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17 Ways to Entertain Kids on Planes

by Nancy Solomon from Ciao Bambino

The thought of being trapped with a screaming child on an airplane is enough to keep even the most avid traveler on the ground. For others, it drives them to play Polly Pocket or to speak in an unnaturally high and sweet voice for hours on end. To spare you from this, we’ve come up with ideas that will help keep everyone sane on the plane.

Just like kids, parents come in all types of personalities—the planner and the non-planner, laid-back and uptight, etc. We’ve met them all and possibly been them all. Pick the airplane activities that fit your and your child’s personality the best, noting that many things on this list are geared towards younger children. Once kids hit six, they are more likely to play and read on their own. Electronics are key—don’t miss the earphone recommendations at the end of the post!

  1. Presents. Young children love presents. Keep them occupied on long flights by wrapping everything in your carry-on bag. Small toys like dolls or cars, or even treats like jelly beans and candy will work. They’ll love unwrapping each item and it keeps them busy for long periods of time.
  2. Eating. This is one of our main sources of entertainment. Think small, non-messy snacks that take a long time to consume. Pack them in small containers to extend consumption time. Use what you know they like, as well as new things. Ideas: Goldfish, pretzel sticks, shredded carrots, raisins, Trix (never consumed in my house, but a perfect treat to busy my toddler for an hour on this last flight.)
  3. Doctor’s Kit. Pack a kid-friendly doctor’s kit with a doll for kids to explore. Load it with tons of band-aids, tape, and gauze to peel, pull and wrap for hours.
  4. Fun Placemats. Print out drawings from the web and let them color their own placemats.  Bring tape so it stays stable on the tray table.
  5. Photos. My kids love photographs. Before the trip, put together small albums with shots of friends or family you’re going to see while away.
  6. Stretch and Wiggle Game. Derived from a book called “From Head to Toe,” see how many body parts you can turn, wiggle or stretch.
  7. Books. There are a huge variety of children’s books written about almost every destination.  Before arrival, the interest level might not be as high as you’d like, but once you are there, kids get really excited to see some of the sights from their trip.
  8. Talk About Planes. Look at pictures of planes the night before leaving and read stories about transportation. Not only will this get the kids excited about the experience, but you can also use this as an opportunity to discuss behavior expectations while flying.
  9. Comfort Factor. Pack favorite pajamas or the most comfortable outfits to help the kids sleep during long flights. Also, don’t forget a change of clothes in case of spills or accidents.  There is nothing worse than sitting in wet clothes. I always pack a change for myself as well. Also, don’t forget to grab a few extra pacifiers, special blankets, etc., just in case one gets dirty or lost. This may sound simple, but it can be horrible when these “precious” items get lost or forgotten.
  10. MapQuest. Print out a map of your destination from the web and bring highlighters to map the route over land or across the ocean. For the return flight, try to keep receipts, maps, ticket stubs, menus, etc., to create a scrapbook on the plane ride home.
  11. Arts and Crafts. Of course this varies with age, but here are some toys that can span a large age range. Stickers, Wikki Stixs, pipe cleaners, and sketch books.
  12. Little Characters. Pick a few toy characters that your kids love—babies, action figures, Polly Pockets, little horses, whatever! The important thing is to fill the bag with a variety of options. Forget about things that can roll away or really special items that will cause a fuss if lost.
  13. Finger puppets. Small and endless entertainment. A little show is especially delightful for the 2-year-old crowd.
  14. Coloring. Coloring is great, as long as it’s on paper and that’s not always easy to control; pens that don’t mark off the paper work very well like Crayola Color Wonder pads and pens. Bring other pens as well, but stick to washable pens and bring wipes to remove the out-of-bounds coloring. 
  15. Emergency Tantrum Kit. This is the last resort bag. Pack your child’s favorite special sweet or treat. Lollipops (messy, which is why they are a last resort), Tic-Tacs, ring-pops, or whatever will help them settle down and avoid a full tantrum. Most of the time, this bag remains untouched. I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior, but public humiliation will drive me to it.
  16. Ready Made Travel Kits. If you’re traveling at a hectic time of year, consider a pre-made kit.  Both of these company’s offer terrific options: Custom Travel Activity Kit and Timeflies Kits.
  17. Videos. This is a must, even if you limit screen time at home, embrace it on a plane!  The two key factors are comfortable earphones and age-appropriate shows. Think Baby Einstein, Little Einsteins or Dora for younger kids. Theme films with a sense of place like the Hunchback of Notre Dame for older children work well. Use a portable DVD player, laptop, or iPods.  iTunes offers many popular kids TV shows and movies.

Bonus Travel Tips

  • We’ve learned that it is essential to test earphones at home before you leave.  For young children, you might want to try a Squishy Pillow or a travel pillow with speakers.
  • For long flights, pre-charge and bring back-up batteries. Also, even if the plane offers in-flight entertainment, be sure to have alternate activities. We have been on a few flights where the entertainment system was not operating.
  • A note for kids ages 6 and up. Flying at this age is so much easier and preparation is a breeze.  While some of the tips above can apply, like making sure they are comfortable, older kids really just need a snack, well-charged electronics and a good book. I still throw in some art supplies in case they are inclined to draw and a game to play together like cards or TextTwist (iPhone Application).
  • Involve your children in the process of packing—let them pick a few items to put in their backpacks or mini-wheeled bags.

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Ciao Bambino Ciao Bambino provides tips and advice around all things related to traveling with kids and comprehensive reviews of the best kid friendly hotels.

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