Low-Cost Travel Toys for Young Toddlers: Keep That Little One Busy!

empty containers filled with assortment of small collections of toys as road trip entertainment for a toddler

If you’re contemplating a road trip with a young toddler, you’re going to need some engaging travel toys! Sticking this age group of kiddo (about 18 months up to 2.5 years or so) into a confined space for an undetermined length of time can come with certain...consequences.

But the prospect of a road trip with a toddler doesn’t have to be anxiety inducing.

After traveling thousands of miles with our daughter when she was this age (often involving back-to-back entire days of driving), we’ve lived to tell you that it can be done, and, with some forethought and preparation, can actually be enjoyable!

For this post we’ve rounded up some of our go-to methods on how to keep the interest of young toddlers for longer periods of time without having to break the bank. With a little scavenging around your house (or the house of a crafty friend), a trip to a thrift store or dollar store, and about $20 bucks, you’ll be set!

A printable version of this information is available at the bottom of the post to help in gathering needed supplies for any of these travel toys you decide to give a try.

*(This post contains affiliate links. This means we may receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. See our full disclosure.)

Free or Inexpensive Travel Toys for Toddlers:

Young toddlers can be beautifully captivated by the simplest things, especially if they’re new and engaging! Before purchasing that pricey new toy to take on your road trip, look at the options you already have:

  • Do a temporary toy swap with a friend who has similar aged kids. Take a photo of the things you borrow so you know what to return after the road trip.

  • Check out baby magazines (non-rippable pages) from the public library if you will be home before they are due or can renew them online.

  • Rummage through your kitchen, craft closet, recycling, etc to find some great DIY toys that toddlers often find even more interesting than their shiny store-bought ones! Specifics are provided below!

  • Dollar stores, Target’s dollar bins, thrift stores, and craft/seasonal/party supply isles of stores are great places to find needed supplies for the travel toys suggested below if you are unable to find them around your house or a friend’s house.

  • If you don’t want to run around to multiple stores looking for deals, this craft kit has a great mix of supplies and toys*.

Jot down a list of all the travel toys you decide to bring; having a list will make it easier to provide appropriate entertainment for the different toddler moods and will also help you remember what you packed!

Keep the toys where you can easily reach them, but out of sight from any younger passenger. This could be as simple as tossing a small blanket over the collection.

If he or she can’t see the next best thing just out of reach, the amount of play time with each individual activity will be extended.

toddler opening pom poms in car seat during long drive

In our experience, it’s also important to avoid letting your kiddo play with the car seat entertainment stash for a good week or more before getting in the car (even better if they’ve never played with many of the options before!), or during the vacation.

Saving these things for the vehicle will help to keep the toys exciting and engaging when you need them most - on the road.

**Tip: Gift wrap some of the travel toys you’re packing up. Unwrapping a “present” can become another time passing activity for younger toddlers! Label the wrapping paper so you know what toy is hidden beneath, helping you provide something different than what your little one just finished playing with.

Safety and DIY Toys

A majority of the car activities that were a huge hit with our young toddler were small things that are potential choking hazards.

So when choosing what you think will work for your family, always keep safety in the forefront of your mind, know your child, and be prepared to supervise play if choosing to hand over small objects.

Okay! Now on to keeping those little toddlers entertained!

1. Containers and Sets as Travel Toys for Toddlers:

By far, the best travel toys we’ve come up with for younger toddlers have been random assortments of empty containers paired with random sets of objects.

Literally hours of entertainment over time in just playing with empty containers, exploring sets of objects, putting objects in a container, transferring objects between containers, sorting objects within containers, shaking them once closed up, etc.


Examples of Containers:

Anything that can hold objects! If it has a moving component like a lid or zipper, wonderful. If they can nest to save space, bonus!

empty container laid out for toddler to fill with objects
  • Small Pail

  • Muffin Tin

  • Bead Box With Lid

  • Nesting Cups

  • Mini Solo Cups

  • Ice Cube Tray

  • Wipes Container

  • Travel Toiletry Containers

  • Small Purse or Bag

  • Egg Carton

Look through your recycling, kitchen, and craft storage. Get creative and use things you already have, even if it means temporarily dumping the current contents at home for the duration of your trip.

Examples of Sets of Objects:

Any random group of things that are fun to look through or easy to sort by any attribute (color, size, shape, texture).

Be mindful of the potential choke hazard, know your child’s habits, and monitor his or her play.

piles of colorful objects for toddler to play with
  • Plastic Bugs

  • Small Bag Clips

  • Colored Paper Clips

  • Empty Spools

  • Lego Pieces

  • Popsicle Sticks

  • Crayons

  • Mini Erasers

  • Dice

  • Hair Ties

  • Smooth Stones

  • Nuts and Bolts

  • Pom Poms

  • Game Board Pieces

  • Markers They Can’t Open

  • Googly Eyeballs

  • Large Buttons

  • Short Twigs

  • Shells

  • Washers

  • Large Beads

empty containers and colorful objects packed up for road trip

These example lists are exhaustive; get creative with what you have easy access to!

Once nested, these travel toys can become quite compact. Plus, you won’t likely pack up ALL of the things from the list, requiring even less space.

Tips for Using Empty Containers and Sets of Objects:

  • You’ll likely get more mileage out of these as travel toys if you don’t guide the play, but instead let your toddler explore freely.

  • Initially give your toddler each new set of objects on a tray so he can play with just the collection.

  • When the new begins to wear off, give an interesting container that will pair well with the objects, renewing their attention.

