I started letting my daughter carry her own backpack when we traveled while she was still in preschool. Before that first trip though, I gave her as much input as I could about what to put in it.
I realized there were categories of items I could rely on to keep her busy for the flight but it would good to change up the items in those categories so she didn’t get bored. I also learned that a small backpack is better for a small kid. Kids will keep adding things until the backpack is full, and with a smaller bag they can’t pack more than they can carry.
Here are six things to put in your preschooler’s backpack when you travel.
Snacks provide nutrition on the go when you’re traveling but they also offer distraction and help to pass the time. My go-to snacks were usually Cheerios, freeze-dried fruit and yogurt drops because they aren’t messy, they keep well and kids eat them one at a time so they last a while. Cereal bars or granola bars provide some real nutrition when you wind up skipping a meal. I also liked to bring a Snack Mix (or to get one from a flight attendant) because kids tend to spend time sorting and organizing the mix before eating it, which makes it last a while.
An airplane tray table is a handy place to build. Just choose toys where pieces fit snugly into each other, like Legos or Duplos, or that have magnets to keep them from scattering, like Tegu and Magna Tiles. Systems like Zoob work well in the car because you don’t need a table.
This is the category where it’s easiest to mix things up. Modeling clay and Play-Doh would reliably hold my daughter’s attention the longest. The TSA doesn’t always like the full-size cans of Play-Doh, but I’ve never had trouble with party-size containers. We would toss a half dozen in a Ziploc bag with a small rolling pin, kid scissors and some molds.
Magic coloring books, where the accompanying marker will write in the book and nowhere else are very handy with toddlers. Sticker books and reusable sticker scenes (Melissa & Doug and Peaceable Kingdom have great ones) are cheap and easy to pack.
We went through a phase where we always packed a small craft kit that came with everything kids need for a simple project (Alex makes great ones).
We always have colored pencils and a blank pad for drawing, writing and games like Tic-Tac-Toe. We stopped traveling with crayons when we left a few loose in the back seat of the car and they melted.
Card games are small to pack and they pass the time for you as well as your child. Preschoolers can handle Go Fish, Old Maid and Spot It. And as soon as they know their colors and numbers they can play a simplified game of Uno. A lot of small card games come in big boxes; to save room we pack the cards in a small pouch and leave the box home.
One of the best things in the world is a child who naps on planes and in cars is something snuggly. A favorite stuffed animal, cozy PJs or a light blanket all help and are easy to pack. I avoid bringing the favorite stuffed toy so we don’t have to worry about losing it.
Here’s the thing with electronics: If little kids never have them they don’t miss them and they find other ways to entertain themselves. Once they get used to having them it’s impossible to travel without them, pulling them away to try more active unplugged activities is hard and they never learn how to be bored, which is actually important.
We only traveled with our tablet on very long flights or drives. We limited our daughter’s use to downloaded videos and a few apps. We always held out until the last leg of the journey to let her know we had it. It was really our last resort for when she was close to getting stir crazy. Now a tween, she absolutely claims more screen time, but she also reads and stares out the window daydreaming.
Many parents can’t imagine traveling without a tablet or e-reader for their kids and I get the convenience of it. But my advice is that if you haven’t yet started down that road, wait as long as you can and try all the other items on this list first.
Note: Available plans and coverages may have changed since this blog was published.
Traveling with babies can be tricky, but travel insurance may be able to provide some reassurance.
Eileen is a journalist whose work has appeared in the HuffPost, U.S. News, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Parents.com and many other publications. She has traveled on five continents, three of them with her daughter. She calls New York City home. You can read Eileen's blog at Familiesgotravel.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.
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