Entertain Kids on the Go With Screen-Free Busy Bags (I’m Sharing My Fave Activity Products, Too!)

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3 kids using busy bags outside

My kids have been toting around busy bags since they were old enough to exhibit their first signs of boredom. Busy bags are easy to make, and it’s simple to customize them for your child’s preferences. They can be a real sanity-saver for families on the go because they’ll keep your kids entertained in so many different situations:

  • long rides (whether it’s a car, airplane, or shopping cart)
  • visits to Grandma’s house (or any other destination without a lot of toys)
  • restaurants
  • doctor’s appointments
  • a sibling’s sporting event, performance, or practice
  • pretty much any place where your child will be sitting and/or waiting

Sound like a good idea? If you’d like to put together a busy bag for your child, here are some tips to get you started:

Tip 1: Choose a bag.

three reusable shopping bags

Select a bag that’s inexpensive yet sturdy, like a reusable shopping bag. Don’t choose anything that you’ll be upset to see dragged through a parking lot or thrown onto the ground, and do be prepared to swap out the bag when it falls apart. Our busy bags get a lot of use, so I find myself replacing the bags frequently.

My exception to the cheap-or-free bag rule:girl coloring Alex Toys Color a Flower bag

It’s this Color A Flower Bag from Alex Toys. This bag is the activity! As a bonus, I suspect my daughter will take better care of her busy bag once it’s finished because she worked so hard to make it beautiful.

Tip 2: Fill your busy bag with fun, age-appropriate activities.

busy bag with contents spilled

Filling a busy bag does not need to cost a lot of (or any) money! Go through your child’s toys, books, and activities, and look for anything that’s small, engaging, and can be done independently.

Below, I listed some of the items we’ve rotated through our busy bags at various stages in our kids’ lives.  Most of these were items that I scooped up from around the house when I realized they would fit in a tote and keep my kids happy for a short spell.

Toddler Busy Bags

1. Finger snacks in travel cups

Munchkin Snack Catcher

Ok, so a snack isn’t exactly an activity, but these highly-rated Munchkin Snack Catchers will still keep your little snacker busy. They have lids that are just interesting enough to make snacking feel like a game of fine-motor skill development for your hungry toddler.

2. Board books

board books

Both sturdy and educational, board books are a must-have for any toddler’s busy bag!

3. Melissa & Doug Locks and Latches Board

Melissa and Doug latches board

Our little ones loved this Melissa & Doug Locks & Latches board, and it held their attention for a long time. We were thrilled to find that it fit nicely into their busy bags, too!

4. Buckle Toys Busy Board

Buckle Toys Busy Board

This Buckle Toys Busy Board is light and foamy so that it won’t weigh down your toddler’s busy bag at all. It fits nicely on your child’s lap and teaches them self-help skills like snapping, zippering, tying, etc.

5. Coloring books and easy-grip crayons

father and son using Crayola triangular crayons

Don’t have any coloring books on hand? Find some coloring pages online and print them out. Pack a clipboard or a hardback book to use as a hard surface for drawing and coloring, too!

6. Handheld toys

gilr holding Leapfrog Chat and Count Phone

If you’re heading out to a location where noisy toys won’t be an issue, grab a few small toys with buttons for little fingers to push. My kids loved this Leapfrog Chat and Count Phone, which helped to teach them numbers and counting to 10.

Preschooler Busy Bags

1. Word rings

child holding word ring

Although we work together to practice sight words at home, I’m often pleasantly surprised at how my kids will flip through their word rings (independently and unprompted!) when they find them in their busy bags.

If your child doesn’t bring home a word ring from preschool, you can easily make one using index cards. Not sure which words your child should be working on at their age? Here’s a good list to get you started.

2. Magnetic tin games

magnetic tin games

My kids love these magnetic tin activities, and I love the fact that this activity encourages my kids to use inventive spelling to communicate with each other. There are lots of different games and activities that come in magnetic tins, and I’ve even seen similar activities sold in Bullseye’s Playground for just $3 at Target.

3. Lacing cards

Eric Carle Very Hungry Caterpillar lacing cards

Lacing cards are a great activity to keep little hands busy, and they fit in any size busy bag. We love these Very Hungry Caterpillar lacing cards featuring the illustrations of author/illustrator Eric Carle.

4. Stickers

sticker mosaic

Stickers can come in the form of these fun sticker mosaics, sticker puzzles, or just an inexpensive sticker book and a blank notebook to start a sticker collection!

Highlights hidden pictures sticker activity books

My children absolutely love these Hidden Picture Puzzle Books from Highlights (and I think they’re fun, too)! When you find the hidden picture, there’s a colorful sticker to put on it.

5. Coloring books

child coloring with Crayola Color Wonder markers

Traditional coloring books and crayons are always a great choice. Or, for a change, try one of these Mess Free Crayola Color Wonder books. They come with special markers that will only color on the Color Wonder paper (not the upholstery of your car)!

Crayola Crayons in a Sistema snack box

Speaking of coloring, I was really excited to learn that a 24-pack of crayons fits perfectly in this Sistema snack-size box, and it holds up much better in a busy bag than the crayons’ original box!

6. Look & find books

I Spy and Look and Find books

If your child isn’t reading independently yet, a Look & Find book requires little to no reading and can hold their attention for quite some time. We love to check these out from the library!

