We have the great blessing and great curse of family scattered across the east coast, west coast and everywhere in between. Our almost-two-year-old’s got some solid frequent flier – and road-trip – miles under her belt. Because traveling toddlers are basically squirmy ticking time bombs, we’ve learned a few things about how to keep her at least entertained enough not to cause an emergency landing.
By plane, train or automobile, my criteria for travel toys are that they’ve got to be:
- Clean – because I don’t want to spend the trip picking up a gazillion little pieces tossed all over the place.
- Small – because my kid’s suitcase is already twice the size of the one my husband and I share.
- Cheap – because toddler travel’s chaotic enough without panicking about leaving something valuable in the seatback pocket.
- Quiet – because duh.
No matter what entertainment contraptions you pack in your bag of tricks, my best tip is to only use them for travel. It keeps them new and exciting, which sometimes keeps a toddler busy for ten minutes instead of five. And five minutes is an eternity in toddler travel time.
Here are some lifesavers we’ve found fit the bill:
1. Water-reveal coloring pads
A handful of brands make magical books, pads and flashcards that kids can draw on with a non-drippy water-filled “pen” to reveal colors. No mess, no 64-pack of crayons rolling onto the floor and – bonus – they turn white again when they dry out, so they’re totally reusable. We love the Melissa and Doug Water Wow pads and splash cards.
2. Reusable sticker pads
Our toddler can’t get enough of stickers, and mama can’t get enough of stickers that have to go in an appropriate place. Melissa and Doug reusable sticker pads offer so many fun combinations of stickers and backgrounds that I’ve found myself sticking cowboys to the moon long after my daughter’s moved on. Oops.
3. Magnetic drawing boards
Because some toys I had as a kid are still around for a reason. The Fisher-Price Doodle Pro Trip keeps our little one busy for way longer than I ever expect. She loves to scribble-erase-repeat, and we also play a lot of toddler “Pictionary” (which most often turns into her requesting what I draw next, laughing at my pathetic attempt and erasing it halfway through…repeat).
4. Custom photo books
New books are exciting, period, and buy us way more time than the ones on the shelf every day. But a friend recommended making a custom book with family photos, and mamas, it was a game-changer. We had a blast creating a Pinhole Press custom board book of names and faces (Google for a coupon code), and we can talk about who we’re going to visit while we’re en route. It’s also adorable and hilarious to hear our daughter babbling away about grandpa from the back seat.
5. Fun water bottles
The CamelBak eddy kids’ water bottle is our out-and-about go-to. Ours is adorned with monsters, which our toddler loves to inspect and describe in great detail, and because it’s clear, she loves to shake and spin it. In a pinch, you can wrap a blanket around it and pretend it’s a baby. (Don’t ask me why I know that.) Extra parent points: It’s darn-near spill-proof, easy to loop onto a strap or carabiner and works great for smoothies, too.
Do I even need to say this? Toddlers and snacks are a match made in heaven – and it has very little to do with hunger. Chewing and swallowing can help the pesky ear weirdness during air travel, too. We try to pack healthier options like cut-up fruit and string cheese and also rely on the trusty Ella’s Kitchen Nibbly Fingers, which our kiddo loves
crinkling the wrappers of and can handle squishing, squashing, heat, cold and spending a couple weeks at the bottom of a suitcase.
Bonus: Anything that’s not a toy
As any parent knows, the best toys are never toys. (My parents love to tell the story of how they gave me a cone-shaped paper cup from a gas station drinking fountain that I proceeded to play with the entire trip and basically didn’t realize we’d gone anywhere.) Ask a flight attendant for a couple extra cups, straws, napkins – even barf bags. They’ll probably buy you more time than your well-stocked carry-on ever could.