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When you fly with kids, it is very important that you pack and strategize for the flight accordingly, to increase the odds that you’ll have a blissfully uneventful trip.
We all know how energetic kids are in general — and that already makes being in a small, confined space a bit tough. Being unprepared for a flight with kids can result in an exhausting experience for you, the child and other passengers.
A tablet may be an easy way to keep the kids entertained in the sky, but with the increasing amount of time children spend on electronics devices, it is important to remember that tablets are far from the only source of entertainment available at 35,000 feet.
There are several (mostly) low-tech ways to ensure you and your kids survive the next flight. After all, when most of us grew, there was no such thing as tablets and we all managed to survive our travels — it is totally possible.
Our family has been on several flights and we have tried and tested a number of ways to keep the kids engaged. I recently traveled with four kids five years of age and under (without another adult), and I was able to keep them entertained on all of the flights without using any electronic devices. Looking to cut down on the screen time in your family? File away these 10 ways to keep kids entertained on flights without whipping out a single tablet.
1. Surprise your kids with a new toy
Before you leave home, give your kids a chance to pick some of their favorite toys for travel. But save room for a surprise toy — or two. You can pack the surprise toy(s) in their backpack or yours, but don’t reveal them until the flight. Kids are more likely to stay engaged with a new toy for a longer period of time. And though one new toy may be plenty for a flight, on long-haul flights, consider at least two. Surprise new toys such as Play-Doh, Silly Putty, Play Foam are a great place to start — or use this opportunity to give your child a specific toy he or she has been asking for.
2. Bring school supplies
Pack an empty notebook with crayons, and when your kids become restless, bring out the notebook and encourage them to become in-flight artists. Depending on the age of your children, coloring books may be preferable. Melissa & Doug Water Wow is great for mess-free painting — just keep a close eye on them and make sure the plane itself isn’t turning into a masterpiece.
You can also use a flight to set aside time for learning. Pack an age-appropriate activity book or a homework packet — just makes your kids are studying their favorite subject to prevent them from feeling stressed or pressured. (I usually let them pick the activity book themselves.) My own kids are all about writing right now, so for our most recent flight, I purchased a pencil pouch and packed a few crayons, markers, pencils, a pencil sharpener, a glue stick and a pair of blunt kids scissors. I also purchased a wide-ruled notebook for free writing and an activity book for learning. This worked wonders on the plane!
3. Download music or audio books
I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t love listening to music, so download your kid’s favorite songs in advance of the flight. Get them involved from the beginning to make sure they’re excited about the selections. Audio books can be a great option, too. My son’s favorite song is the “Thomas & Friends” theme song. He can listen to it on repeat for a long time and that keeps him happily entertained. Just remember to pack headphones.
4. Try a magnetic game
Magnetic board games are a great resource for your next trip. The pieces stick to the playing board (making it more difficult to lose them in-flight) and even parents will have fun challenging their little ones with classic games of chess, checkers and tic-tac-toe. Stretch the game time for as long as possible and let them win every so often so they don’t get discouraged. You can also purchase magnetic building blocks for your kids to play with on the flight. There are many different types available such as Mini Magnets and Tegu Blocks. Those are great because kids can build independently without help.
5. Read a book
Most passengers on the plane would prefer listening to you read to your kids, as opposed to listening to them have boredom meltdowns. Bring a few of their favorite books so you can give them options and variety. After reading a story through once, depending on the age, challenge your kids to practice reading the book back to you. Comic books are also great, and relatively inexpensive and lightweight. Do not give them all the books, either. Pull them out as needed throughout the flight. If you have kids who can read on their own, let them pick a new book to take with them.
6. Make friends with the cabin crew
You can extend your kid’s in-air excitement by bringing a new pal into the picture. Befriend the cabin crew and ask them to drop by now and then to say hello — and congratulate your child for being so well-behaved. This is a great way to build self-esteem and keep him or her excited about their next trip. During downtime (when the seat belt sign is off), you can take your kid to the back of the plane so he or she can talk to the flight attendants and ask questions when they aren’t too busy with their official duties. Flight attendants are usually very caring and attentive, and in our experience, they enjoyed chatting with our kids. The kids, in turn, loved being able to talk to someone new.
7. Play card games
Card games are a favorite for many parents flying with kids. Carry a few of your kid’s favorite card games and, as with every activity on a flight, try to push the game for as long as possible. Remember that your primary goal is to keep them distracted until you arrive at your destination. To make it more fun, you can jot down a score chart to see who wins the most. Some of my kids’ favorite card games are Uno, Old Maid and Go Fish.
8. Give your kids a camera
Buying my kids a camera is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because it keeps them occupied and I love being able to see the world through their eyes. When you’re flying, it helps to have them seated next to the window (and remind them to not take photos of other passengers without permission). When you get home, you can go through the photos together and print their favorites — you can even create postcards on the road using a service like PostSnap. Consider purchasing a child’s camera, such as the VTech Kidizoom, or simply an affordable (and durable) digital camera. And bring along a large memory card, because once your kids get excited about having a camera and taking pictures, they just may take pictures of every single thing.
9. Pack plenty of food and snacks
Don’t underestimate how distracting and entertaining snacks can be for kids during a flight. When kids (or, let’s be honest, adults) get hungry, they can get very fidgety and unhappy, so keep bellies full. Packing an easy, healthy meal or snack for your kids to enjoy on the plane is very important. Bring familiar foods that your kids love and enjoy at home, and then pack a special treat that they wouldn’t normally get — you know the one — as a last-ditch trick up your sleeve. Just avoid especially pungent foods as a courtesy to your inflight neighbors.
10. Have a conversation with your kids
In my experience, this is the easiest, and also the most overlooked way to keep your kids entertained during a flight. Both parents and children are often so absorbed in their electronic devices that no one takes advantage of the fixed conversation opportunity. On your next flight, discuss with your kids where you are traveling, what you will see and do and, on the way home, what everyone enjoyed most about the trip. If you aren’t sure where to start, a good conversation starter can be a map or a small globe. We always travel with one, and that gives us an opportunity to teach the kids about the cities, states or countries we are flying over. If you don’t have one on hand, the airline’s inflight magazine should have a route network map that will suffice.
There are numerous ways to keep kids entertained on flights without introducing screens into the mix. Even if you’re simply putting off tablet use as long as possible, employing these tricks can help you turn your next flight into genuine quality time between you and your little ones.
For more help in planning for your child’s next flight, check out the TPG Family survival guide for your child’s first flight. You can follow Karen and her family’s travels on her blog, The Mom Trotter, and on Instagram.
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