Family Travel: Fun Things for Kids to Do on the Road or in a Plane

Before you're ready to embark on family travel, whether by plane or car, it's important to keep your child busy with activities that will engage his attention and make the trip less stressful for everyone. Following are some guidelines for packing activities for family travel.

Plan a small surprise travel bag about a week before the family trip for each child. You can give children their bag as soon as you’re on the freeway if you’re traveling by car or if by plane, when you have reached cruising altitude.

In the surprise travel bag, I put juice, a variety of healthy snacks, a protein bar (avoid sugary treats that may give your child a surge of energy, making it difficult to stay seated), crayons and small coloring books or word search and crossword puzzle books. Imaginetics makes small and large playboard sets that have magnetic pieces. They offer scene playboards for younger children, such as Thomas Train, Dinosaurs, Ballet and Betty Spaghetti. For older kids, they offer games like Hangman and Bingo. You can purchase their games at Toys-r-Us. (If you take a lot of family trips you may not be able to afford a new surprise activity bag each time. Instead, reserve the items for use only during family travel, so they will seem like new.)

family travel

For children who are eight and older, pack a blank journal in which they can record their experiences about the trip. This will encourage writing skills and turn into a cherished memory book of family travel. (See photos of the travel journal my children recently made of our family trip to Cabo San Lucas.) Once the plane reaches cruising altitude, ask the child to write about her experiences preparing for the trip. She can also include any research she has done about the culture or destination and what she’s most looking forward to on the trip. (If the timing of your family travel dictates that you take your children out of school, many elementary school teachers will allow students to hand in a travel journal in lieu of doing language arts homework. If your child likes to draw, encourage her to do illustrations. If she plans to hand in her journal, urge her to keep her writing focused on points of interest and observations of similarities and differences in plant life, geography, climate, language, architecture, food or culture.)

If you can afford to spend ten extra dollars, include a disposable camera with the journal. This encourages your child to see things with a photographer’s eye and embellish her journal with photos taken during family adventures. If your family has gone digital, bring along a notebook computer and digital camera so your child can make an electronic slide show of the family trip. After her return, she can import her files into Power Point or upload them to an online photo service. (One year, in lieu of doing homework, my young boys and I made a movie complete with narration and soundtrack. We had hours of fun editing it and selecting music appropriate to the scenes. We ended up with a five minute movie that featured the highlights of the trip. The movie was fun, funny, set to contemporary music and the students and teachers loved it.)

Other ideas of what to include in the family travel pack are a miniature chess or checkers set or a mini Lego project that can be completed in thirty minutes or so. Avoid activities with small parts for children under five. If you take along small projects in a car, bring a breakfast serving tray with folding legs, so your child can use this as a work surface. Select activities that will engage your child mentally, as well as physically.

If your children are older, bring along a travel book. Leaf through it with your child and ask him to pick places of interest to visit. In this way, he helps plan the itinerary for your family trip. If your family travel involves an international destination, immerse your child in the country’s culture before the trip and on the airplane by bringing language tapes and books on culture.

As your flight passes over various points of interest, such as the Grand Canyon or Mississippi River, point them out. Show your child the flight path for your family adventure and all the states or countries he will be flying over. When we flew from Reno to Orlando and showed our children what this distance looked like on the map, they were amazed. Viewing a map gives school age children an idea of the scope of air travel. See if your kids can point out the destinations where you have traveled for family vacations in the past. Inform them how long the flight will last, so they’ll have an idea of how long they will have to occupy themselves.

On family travel that involves a plane ride, it’s a good idea to seat children next to the window because this serves as a distraction. Although small children will probably be more interested in pulling up and down the window shade, sitting next to the aisle allows you to act as a buffer between your child and the aisle which after an hour of sitting will start looking more and more compelling.

When the seat belt light goes off, allow your child to get up, stretch, move around and change seats with a sibling if he chooses. Take advantage of this opportunity to allow your child to expend some physical energy. If you have a child under three, this is a good time to walk the aisles, point out the galley, the captain’s cabin and visit the bathroom. (Be aware that federal regulations prohibit passengers from forming a line at the bathroom door. This rule makes travel difficult for small children.)

If your family travel involves a car trip, schedule frequent stops. Although it may seem more important to drive straight through and get the travel over with, for children, it’s crucial to make the journey fun. Stop at places of interest along the way: a special restaurant, a mall or boutique, a zoo or park.

When traveling with children, make the journey as important as the destination. Bringing along activities that will engage body and mind is a crucial aspect of making getting there as fun as possible.

This article may not be copied in whole or in part or redistributed in any way without the express written permission of the author.

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