Traveling with small children is intimidating. Once you get past all the careful planning, the packing, the large amounts of gear and the serious logistics, you still have to entertain the child/children along the way. It can be downright scary and exhausting to think about.
I keep hoping when my children are older, they’ll happily entertain themselves with books and word searches and maybe some electronic games and I’ll get to relax with a book or magazine. (For those of you with older children who are laughing out loud at me and my naivety, please just don’t tell me. Let me hold on to this dream for a little while longer.)
But for now, my children are young (M just turned 4 and J is not quite 2). M is much more independent than she used to be and J is thankfully quite content to look out the window of the car for trucks or look around an airplane at other people, but I still need lots of tricks up my sleeve.
So I wanted to share all my best go-to travel activities and ideas for babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
But first, a few things to consider before you leave:
* Mess with their schedule at your own risk. If your child is accustomed to napping or eating or doing some very familiar thing at the same time every day and you decide to take that away while also requiring them to be in a foreign place and/or among strangers while traveling, well, I don’t know what to say but you’re kinda asking for it. Of course, you can’t always schedule around nap time and eating, but you can plan to accommodate that. (Ie, bring blankets and lovies and food and do your best to keep to any semblance of routine).
* Talk to your child about the trip and what to expect. I’m a big believer in letting kids, however little, know what’s coming. I start mentioning trips to my kids a week in advance. We try to get them excited about where we’re going, who we’ll see, what we’ll do, etc., but I also include the travel aspects. “We get to take an airplane! Which means we’ll go to the airport! Sometimes there are lots of people and sometimes we have to wait in long lines, but we’ll all be together and we’ll have a fun time and see some cool stuff.” Or, “We’ve got a long car drive. I know that can get boring, so we’ll bring some toys and some snacks and we’ll tell stories and listen to songs.” Or, “We’re going for a drive this weekend so we can get to the beach. We’ll have so much fun playing in the sand and splashing in the ocean. But first, we have to drive a long way to get there. We’ll have our nap in the car that day, which will help it go by much quicker.” Whatever the case might be. Repeat it throughout the week and then they feel a little more comfortable and a little more confident when the travel day arrives.
* Different ages need different things. Babies can’t play with much, so they might need some more hands-on attention and interaction. Mine have always been a bit clingy so sometimes we have to make an extra stop when we’re in the car, to get some snuggles in. On a plane, get up and walk and rock your baby when you can get out of your seat. And take your baby to the bathroom so you can make funny faces in the mirror and splash in the sink. Toddlers can play, but they have short attention spans and they want to move more than anything. Being confined in a car is tough, so find ways to engage them in other ways. And stop so they can stretch their legs. Rest stops are great because there’s usually an open green area where they can run around a bit. On a plane, walk up and down the aisle with your toddler when you can leave your seat. Also, mine loved going from standing on the floor of the airplane, to climbing up and sitting with me and looking out the window to standing up on me or the seat and checking out the rest of the plane. It’s constant movement. Go with it. Preschoolers have matured a bit and can sit still and be engaged for longer, but they still require a constant rotation of activities and attention to help them last through a multi-hour trip. Know your child and his or her stage.
And now, my best tips, tricks and magic for keeping the peace and preserving the sanity:
BAG OF GOODIES
I keep a bag of goodies stored and out of sight to use for travel and other trips (doctors’ office visits, etc.) when the kids need to be occupied and entertain themselves. Easier said than done when they are under 5.
I keep the bag separate so 1. We don’t use these things daily and they seem special when they get to play with them and 2. It’s already packed and ready to go. I just need to check and refresh any reusable supplies (paper, crayons, etc.)
Here’s a look into our current bag and some of our other favorites to include:
Books: My kids can’t read by themselves, but they can look at picture books, animal and alphabet books and even favorite stories and be entertained for a little while. I also pack a small picture album full of photos of our family – J especially loves this. Plus, I can read them a few of the books (either from the front seat of the car or in the airplane, depending on how we’re traveling) and we can talk about the stories and the pictures. We love to read!
Magazines: (I include the kid and family-oriented ones that I get for free in the mail. My kids like to flip the pages and if younger ones just want to tear the pages, that’s fine, too!
Coloring supplies: M (age 4) loves to color! I give her a zippered pencil bag with paper and crayon supplies and stickers and she will go to town. I usually bring a small legal pad of paper, too. She thinks they are fun because she sees me using them. For J (22 months), coloring in the car isn’t a great option, but he sure likes to play with the etch-a-sketch, so we have a mini one of those we bring.
Zipper pouch details: I give her a variety of paper: computer paper cut in smaller pieces, index cards, small pieces of colored construction paper, small paper pads and several different sheets of assorted stickers, plus crayons and pens (I’m not quite ready for her to use markers in the car). She uses a book or a small pad of paper to press against to make her masterpieces. And if we’re going to visit family, we make everyone a special picture. Takes a long time 🙂
Other tips on zipper cases: Take twice as many supplies and keep the extras separate for the return trip (so you can replenish the paper, have extra stickers and crayons, etc.)
I also sometimes include her scissors with “cutting sheets” – zig zags and other lines and shapes and letters that I draw that she follows to cut up the paper.
Interlocking rings: J likes to shake these and dangle them. Sometimes it entertains him for a while, sometimes he throws them after 30 seconds. M will take them apart and put them back together several times before getting bored.
