Oh flying. Flying isn’t so bad for most people. Now throw in a toddler or two (maybe even three). And that’s where parental fear sets in. Here’s the thing: it’s great when it’s over, but sometimes that in-between time can be, well, to put it nicely, difficult. Distraction is really every parent’s best friend, and it’s no different with flying. But what really works on those three hour flights? What about the seventeen hour flights? After setting off on fifteen hour flights and three hour flights, with one, two, or three little ones in tow, we’ve found a way or two to distract the wiggly ones. So read on to find a list of our 15 best activities for toddlers on a plane.
There were a few things we found necessary when traveling with our toddlers, certain attributes that make these activities for toddlers on a plane both effective and viable.
I mean, sure, I could grab a balance bike. That’s certain to entertain my wild ones, but it isn’t really plane compatible. So, clearly size and weight come into play. I need to bring a variety on the plane. So, to do this, each must be relatively small and light.
Additionally, we look for items that are fairly nondisruptive for those passengers around us. I mean, no one wants to sit through a six hour flight listening to animals make robotic animal sounds.
Intrinsic Long-term Value
Additionally, we really value those items that have some life beyond just the plane. Perhaps their value extends into a road trip or even a just a few lowly minutes in a hotel room or restaurant table. If we can fit it in our life elsewhere, then these items become precious. So, largely, we look for things that stand the test of time. Things that maybe extend beyond a toddler to a preschooler. Something an older sibling might engage in a few minutes here and there.
Personal Long-term Value
Finally, we have toddlers. We’re rushing on and off a plane. The plane has places to lose stuff. Again, they’re toddlers. So, we value those activities that are somewhat ok to lose, whether because of cost or adoration. Yes, I’ll take that $0.99 car, but I’m leaving home that $4.00 color changing Lightening McQueen that the middle little begged for for seven weeks and falls asleep clutching three out of seven nights a week. (If I have to bring that little nugget of gold, then I keep it with me until we get to that room where it will never leave again unless it is in my very own bag, zipped deep in the inner-most pocket.)
Fifteen Best Activities for Toddlers on a Plane
1. Window Gel Clings
This is such a super easy thing to bring along, and it can make for some great play. And the great thing is that there are a ton of options. We tend to use holiday ones when it’s close to any holidays, for obvious reasons. It also means that when we get to our room or rental, we can use them to decorate our space. The thing about these, though, is that once opened, they don’t usually make the journey back if we end up using them outside of just the plane.
We generally like to use gel clings that break each item into a few pieces, so they’re like putting together a puzzle. If those aren’t available, we also like to use ones we can then incorporate into a game of some sort: naming colors or letters. Inevitably, my little ones will start to rip them apart, and, honestly, that’s ok too. It’s good, quiet busy work that keeps them focused and satisfied. When you’re trapped on a plane, that’s all you can ask.
2. Water Wow Books
These books are great because you can use them again and again and again and again. You simply fill the little paintbrush with water, give it a squeeze, and paint the cardboard pages that have some type of magic in them. As you’re little guy or gal brushes the water onto each of these pages, pictures mysteriously appear. It’s great fun.
Truth be told, it can get a bit messy with the water. It’s a laminated cardboard, so the water doesn’t get absorbed; it just sits on top waiting for a little person sleeve to wipe it away. So, this is one of those activities that isn’t entirely independent; in fact, it’s best you’ve got a collection of those tiny coaster napkins the flight attendants hand out before you begin.
3. Lacing Cards
We’ve got a number of sets of these, so we switch them in and out to keep it all a bit interesting. These are shaped cards, about the size of a grown-up hand, that have holes around the edge and a string that the little one’s can weave through. The great thing is, there doesn’t have to be a rhyme or reason to how they lace them. Out two year old tends to just shove them in and out of any hole, our middle tries to neatly do the edges, and the big one makes patterns. (The fact that all our littles, from age two through seven, can get lost for a bit with lacing cards should be enough to make these sweet little items an absolute must have.
Another reason these little gems have made their way onto our list of top activities for toddlers on a plane, is that if you take the cards away, you’ve got a number of solid, substantial, unbreakable strings. We, of course, supervise our littles when they’re playing with strings like this, so let’s just get that out of the way first. Now, onto the meat of my point: we can use these strings to teach our toddlers how to tie a shoe, how to braid, how to tie a knot. Really, it ends up opening the door to a number of other activities. Anything that does double duty is a winner in our book.
