We are not an electronic free family, but for much of our travel, our son has not been very interested in watching movies or playing on the iPad. This has meant coming up with lots of ideas on how to keep him entertained on our long trans-atlantic flights or our 7 hour car journey between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Below is our collection of tried and tested travel activities for kids (babies through pre-schoolers) without using electronics.
When I travel, I tend to take as little as I possibly can, but making sure I have everything we need. With that in mind, I often take toys and entertainment items that can be thrown away en route and that will not cause too many tears if it is lost. Items from the dollar store, homemade items and toys like playdoh are my go to items for travel.
Once I have collected all the activity items I want to take, I separate things into two (or three piles, depending on the duration of our trip). One pile is for the journey to our destination and one is for the return. The third bag I use when we are traveling for 2-3 weeks and will be taking long intercity train journeys or buses. I do not even let my son know that there is a return journey bag, so when he sees it the first time on the way home, he is excited to see what I have packed for him.
Baby Travelers (0 – 1 year)
For the most part, small babies do not need anything to entertain them. As children get closer to 1 year, you should start bringing a few little items, but that said even at a year, babies are more interested in playing with the trays, magazines, the window shades and just checking everything out in general. At that age I brought a big bag full of toys, but found that really all I needed were a few items when things got boring.
- Bring a few favorite toys from home
- One or two new toys such as connector rings or squishy books (we liked Jellycat Soft Books, Pet Tails)
- Children closer to age 1 (and up) will really enjoy an old adult or kid’s size wallet filled with old gift cards, business cards, passport size photos of family, and fake bills. They love pulling it all out and filling it back up again.
- Straw Container. This is a super simple ‘craft’ to take along that will get plenty of use. Get an old coffee can or something with a plastic lid. Cut a small hole in the top just a bit bigger than a straw. Fill it with straws. Babies and toddlers will love emptying it out and filling it up again.
- For smaller babies, a homemade rattle with a small water bottle filled with lentils or rice is always a hit. For a little extra fun, add in colored gems or goggly eyes to spark their interest.
- Planes Board Book has been a favorite for several years now.
Toddler Travelers (13 months – 36 months)
This is the age that many parents dread traveling with their children. They are mobile, curious and not interested in sitting for long stretches of time. However, I have found that this age is actually pretty good as long as you plan in advance, bring some creative, fun activities and your undivided attention. If you want to watch a movie or read your book…well you might just have to find a seat by yourself to do that!
My primary suggestion for toddlers and preschoolers always starts with the basics of paper and markers, crayons and pencils, playdoh and stickers. Look for gel stickers, puffy stickers, sticker books, stickers with individual paper backs and window/reusable stickers (We often find the large Melissa & Doug Reusable sticker books at Ross or TJ Maxx for cheap.)
- Toddlers also still love old adult or even their own kid’s size wallet filled with old gift cards, business cards, passport size photos of family, and fake bills. Our son also likes to add in real money and pretend to pay for things himself.
- Straw Container mentioned above for babies is still really great for this age. This is a super simple ‘craft’ to take along that will get plenty of use. Get an old coffee can or something with a plastic lid. Cut a small hole in the top just a bit bigger than a straw. Fill it with straws. You can make it more challenging for toddlers by using coffee stirrer straws and making several small holes that they have to ‘try’ until the find the correct size hole.
- Treasure or “I Spy” bottle. This is similar to what I mentioned for babies above, except here you use a larger bottle filled with rice and other little items that your toddler must ‘find’. If you want to add an extra dimension to this, you can also create a worksheet so your child can check off how many items he finds of each thing or by color. For example, how many paper clips can you find, or how many items can you find that are purple? Suggested items to include are paper clips, small gems stones, googly eyes, legos, buttons, coins, push pins, etc.
- Airport or Car Scavenger Hunt. This is a big hit in our house. There are lots of pre-made scavenger hunt cards online. For flying, we liked this one. For road trips, you can use a multitude of car bingo cards. We like this one for the younger set because it is easy to find most items even in the city.