7. Scratch art

scratch art note pad

These scratch art note pads are so much fun, and they’re great for developing the fine motor skills kids need for writing! They can be messy, though, so they’re best used when your child will be outside.

Elementary Schooler

1. Fidget toys

fidget spinners

I can’t believe how much mileage my nine-year-old has gotten out of his fidget spinner. He’s had it for years and he still takes it everywhere with him. In addition to spinners, there are fidget cubes and lots of other handheld gadgets to throw in your big kid’s busy bag to keep their hands busy.

2. Invisible ink

I heart my busy bag written in invisible ink

These invisible ink pens with tiny black lights built into the lids are so much fun! Although they do work in daylight conditions, they’re even more fun when your kids are going somewhere dark like a musical performance or dance recital.

3. Brainteaser puzzles

metal brain teaser puzzles in container

My kids love trying to solve metal brain-teaser puzzles like this one, and if I’m being honest, they’re pretty challenging for the grownups in our family, too!

4. Card games

deck of cards in Sistema snack container

Card games are great for locations where your big kid can play with a group, like during downtime at a cheer competition or sports tournament. I know I’ve already mentioned my love for these Sistema storage containers, but they’re also the perfect size for holding a deck of cards!

5. Travel games


Travel games are a must-have item for your big kid’s busy bag! There are lots of 2-player and multi-player games to choose from if your child is heading to a venue where that would be appropriate. Games like Kaboodle are a great choice if your child needs more of a quiet independent activity.

6. Activity books

activity books for big kidsBig kids like activity books, too! These are a few of the activity books my nine-year-old likes to take with him when we’re on the go.

I was able to grab Draw Really Cool Stuff at Aldi when I saw it there for only $4.99 last year. The Boys’ Doodle Book, Dots! Super Connect the Dots Puzzles, and Color Art Pixel Pictures were all purchased on Amazon.

7. Paper-folding activities

paper folding activity booksThese books are great because they include both the instructions and the paper your child will need for making paper airplanes and origami creations. I was pretty excited to see both of these books at Aldi last year for just $4.99 each, because the price on Amazon was always significantly higher.

8. Sticker-by-number mosaics

sticker mosaic books

I’m pretty sure I love these sticker-by-number books every bit as much as my son does! These books contain pages and pages of numbered sticker puzzles and all of the stickers you need to create beautiful mosaics.

9. Chapter books

chapter books

Encourage your big kid to develop a love for reading by slipping a chapter book into their busy bag. Or take them on a trip to your local library and let them choose their own!

Tip 3: Swap out items as needed for each venue.

church wedding

While a noisy hand-held toy might be great to keep your toddler occupied at a ball game, you probably don’t want them pulling it out of their busy bag during a church wedding!

Remember to take a quick peek inside your child’s bag before heading out the door, and swap out any items that aren’t a good fit for that day’s destination.

Tip 4: Keep it fresh.

boy reading Ranger Rick magazine

The novelty factor is key for extending the amount of time a busy bag will actually keep your child busy. I try to make sure that there’s always something fresh mixed in with the old favorites. This doesn’t mean that I’m constantly buying new stuff, though!

You can keep your child’s busy bag feeling fresh with free or inexpensive items such as library books or new activity/coloring pages printed from the Internet. If you subscribe to any kid-friendly magazines (or if you get any catalogs in the mail your kids would like), throw them right into the busy bag when they arrive so your child will have something new to look at on your next outing!

Tip 5: Plan for extra kids.

kids writing together

Making new friends is one unexpected benefit my younger kids have enjoyed by using their busy bags at their big brother’s sports tournaments. Whenever they pull out a new activity, it seems to attract quite a crowd of other curious kids!

I always try to throw in extra clipboards and coloring pages or bring an activity that multiple kids can do together in case anyone else wants to join us on the blanket. As much as they love the goodies I pack in their busy bags, nothing we bring from home compares to the fun of making a new friend!

Check out these 7 ways to shave a few bucks off the cost of your child’s hair cut.

About the writer:

Jenna has a Bachelor's Degree from Lycoming College and her Master's from Penn State, holding 4 years of writing experience between a variety of publications and Hip2Save.

Join The Discussion

Comments 10

  1. Val

    When have taken bubbles to outdoor games. Otherwise, foamy stickers were great when my son was younger. Now he likes the Brain Quest or Smarty Pants cards.

  2. Luna

    Thanks for sharing will be helpful even on a regular day for us!🙏

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)

      Yay! Glad to hear that, Luna! You’re so welcome!

  3. Jessica

    I love this! Thanks for the great ideas!

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)

      You’re very welcome, Jessica! Thanks so much for the feedback! Glad you are loving this list! 🙌

  4. K. Nazario

    We use the containers like this from dollar tree for crayons, cards and charging cords. You can get a two pack for a $1!

    • Jessica (Hip' Sidekick)

      Thanks so much for sharing this tip, K. Nazario!

  5. PL

    The bullseye spot at target has a three pack of containers for $3 that fit flash cards. Also I love a mini magna doodle for in the car!

    • Jessica (Hip' Sidekick)

      Thanks for the heads up on the containers, PL!

  6. 5pink1blue

    We keep a book of ad libs in the car plus a spiral notebook. We also keep a soccer ball and side walk chalk.

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