4. Lift-Flap Books
There is something about a book that has little hidden pockets to open and close. Sure, my middle and tiny littles can’t read, but they do get absorbed into opening and closing all those little flaps, so the more flaps the merrier. These books are hard books, so I usually restrict it to two because they do have some weight to them.
We look for books that not only have a lot of flaps to flip, but ones that also have a few ways we can engage the littles. Admittedly, for the most part, I want my ideal activities for toddlers on a plane involve pretty limited participation on my part, but I know I can’t get away with that for too long. So, I look for ones that have more going than a little story. Maybe there’s some counting. A collection of animals we can chat about. A variety of settings we can investigate. You know. Anything to engage.
5. DoodlePro Trip
We typically bring along a DoodlePro Trip on our trips. This little gadget seems to have the ability to cross the age barriers as well, so it’s gotten years and years and years of use. It’s been an aggression releaser (in the form of angry scribbles), a menu at a fine dining establishment (serving fake burgers, soup, and coffee), a blackboard at school, a art easel, and name-writing practice. The littles use it in a million ways, both individually and together.
Another way this activity gets used quite a bit is in the stroller. It’s a great way to keep them occupied while sitting there, giving us adults a chance to look around rather than entertain.
6. Little Cars
Our littles, all of them, can turn literally anything into a roadway. The armrests on the seats? Done. The tray table? Done. My legs and arms? Done. Every spot can get turned into some type of road. Some days my middle guy’s cars simply drive from point a to point b. Next day, they may turn into a car family, a good guy and a bad guy, or a hero and his sidekick. For that reason, I usually let all the little people bring at least two cars (yes, regardless of age or gender–I’d rather carry the weight of two tiny cars, then deal with issues of sharing).
7. Little Figures
My little ones like to make families of things. Maybe it’s a little group of dogs or dinosaurs. Maybe they’ve culled together a family of giraffes and zebras. Maybe it’s a combo of all of them that have developed an outlaw, ragtag, group of bandits. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is they can get a little role playing done. It’s quiet, requires just two or three little figures, and it can be made into endless stories.
Again, with these, I usually pack a few for each of my littles, even the oldest. They play alone. They play together. I play with them (then I am promptly told I’m doing wrong and then the appropriate words and actions of the little figures are supplied to me (toddler logic)). They find friends along the way and put those sharing skills to good use.
8. Electrical/Decorative Tape
This one seems a bit out there, but stick with me. Have you noticed that these days they’re making electrical type tape in all kinds of fancy colors? You can find glitter, tiger stripes, hot pink, creature-covered, thick, thin, plain, average. The point is, every little person can find a few roles to suit their needs. But that doesn’t answer the question, why bring the tape at all.
Well, the tape provides imaginative play. Some times my tiniest just likes to put tape on stuff. That’s fun for him. As long as he’s quiet, that’s pretty fun for me too. My middle little? We make roads. A few blocks, some curves. It all changes. And my biggest, well she can use it to make designs. She makes collages on the pages of the SkyMall magazine. Each of them can map out houses for their little figures, stalls for the zebras. And it can all get easily ripped up and tossed out.
9. Homemade Lego (Duplo) Kits
My littles, all of them, through every single age and stage, have been lovers of blocks. They love magnet blocks, wooden blocks, bristle blocks, waffle blocks. So, it came as no surprise that once they walked a Lego aisle, they were smitten kittens. Since they can play with blocks for hours, and legos seem to be the smallest ones around, it make sense to take them for the ride.
To make Lego kits, I take a small plastic container with a snap lid and line the lid with lego tape. Then, voila, I just fill the container with legos, snap that lid back on, and drop it in their bags. For the tiniest little, I take two flat duplo sheets and glue them to the inside of the lid and then add some duplos in the container. He brings a lot less with him, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
When we’re going to be getting on the plane, I tend to put fewer legos in each container, as the last thing I really want to do is squeeze on the floor and try to gather up any that have fallen. And I don’t want to hear a little one whining about losing sooooo very many legos. So, on the plane, I bring less (but I do throw a little baggie of extras in my own bag (usually checked bags) just to have in case my little people have left a trail of legos behind them on our journeys.
When wikkistix are involved, the more, the better. If there are just a few, the little ones can can build two dimensional shapes, which they generally enjoy doing. And yes, once in a while those two dimensional shapes will suddenly become three dimensional and I will be having a long conversation with a standing up stickman. But the real fun, especially for those in the slightly older crowd, is being able to smoosh those wikkistix into three dimensional shapes.
