If my mom was writing this post, it would be a Pinterest-worthy collection of hand-crafted activities made from pipe cleaners, pom-poms, and felt — all wrapped in artfully created handmade wrapping paper. In fact, she traveled with us to India a few years back, and made just such an activity kit for my kids. It was absolutely incredible. Alas (sigh)…I am not, however, my mother. Occasionally, a tiny bit of her peeks out in me (mostly around birthday party time)…but for travel…it’s usually 2 days before a trip—there are mounds of laundry still to be done, and I want to just click and have everything for kids’ airplane “entertainment” show up magically in a brown box ready to go.
I weirdly love airplane time with my kids…well, not the trip that Little One screamed for 4 hours straight or the one when the guy screamed at me because of kicking little feet that I tried my VERY VERY hardest to control…but I weirdly DO love airplane time with my kids MOST of the time. No emails for me to respond to, no itch to straighten the house…the kids required to be strapped in next to me, their undivided attention —can all actually facilitate some lovely interactions. I sometimes look at it as a personal challenge to see how long we can truly be present with each other and play together, or talk with each other before resorting to screen-time escape. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a good airplane snooze with my kids both on screens, but sometimes too much screen time makes my kids monsters, and having protected electronic-free time together is a nice balance to that.
Admittedly, I’m an avid toy shopper, so travel is definitely a good excuse for me to do some online shopping damage. Novel toys, open-ended activities, and a variety of “stuff” I have found is the way to go. I’m usually a bit of a toy snob, but when it comes to travel, it’s also fun to “bring on the junk”. A few character toys and plastic doo-dads can do wonders for entertaining kiddos while not taking up too much space AND being easier on the wallet. I build last-minute travel toy purchases into our travel budget, but I also purposefully hide some of our nicer travel toys after trips, so I can bring them out again when it comes to travel time and have something “new-ish” without the extra cost.
I like to divide the kid-carry-on-bag packing list into categories so I have a range of good stuff for different kinds of play (remember I’m Shana’s friend who cherishes a well-organized checklist.) I break it down into a checklist of eleven: Something Magnetic, Drawing Supplies, A New Book, Something Sticky, Something to Cuddle, A Game Mom Enjoys, Something to Fidget With, Pretend Play Characters, Something Tech, Water Bottle, and of course…Kid Bribes. If it’s a shorter flight and they don’t play with everything, not a big deal because it also gives them toys to play with in the hotel room or at restaurants.
The collage below shows a typical bag that I pack, but below that are other options in each category so you can get ideas for differently aged kids with various interests. This packing formula has worked for me from toddlerhood to my current 11-year-old. For really long trips (think 23 hours of travel time to Bangalore, India to visit family), I triple and even quadruple the items in some of the categories below, so that I can have new activities for them to pull out every hour or so that they are awake.
**This post has been updated for Summer Travel 2019, but there are a ton of great reader comments and ideas at the bottom from 2018 when it was originally published. If you’re looking for even more travel toy ideas, make sure to check out Top 10 Kids’ Travel Toys for Road Trips, and Our Favorite Vacation Toys that Pack in a Suitcase. **
So…this is for all you fab mamas who want a bit of quality playtime with your kiddos on the plane, but don’t want to scour Pinterest for homemade activity projects. In my opinion, the kids will have just as good of a time with the store-bought suggestions below. I tried to keep everything from Amazon or Nordstrom for fast and/or free shipping. And, of course, no judgement if you pack just one iPad and nothing else in that kid-carry-on-bag….happy kids make for happy mamas.
Something to Fidget With: Wooden CubeBot // A Game Mom Enjoys: Airplane Activity Tokens // Drawing Supplies: Moleskine Drawing Journals with Mini Drawing Set // Water Bottle: CamelBak Kids Water Bottle // Pretend Play Characters: Wonderhood Kid Figures // A New Book: Usborne Look-Inside Airport Book // Something to Cuddle: Nido Nest Kids Neck Pillow // Something Magnetic: Tegu Travel Set // Something Sticky: Wikki Sticks // Something Tech: iPad Mini with Wireless Headphones // Kid Bribes: YumEarth Organic Lollipops // The Actual Travel Bag: Wildkin Dinosaur Rolling Bag
The Actual Travel Bag
A New Book
Something to Cuddle
A Game Mom Enjoys
Something to Fidget With
Pretend Play Characters
Let me know what other tricks for traveling with kids you guys have or if you have found a music player (without a screen) that is sturdy enough for kids! Good luck with packing, and happy summer travels!