sing some rounds (like Frère Jacques) and try for as long as possible to resist using screens... Anonymous, Wales

Ink highlighters of assorted colors
Rainbow happiness … Photograph: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Take colouring books

Having just driven back to Stourbridge from Cornwall – a four-hour trip on a good day – I was stunned by how entertained both our two kids (an eight-year-old boy and five-year-old girl) were by a new colouring book and felt-tip pens. I’d assumed we’d be getting howls for tech within five miles of our departure, but they were kept happy for at least an hour! Colin Maltby, project manager, Stourbridge

Play the counting game

No one is allowed to look at each other or communicate in any way. The first person says the number “one”, and anyone can follow with the next number, and so on. If two people say the same number at the same time, the game starts again at one. The idea is to see how high the family can count – it rarely gets to 10 if no one is cheating or decides to take turns. The silence while everyone is waiting and deciding whether to speak or not is amazing. Duncan Drury, IT consultant, Cumbria

Closeup view child hand holding and eating biscuits while traveling in car.
Nibbletastic … Photograph: yevtony/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Pack snacks

Our kids are aged seven, five and two, and we do a 600-mile round trip to see my in-laws around three times a year. When they were little, we’d try to drive at night while they slept. Now they’re older, we’ve found it best to leave as early in the morning as you can – somehow this puts everyone in a better mood. Build the trip up beforehand and talk about how excited you are about the actual journey – never tell the kids that you’re worried it will be boring. Most importantly, pack snacks – the most forbidden snacks! Rules about snacking are suspended for the duration of the trip (but do take charge of water bottles, otherwise they’ll need the loo after 30 minutes). Sophie, researcher, Guildford

Woman Looking at Sons in CarGettyImages-78775048
Putting it into words … Photograph: Fuse/Getty Images (posed by models)

Talk to each other

Have conversations! It will help to keep you alert while driving and it’s nice to use long, potentially boring journeys as a chance to talk about anything and everything, without any other distractions or demands on your time. Talk about whatever your children are interested in – even if it means getting a walkthrough about what they’re planning to build next in Minecraft, or what they like about their favourite YouTuber. Angelo Basu, lawyer, Leeds

houses of parliament London
It’s on top of the clock! Hide your thimble with care … Photograph: Andrew Thomas/Getty Images

Play I’ve Hidden a Thimble

Our preschoolers love games such as Which Is Bigger? and What Costs More? – a simple game to help small children understand the comparison between two items. They’ll find it easy to guess what costs more between a cookie and a house, but harder when it comes to a book and shoes, for example. Another favourite for older children is I’ve Hidden a Thimble. Players take turns to “hide” an imaginary thimble somewhere at any time throughout history, in any real or fictional universe. The rest of the players ask questions to find the secret hiding spot. Could it be on the top of Big Ben? Could it be under Granddad’s pillow? Could it be in Shrek’s pants? The possibilities are endless, so it’s a good time filler, and always a fascinating insight into how players’ minds work. Holly Smith, wedding celebrant, Hertfordshire

Car phoneGirl using vintage bakelite telephone in the back seat of a car.
Get those stuffed toys on the line! Photograph: Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images (posed by model)

Call teddy at home

At three years old, our son made us dance to Baby Shark on loop in the car for about five hours. As he has got older, he is sometimes content to listen to his favourite songs without requiring us to dance (old Hindi film songs from the 1940s-50s are his current favourites). We also talk about what we’re going to do when we get to our destination; comprehensive, hour-by-hour planning makes the time pass (“I’m going to wake up, pee, brush my teeth, go for a walk, eat breakfast, what’s on the breakfast menu?” You get the drift!). If it’s a group trip and there is a friend in the car, we have a competition to see who naps first and for longest. When he was younger, our son would pretend to have phone calls with the stuffed toys he left behind at home; as he has got older, he has real phone calls with his grandparents, where he can recount everything he has done or talked about in the car. Tanya Aggarwal, lawyer and part-time writer, India

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