- Pipe Cleaners with Pony Beads. Our son likes to make bracelet gifts out of these for people when we are on the way somewhere. Either way, it helps with their hand/eye coordination and dexterity and keeps them happily occupied for a long time!
- Rubber Band Ball. Kids will happily take them all off and put them back on – over and over and over again!
- Paper Clip Necklace. Kids can spend ages unhooking and rehooking the paper clips to make pretend jewelry or just for fun. You can add in some pony beads for a little glitz and glamour.
- Fidget Toy. An easy one is to fill a balloon with playdoh and tied it up. Kids (big and small!) love to squash throughout heir hands. If it pops, no big deal, it’s just playdoh!
- $1 crafts from Michaels or dollar stores are great. You can find things such as wooden cutouts with markers, foam sticker creations, sticker packs and so much more.
- Dry erase boards with dry erase crayons or markers
- AquaDoodle travel books are also fun for kids who like a little water drawing.
- popsicle sticks for building things and even playing our own version of jenga
- Airport themed items (for flights) such as stickers, books, coloring pages (i.e little airport sticker activity book, Amazing Airplanes board book, My plane trip coloring book, At the Airport Sticker Tote)
- Ball of string. You can use this to lace through paper if you have a hole punch, you can unroll it and roll it back up, you can use it in craft making and so much more.
- Travel Magnet sets for flights or a simple baking tray with magnets for car trips.
- Preschool color and activity book . This says it’s for preschoolers, but we actually started using these type of books before my son was 3, so I will put it here just in case others want to use it early too. This is best for flights when you can work with your child on the activities.
Preschooler Travelers (3 years and up)
For me, this is the preferable age, right up there with newborns! Preschoolers are better able to entertain themselves and if you have introduced electronics you might even be able to watch a movie on the flight yourself. But for those of you not interested in electronic gadgets, you can easily entertain and help your child entertain themselves even for long flights.
Much of what is listed above under toddlers can also be used for preschool travelers. I will not list them again here, instead I have added in additional activities applicable for preschool age and up.
- Map/Landmark Hunt (great for road trips). We recently tried this on our long boring I5 route from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It was a hit! I copied our google map route and added in clip art photos of ‘landmarks’ along the way for my son to check off as we passed them. This helped him also know how far we had gone and how much further we had to go. This is probably only possible for routes that you know well, but I am sure you could come up with a generic map for any road trip. The only negative was that my son refused to nap in case he missed one of his landmarks!
- Car Bingo is also always a big hit. Previously we played this game as an I spy game, but now that my son is old enough to understand the concept of the game, we play it as regular Bingo or as a full blackout game. Tons of printables can be found online which you can then laminate cheaply at Staples (or similar stores) to use over and over again. See above under the toddlers section for our favorite printables. We are now experimenting with making our own. I will share those if I get them into a printable format.
- Kid Tape (we like Alex Early Learning Tape)
- Craft bag with glue stick, scotch tape, scissors, hole punch and a ball of string is always in our go bag these days along with the tape mentioned above.
- Water color books where you only have to dip your brush in water to reveal the colors on the page.
- Materials to make a scrap book on the way home from your journey (collect items along the way to include in your book). Either make the ‘book’ before you leave and have it read to add materials or bring along the hole punch and string or other necessary supplies.
- Wikki stix are great to play with in addition to being small and light to travel with. My son enjoys making his letters with them and shapes to use as outlines in drawings.
- Hidden Picture Books with pages filled with things for your child to find. Some of these books are also uncolored which adds another element of play.
- Activity books such as maze books, alphabet books, tracing, drawing, and so many more. Check out the dollar stores for cheap fun books.
- And for your little artist, check out the Watercolor set on the go with all of the supplies needed for miniature water color paintings while traveling. This has been a favorite for our son for the last few trips. It surpassingly isn’t messy and is small and compact.
Hope this helps your next trip go a bit more smoothly! Feel free to share any other fun ideas that you come up with. We are always searching for new things to do on our trips.