Small container of XYZ: This trip I included some of J’s favorites – small play animals that he loves to hold and look at. He’s usually happy to do this by himself, but I also talk to him about the animals and the sounds they make and where they live and stories about their days, etc. You could also do small toy cars or buttons or bottle caps or whatever your little one might like to play with. My kids like to “pretend cook” and “stir” things, so sometimes I’ll include a spoon for them to use with the objects.
Small musical instruments: We have some small egg shakers that I thew in the bag this time. Who doesn’t like to shake and make music? I’ve also brought homemade “shake and see” bottles – I just filled an empty plastic bottle with rice, added some small pom poms, foam shapes, cut pieces of pipe cleaners and other small items, then glued the top on. They can shake it to make noise and also roll it or turn it to “find” the items that are hidden in the rice.
Play phones: These were a gift and they are age appropriate. J has a basic one with numbers and animals that make noise. M has one that tells her what button to press or letter to find and engages her with questions. They even like to trade and play with the other one’s phone. J mostly just holds it up to his ear and says, “‘Lo?” (His “hello” – so precious!)
Other options for the bag: Melissa & Doug makes some travel toys that are really good. We’ve used their Water Wow! books and I think M might be ready for their travel memory games. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=melissa+and+doug+water+wow&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Amelissa+and+doug+water+wow
Coloring and tracing and activity books would be great for older preschool-age children. We’re nearly there!
Quiet boxes: We use these at nap time for days when M doesn’t take naps but still needs some down time. (Or Mama needs her to have some down time so I can finish work!) Lots of quiet box activities are great for the road. Here’s a huge list of ideas if you want to check them out.
TRAVEL GAMES: So many options!
Play I Spy – A classic for a reason! And this works for even pre-talkers. Distraction is powerful and they love seeing and learning new things. Pointing out what you spy and encouraging them to point to things is a way to get babies and toddlers involved, too.
“Can you” challenges – Can you name 10 fruits? 20 vegetables? (Pick a category. Any category.) Can you find 5 green things? Can you make 5 funny noises? Can you tell me about 3 famous people? This can go on and on and on. To adjust for babies and toddlers, you can answer all of the questions yourself and/or use and do things that are age-appropriate: Can you clap your hands? Can you pat your belly? Can you show me two baby feet? Can you tell me what a cow says?
“What’s your favorite?” questions – I like doing this at home and when traveling from time to time, just to see what they answer. J doesn’t talk much but I prompt what I think his answer might be and he gets into it. M loves telling me about her favorite color, animal, friend, playground activity, book, etc. It’s a fun way to chat with your little one!
WIGGLE BREAKS: For longer road trips in the car, I think a serious wiggle break is in order – for the kids and adults! Check out your travel itinerary and what’s along the way in terms of cities and attractions not far off the highway.. The zoo, a children’s museum, a Monkey Joe’s, state park, lake or playground are all good options! If nothing else, pack a ball and go run around at a rest stop and play tag or kick the ball. Everyone needs some fresh air and exercise after being stuck in the car.
MUSIC: Don’t underestimate the power of some happy, favorite tunes! A little music sing-along can quickly change the mood if it’s turning sour. If you can’t play music, you can always sing some favorite tunes – even change up the words or make up silly verses to get those giggles flowing again.
TICKLE MONSTER: Sometimes a tickle fest is in order. J is particularly ticklish so I’ll reach back and grab those toes if he thinks he wants to fuss. Works like a charm!
ELECTRONICS: And yes, we tend to pack an iPad and/or iPhone. Cause when all else fails and you are still stuck in the car or on the airplane, you gotta have something to pull out. We have some favorite apps that the kids like to play/watch as well as a few TV shows if we need them. Sometimes we also look up videos and story books being read on YouTube (The Very Grumpy Bear is a current fave).
SNACK BAG: I never travel without plenty of snacks. You never know if you’ll have a delay or get stuck in traffic. And you DO NOT want a hungry baby or toddler or preschooler on your hands. Hello, meltdown territory. And honestly, I always travel with snacks for me, too. Anyone else get a bit snippy and short-tempered when their blood sugar dips? No good. Pack food. And then pack some extra food.
I also like packing my own snacks because I know I’ll have some healthy, real food options. One of our favorites, that takes 5 minutes to put together and that you can customize for your crew: trail mix.
Others we tend to have in the bag: raisins, Lara bars, Trader Joe’s fruit bars, cereal (that I put in the snack cups) and some sort of fresh fruit: grapes, blueberries and bananas work well for us on the go. I often pack a special treat – something they don’t normally get from me at home – just in case. For me, that’s Trader Joe’s animal crackers or graham crackers. Yours might be more indulgent. I make exceptions when we travel because again, it’s all about survival.
If we’re traveling during a meal, I’ll of course bring that, too, but we also always have snacks on hand. And water and/or milk (packed in a cooler with ice packs). Hydration is key! See more of my real food on the road tips and ideas.
So there you are. Fully prepared for whatever your next travel adventure might bring! I wish you easy travels, happy children and maybe even a little light magazine reading. But if not, I wish you a bag full of goodies to keep the peace until you arrive.
** What are your favorite travel tricks and tips?
** What do you always have on hand when you travel?