  • The next time you get out that same set of objects, consider adding some structure to the play by helping your kiddo find a way to sort them.

2. Recyclables Turned Travel Toys for Toddlers

Between collecting some free supplies over the course of a few weeks prior to your trip (mostly out of your recycling) and making a $3 stop in a craft isle, you’ll have a couple more hours of road trip entertainment for your toddler. Check out these three games:

Box and Popsicle Stick Game:

A friend’s young toddler played with this for a couple hours straight in the car when he used it the first time! Little ones can be fascinated with activities that seem so dull to adults!

  • Supplies: small box (be sure the sticks can’t fall all the way down into it); colored popsicle sticks; corresponding colored paper; scissors or knife; boxing tape

  • Directions: See image for reference. Make slits in the box and widen them with the knife (if the slots are too narrow/tight your toddler won’t be able to use it).

    Cover each section with a different colored paper and puncture aligning holes through the paper.

    Wrap the box and paper in boxing tape.

    Puncture aligning holes through the boxing tape.

    Insert the popsicle sticks to widen each hole as necessary.

  • Tips: **For young toddlers, don’t initially worry about them matching the colors. Let them free play for as long as they will (pass that time!).

    You can work on the actual objective another time you get the game out or when the interest level starts to wane.

    **Before covering the box in tape, add a white piece of paper to the back side of the box so that it is easy to create a different activity on the back later on.

    **Consider leveling this up in the future by adding letters or numbers above each box slit and writing the corresponding letter or number on a popsicle stick to match. (Image above shows this already done; when our daughter was younger there were no numbers on it.)

diy toddler travel toy car seat entertainment learning letters

Yogurt Container Game:

This is a completely free and easy way to have multiple engaging travel toys for toddlers that take up very little space.

  • Supplies: 1 yogurt/cottage cheese container; multiple lids (if they are clear, that’s a bonus); sets of smaller objects (pom poms, baby food pouch tops, old playing cards, pipe cleaners cut short); scissors or knife; ziplocks

  • Directions: See image for reference.

    Cut slots in the lids that will allow each type of object to go through the lid and into the container.

    Pair up each lid with its corresponding objects in a ziplock, then store them all inside the yogurt container.

  • Tips: **These can easily be size or color matching games. A size matching example would be small, medium, and large pom poms paired with a lid having three different sized holes.

Container and Lid Match Game:

Again, completely free. It may take you a little while of saving random small containers though! This one was another hit with our daughter and really focuses in on fine motor skills.

  • Supplies: Small containers; 1 medium sized container to hold all of the smaller

  • Directions: See image for example. Clean the containers and its ready to go!

  • Tips:**Beware that this game is explicitly teaching your young child to open and close twist on lids. They will transfer that skill, which is both handy, and...not so handy.

    **Since many plastics hold smell, spice containers add another fun component to this exploration.

3. Magnetic Travel Toys for Toddlers:

magnetic cookie sheet with magnetic toys for toddler during travel

Magnetic toys are great for travel! Pack up a cookie sheet - double check that it is magnetic, as some are not.

Gather magnetic sets, like animals or letters and numbers, and/or you can add magnetic craft dots to any lightweight object (like the foam barn sticker set or popsicle sticks pictured below).

The cookie sheet can also serve as a flat surface for activities like coloring, and the lip on it will help keep small things such as crayons, snacks, or sets of objects contained.

4. After Dark Travel Toys for Toddlers:

glow in the dark or light up small toys for toddler to use during dark road trip travel

Bringing a few toys that dimly glow or light up could be a novelty in a dark vehicle.

Light up balls, glow in the dark toys, a small flashlight (adult hands only of course), or looking at photos together on your phone are all easy to provide and don’t require expensive gadgets.

5. Miscellaneous Travel Toys for Toddlers:

Bring along a few of their oldies but goodies, and borrow a couple smaller new-to-you toys. Here’s a couple other free or inexpensive ideas that take up little space but have the potential to help pass a bit of road trip time:

travel toys for toddler water wow pad I spy book notebook with stickers and old photos
  • Water Wow Pads allow your toddler to “paint” with water

  • Toddler ’I Spy’ books- look for “First Look & Find” in the top corner (check your public library)

  • Stickers and an empty notebook- maybe add markers too

  • Printed photos of your little one and family members for him or her to handle (probably a brand new experience!) and talk about while traveling.

    If your road trip ends at an extended family member’s house some photos can be given to them, and can also serve as talking points for your toddler as he or she warms up to the person you’re visiting.

  • Non rippable baby/toddler magazines from your public library

  • Your old magazines to look through or stick stickers on

And sometimes you just have to pull over!

When those travel toys just aren’t cutting it, getting out of the vehicle might help hit your toddler’s reset button. Instead of just shuffling into the gas station, make the most of these few minutes.

You don’t necessarily have to find a playground, as any open area will make a toddler happy! Bring along an inflatable ball and bubbles for compact and fun pit stop travel toys.

If weather doesn’t permit time outdoors, an indoor play place, a larger gas station like Love’s or Pilot’s (toy isles!), or the indoor area of a welcome center are all good options.

It’ll Be Worth It!

Remember that sometimes, no matter your level of preparation, your little one might not be smiles and giggles the whole time. It’ll be okay. You’ll make it through, and so will your little guy or gal!

Traveling with toddlers certainly adds some extra planning, time, and stress, but we hope that this guide on budget-friendly travel toys can ease some toddler-stuck-in-the-car-seat anxiety, and encourage you to take that road trip or go on that vacation!

And we hope that you find getting from point a to point b with a young toddler along isn't so bad after all!

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