The idea of taking a young child along for an afternoon of errands can be daunting. But with a little preparation and a few fool-proof activities, errands can quickly become fun learning experiences. The key? Keeping kids engaged and participating the whole day through.

Dr. Lillian Katz, professor emerita with the University of Illinois Clearinghouse on Early Childhood and Parenting, says that parents should explain what they’re going to do before even leaving the house. Telling your child, “first we’re going to get gas, then we’re going to the grocery store, and last we’re going to the dry cleaners,” helps them develop an understanding of sequence.

In the Car

How to manage directions, traffic, and the uncomfortable, bored kid in the back seat? Make the car something to look forward to with songs and games.

  • Stage a Sing-Along. Instead of buying CDs or cueing up the iPod, sing with your child as you drive from place to place. Spice up sing-alongs by leaving out the rhyming words for her to fill in, or letting her choose animals or people to insert into favorites like Old MacDonald or The Wheels on the Bus.
  • How Many Do You See? Build your child’s number skills by counting trees, stop signs, intersections, or blue cars. Capitalize on your child’s natural interests by seeing how many of his favorite things (dump trucks, dogs, etc) he can find.
  • Habitat BINGO. Make a BINGO card with pictures of different homes—apartments, big houses, small houses, nests, doghouses—for your child to find. As he checks them off, ask who lives there and why it might be a good place to live.
  • Words in our World. As you travel around town, point out common words; stop, exit, open, closed, sale. First, tell your child what each word means. “Oh, I see S-T-O-P on this sign, that means stop. Do you see it?” After you’ve found the word a few times, ask him if he can read it.

In the Grocery Store

Every aisle of the grocery store (or any store) is a built-in lesson. Here are a few activities to keep your child busy.

  • Weigh It. Ask your child to help you find the fruits and vegetables on your shopping list. Ask him to choose the best apples or peppers and weigh them. Once you have your produce, ask him to compare the items. Which is heavier? Which is heaviest? Lightest?
  • Coupon Hide-and-Seek. Cut out a few coupons before you leave your house. As you shop, have your child find the items. Draw your child’s attention to how the store is organized. “Do you think we will find the milk in the same aisle as the yogurt?” It doesn’t matter if you buy it or not, the fun is in the finding.
  • Check-Out I Spy. In the check-out aisle, ask your child to find items in your cart by describing characteristics. “I spy an item that goes in the freezer” or “I spy something red and round.”

At the Doctor’s Office

Whether you’re waiting for a pediatrician or a dentist, “you’re not going to teach your child how to wait,” says Jean Warren, publisher of, “but you can make waiting fun.”

  • Hot or Cold? If you’re the only ones waiting, hide a small object around the waiting room and prompt your child to find it by telling him how hot or cold he is as he moves around the room. Then, let him hide it and direct you to find it.
  • Measure It. Stock your purse with a measuring tape and measure chairs, magazines, tables, or anything that sits still long enough! Talk about which things are long, short, tall, and wide.

Waiting in Line

Maximize waiting time by building language skills.

  • In Their Place. Waiting in line is the perfect time to introduce the idea of ordinal numbers. First, count the people in line using words (first, second, third, etc). Then, describe a person (“I see a person with a red hat and a big brown box to mail”) and ask your child to tell you their place in line.
  • Story Builder. Any waiting time is a good time to start a story. Choose a starter, “Once upon a time” or “There once was a pirate.” Then, take turns adding sentences until you come to a natural "The End."

Errands can be an exciting excursion for young children. The key, though, is getting the involved at every moment, so make sure to leave the house prepared and you’ll be in for a productive—and fun—day around town!