If you dread toddler travel, I hear you: it’s not easy. But the first step towards a less stressful—and even enjoyable—travel experience might be to reframe how you think about it. You can look at the time as a chance for intimate family connection—something that is way too rare in our busy lives.
As someone who has done a ton of travel with three kids, I know how challenging it can be. But in committing to going as tech-free as possible, our family finds that travel is an opportunity to connect. Following are some ways to leave the plane feeling fuzzy, not fried.
Note: If you want to hide the screen that comes with your seat to avoid your toddler interacting with it, these large post it notes work great.
1. Dot sticker play
Dot stickers are simple and fun and great for developing fine motor skills. They are also inexpensive and easy for your toddler to peel off of a sheet or roll.
What you need:
As always with small objects, supervise your toddler to make sure they don’t put the stickers in their mouth.
- Stick the dots on different parts of your toddler’s body and your own. Play “where is your nose, elbow, arm?” Stick a dot on you without your toddler seeing and them find it.
- Stick dots on a big piece of white paper on the tray table.
- Have your toddler tear up a piece of construction paper and use the stickers to stick the pieces of torn paper to the white sheet
2. Win-win wipes
We know your toddler loves to pull wipes out of a container. Bring a small travel pack just for them and get them to put them to additional use by wiping seats, airplane walls, and tray tables.
3. Little presents
Wrap up some new little toys for your toddler to open that you won’t be devastated to lose. You can wrap them in leftover wrapping paper or newspaper, or in little containers, bags or small boxes. This is a great way to use up those extra scraps of odd-sized wrapping paper you have lying around if you are anything like me. Unwrapping loosely-wrapped gifts is a great fine motor activity for your toddler, allowing her to practice using both hands at once.
Here are some ideas:
- Wind-up toys: toddlers love to hold wind-up toys and stop the motion with their hands (they rarely want to just watch it go, and that’s ok).
- Finger puppets: sing songs, play games like peek-a-boo with the puppets.
- Pom poms: ask for two clear plastic cups and fill one with with pom poms, then pour from one cup to another.
- Ribbon: let your toddler unravel an inexpensive roll of ribbon, then you can wind it back up and let them unravel it again. Cut different lengths for your toddler to measure, show how a short piece fits around their wrist but not yours.
- Feathers: tickle each other, stick them to paper with the dot stickers.
4. Post-it flags
These are fun to stick around the seats and easy to unstick when you are done
5. Markers and paper
If you can stand the mess with washable markers, they make a mark more easily and can be more fun to play with than crayons.
- If markers get on the tray table or your toddler’s hands, they can use their own travel pack of wipes to clean it off.
- I like to bring some blank sheets of white printer paper to color together. Coloring with your toddler makes it more meaningful and they are more likely to stay engaged longer. Child development specialists call this “shared attention.”
- You can use one of the dot stickers to stick and display your toddler’s art on the airplane window or the seat in front of you.
6. Books—a couple of new ones (lightweight) and a couple of favorites
The Indestructible brand of books are especially great for travel because they are so light and durable. Introducing fresh books your toddler isn’t familiar with might get them more excited to be read to. Also, having at least one reliable favorite on hand is a good idea in case they’re not in the mood for something new.
Play-Doh comes in small travel containers for sensory fun, and sometime between 18 and 24 months, your toddler will start enjoying exploring and manipulating it. Squishing and squeezing builds fine motor strength.
8. Water painting books
These books are easy for your toddler to use, very portable, and the pigment is in the page so you don’t have to worry about a mess. All you need is water.
9. Snacks—but more importantly, the snacks container
- Snacks in packaging with open-and-close lids (like puffs) are the best kind. You can play so many games with puffs or small raisin boxes.
- if you are up for it, your toddler will love feeding you, too.
- Hide some puffs in one of your hands and see if your toddler can guess which hand has the puffs.
- Line them up and count them for your toddler on the tray table.
10. Light switch and air blower exploration:
- Have your toddler stand on your lap or lift them up to reach the light switch (not the flight attendant call button 😉) and narrate “light on, light off.” My little guy said the word “light” for the first time while playing with the switches on an airplane and I will never forget it!
- Twist the blower on and off and talk about how the air is blowing on their face or through their hair.
11. Lap songs and games
Sing songs to your toddler while they sit on your lap or lie down across you. Clap, snap, and make the rhythms come alive—fellow passengers may just join in 🎶. Here are lyrics to songs that are great for singing and clapping along.
12. Ice and plastic cups
- Ask for an extra cup and pour ice from one cup to the other or slide the ice around the tray table.
- Talk about how the ice is cold and then, when it melts, talk about how it is turning to water.
- Your toddler can use the napkin to wipe up the water.
13. A trip to the plane bathroom
When your little person gets fussy, a trip to the plane restroom to change venues can be a welcome distraction.
- Hold them so they can play with the water, pump the foam soap, and look in the mirror.
- Playing with the door lock is fun, too.
- If they’re tall enough and can reach the sink from the toilet lid, have them stand on it while you support them. You can also sit on the toilet and support them as they stand on your lap to reach the sink. This will help your back if you’re in there for a while.
- I leave the door a bit open to be sure no one is waiting because my toddler would be in there for the whole flight if I let her.
14. Opening and closing the window shades
If you have a window seat, helping your toddler practice opening and closing the window shade with your hand over theirs while saying “open, close” is entertaining.
15. An excursion to see the flight attendants
Sometimes flight attendants are busy and can’t take the time to engage with your toddler. But often they have a few minutes and will welcome the opportunity for a short visit.
- You could have your toddler bring her trash to the back of the plane and throw it away in the flight attendant’s trash bag.
- Your toddler could hand the attendant some of her scribble art or some dot stickers as a “gift.”
- You could go to the back of the plane with your toddler and ask for a cup of ice together.
16. Play peek-a-boo
You can play peek-a-boo and if the person behind you is up for it, double fun peeking through the cracks and over the seat.
17. Opening, folding, and closing the safety pamphlet
In the seat pocket the safety pamphlet is interesting for your toddler to unfold and re-fold.
A lot of the ideas for keeping toddler busy at a restaurant work great for the plane too. Link here for more ideas.
DM me with your favorite tips for traveling with your toddler. I’m always on the lookout for more!
cofounder + CEO