We just booked tickets to Thailand for this spring! Aron and I were there ten years ago on our honeymoon, and we’d always said we’d like to go back for our tenth anniversary. Nothing like the momentum of nostalgia and a romantic promise to make 21 hours of travel time with two kids seem doable!
But let me assure you: no matter how often you travel with kids, there is always a “what are we thinking?!”-moment when any long-haul flight confirmation pops up on the screen. If this is something you’re facing soon, I thought I’d share some of our favorite distractions for passing the time in the air (in the hopes, of course, that you’ll share in kind in the comments).
We definitely count these as necessary distractions. The best are things are dry, quiet, consumed slowly, and require minimal help. Finger foods (think grapes, pretzels, raisins, banana chips, dry cereal, baked veggie chips, dried apricots, etcetera) can be counted, stacked, arranged, and slowly doled out (or placed in a snack cup) to pass the time. Lollipops are a good choice for a special treat because they encourage quiet (while they see how long they can make it last without biting it), and they can help with things like clearing ears and queasy tummies.
Cheerios are an all-time favorite. I still make use of them for all kinds of activities that go way beyond snacking.
Tip: bring along no-spill thermoses to fill with milk or water in the terminal (these are my tried-and-true favorite—though be careful when opening in the air).
This one’s obvious. With Hudson, at age 5, we could probably pass him the iPad and he’d be content to play games and watch shows almost the entire flight—if we’d let him. We generally try to delay the hand-off as long as possible, but most screen-time rules go out the window on travel days. For shows, movies, and games, I usually check Common Sense Media for suggestions and then load up some fresh content—for on and off the plane—before we travel. It was there that we discovered the Toca Boca Apps which are all intended to be really open-ended for kids. The first big hit was Toca Nature, which lets you create biomes and care for the animals without rules or goals. And a lot of the apps have that sort of creative bent.
They also have a new addition, Toca TV, a video-streaming service with videos from around the web that is going to be a great addition for travel off the plane—for times when you have a WiFi or data connection. The content is a mix of original Toca Boca and popular kids’ YouTube, best for kids ages 5-9. But there’s never any third-party advertising, sponsored product placement, or pre-roll ads and everything is prescreened to be age-appropriate. The kids can also use the app to make their own videos and play with animated filters and such. We love Toca Boca, so I’ve actually partnered with them to spread the word about Toca TV. If you’d like to try it out, there’s a code below to get your first month free when you sign up.
I’ve written about Common Sense Media before, and I use it all the time to find new screen content. Thinkrolls by AvoKiddo is another current favorite game to play with Hudson. At two, Skyler is less likely to be entertained by these things. She will occasionally watch a show with Hudson (recent favorites include: Daniel Tiger, the Winnie the Pooh movie, and Lost at Sea) or play a game, like Toca Band.
The activity books that best hold our kids’ interest seems to change from one flight to the next, but some winners have been:
Mazes: The Kumon practice books are great and are targeted to different age-ranges.
Hidden Pictures: Highlights makes a series with stickers that were a huge hit. They also work as coloring pages.
Water Wow: Sometimes they open the pen and spill the water, but it’s never very much and you can keep refilling it at your seat. They can use the pages over and over. And over. Skyler loves these.
Scratch Art: These came right after Water Wow in our house, and Hudson used to be obsessed. They’re a bit messy (think Lottery tickets), but seem to tap into something deeply satisfying (again, Lottery tickets).
Color by Number: We love all the Usborne activity books, but the color by number require some extra concentration, making them good for airplanes.
Re-usable sticker pads: These Melissa & Doug scenes are really too large for airplanes, but they’re awfully good for the two-year-old set. (Has anyone found better, smaller ones?)
Twistable Pencils and Crayons
We pack a pouch full of twistables. The crayons are good for Skyler (who otherwise peels all the paper off crayons in tiny bits) while the colored pencils offer the variety and precision that Hudson appreciates—no sharpener required. Best of all, they have kept requests for markers at bay.
We’re just getting to the age of card games and I’m so excited! Bicycle actually publishes a list of card games with suggested ages and you can download the rules or put the app on your phone—so convenient! Uno is a great game for kids, too. It says it’s for ages 7 and up, but you could give it a try a few years before that.
Books About Air Travel
Richard Scarry’s A Day at the Airport and Usborne’s Look Inside An Airport have both given us lots of things to look for from our seats. (The latter is also a Lift-the-Flap book.)
Note: We often find we bring too many books on flights—which can get heavy! We usually ask the kids to pick out a few favorites, or we might bring a couple of new Little Golden Books. Recently, I’ve subscribed to Epic library, so that we have some new titles on our iPad.
We tend to focus on activity books for the flights, saving toys for the suitcase and our final destination, but some people swear by bringing individually wrapped toys. These animal tubes, for example, could be repackaged separately and then used for imaginative play. I also have heard raves about painter’s tape for airplanes, and this Tape Book might be a way to tap into that. Otherwise, our best travel successes have been small Magnadoodles, pipe cleaners, Wikki Stix, and lace-up toys.
As little as possible. The goal is to find the happy medium where you have plenty to keep everyone occupied without carrying more than you have to. The kids pack a carry-on bag for keeping below their seats and everything has to fit in there. I also aim to only bring things that will prove useful or entertaining once we arrive. Imagine that these are the items you will be pulling our at restaurants, in the rental car, and on the hotel-room floor as well.
Finally, we try not to bring out anything new until it’s asked for or really needed to make everything last as long as possible.
What distractions have you found most helpful during long flights? What am I missing?
Thank you to Toca Boca for sponsoring this post. If you’d like, you can download Toca TV on the App Store. Use the code HITHERANDTHITHER to get your first month free when you sign up ($4.99 value). Valid for first time subscribers only, worldwide except China.
P.S. More family travel tips.