Here’s the other great thing about wikkistix: they have use as a second life. So, for the first few uses, they keep that waxy, moldable feel. But once they’re in those sweaty little hands for an extended period, they get a little, well, disgusting. Those disgusting wikkistix are perfect, though, for idle hands. So while the littles are watching an iPad or movie, it’s simple to slip them into their hands and voila, that means those hands are actively engaged with something other than pinching, poking, or pulling another human.
11. Koosh Ball
Ahh the koosh ball. It is the perfect little ball to play an easy (and obviously insanely close) game of catch. Let’s discuss its merits: It doesn’t role when it lands, so there’s no chasing it up or down a plane or fetching from under a seat. It doesn’t hurt when it hits someone, so there’s no complaining. It’s easy to catch, so there’s no frustration. See? It really starts to make sense when you think about it.
Beyond just catch though, kooshes are so great at relaxing kids and filling idle hands. The snapping and stretching of the rubber bands never gets old. And its soothing as it glides up and down frustrated little arms and legs, tickling them into tiny giggles. A koosh isn’t just for catch. It’s for a little bit of therapy too.
12. Cheerios and Pipe Cleaners
This is a double whammy! That is tremendous in the world of kid entertainment. I’m gonna say it’s pretty obvious what happens here. Little one takes a pipe cleaner and a bag of Cheerios. Little one strings said Cheerios on pipe cleaner. Little one then proceeds to eat Cheerios. And every parent knows that snacks are the ultimate kid activity.
Of course, when this super-long snack time is over, there are pipe cleaners left to play with. And here’s the warning: be careful when choosing pipe cleaners; they aren’t all made the same. Some are a little more pipe and a little less cleaner, meaning they have a better chance of poking your little person with their metal tips and causing some tears. And if you can’t find adequate pipe cleaners, you can always substitute.
Let me be clear: if you cannot deal with the mess that results from playdough, this may not be for you. If you cannot deal with playdough colors mixing into one blob of brownish grey, this may not be for you. But if you do want some quiet time and you’re willing to throw caution to the wind, then this is absolutely for you.
We usually give each one of our littles three of the tiny tubs of playdough and two or three “tools”. And that’s it. It becomes a big smooshy mess. I may have to scrape a little glob up here and there from their clothes or the seat cushion, but it’s surprisingly little.
My little ones get hurt. Yes. So I can’t possibly give them all the bandaids, but still, I give them a lot. For some reason, my littles are obsessed with all things bandaids: finding a “boo boo” that doesn’t actually exist, opening the band aid up, peeling the backing off, and putting them on limbs. They will literally sit on my bathroom floor and cover every inch of their bodies in bandaids. These are usually those moments when the house becomes so quiet, I know they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing. So if they’re that quiet at home, why then shouldn’t I allow them this joy of being this quiet on the plane?
15. Busy Book/Quiet Book
I can’t say enough about a good busy book. You know the ones you open and they have things to do that involve zipping, buttoning, clothes pinning, lacing, braiding, dressing, counting, matching, sorting, and every other little thing you can think of. The busier, the better. It’s great because little people can concentrate on one thing at a time and then can do it again and again and again and again. Or they can move on. Their choice. And a little autonomy goes a long way with the preschool crowd.
Of course, it goes without saying that toddlers and preschoolers can also be wooed with iPads and snacks. But there are other choices. In fact, there needs to be because the toddlers I have had the privilege of living with hav had the attention span of a gnat at best, so changing up activities was key.
To make the whole process even more exciting, each of the activities can be wrapped up, so when they reach for something, there is the thrill of the unknown. This, too, has the potential to backfire though because when those new, wrapped little items all get opened, disappointment has the perfect opportunity to creep in.
On a final note: Before I put all of these items into their little bags, I take a photo of them. That way, when we’re frantically looking for a purple car for three hours, we don’t suddenly remember that we actually never brought a purple car and instead decided that the orange car was the better option. I’m not saying that would ever happen to us though, because our organization skills are on point. On. Point.
Whether you’re flying for three hours or going long haul, knowing you’re with a toddler or preschooler can be stressful. Let’s be honest; they’re not known for their reasonableness or ability to act rationally. They also seem to really struggle with self expression and self awareness. Still, there’s no reason to be apprehensive. There are plenty of affordable, portable activities for toddlers on a plane that can help keep them engaged and even, dare I say, happy?
Do you have an activities that seem to consistently work for keeping your toddlers and preschoolers entertained while in the air? We’d love to hear them!
And if you’re about to embark on a flight with an older infant, check out “Tips for Flying with an Older, Wigglier Infant” for some insights on how we made it through.