Being cooped up on a plane for any length of time is hard, especially if you are an active, inquisitive kid. Be prepared to break activity time into 15 to 30-minute chunks and take advantage of trips to the bathroom to let them get up and around a little. Here are the items I’ve found most reliable for keeping under-5s occupied on even the longest flights.
1. New toys: I like to raid the sale bins at Target (the ones right near the entrance) before a trip. You can pick up new coloring books, portable art supplies and small, inexpensive toys and books. Kids like little things and novelty.
3. Play-Doh. If your child is big enough to use the tray table, pack a takeout container with 2 or 3 party-favor size tubs and a handful of shape cutters. I’ve actually gotten some reading done on airplanes thanks to Play-Doh.
4. Dolls and action figures: Leave home the gazillion tiny accessories (unless you want to be become well acquainted with the floor under your seat). But if your child likes them, Polly Pockets, Barbies or a favorite doll with a handful of (bigger) accessories can be ideal.
5. Art Supplies: Nothing thrills Tiny Traveler like a new sticker book, especially one related to a favorite character. She’ll while away 45 minutes putting them in the book, on paper, on herself, on me. A notepad and a small box crayons is light to carry and versatile.
We found this small Crayola travel kit with dry erase crayons and a tiny white board that can be used as a blank canvas or with pictures that come with it.
6. Cars: Same as with the dolls. For kids who like them, these have the potential for lengthy playtime. Pack a few in a plastic container to keep track of them easily. A new car or truck added to the mix will prolong the playtime considerably.
7. Games: I was recently complimented by a flight attendant on British Airways for playing Go Fish with Tiny Traveler instead of letting her bury her nose in videos. Games like Memory, Go Gish, Old Maid or Uno are perfect for traytable play. Consider bulkier but still packable games like Zingo or travel Candy Land if you’re sure your child will play them. Kids will relish the one-on-one time with you.
8. Lollipops: They’re essential for take-off and landing when the kids really have to sit still and really don‘t want to.
9. Blocks: Not as crazy as it sounds. A small pack of blocks is handy for traytable play; the trick is finding ones that won’t slide around. Try Magna-Tiles or Tegu wooden blocks with magnets.
I found the shapes above that are meant for the bathtub. The surface tension makes them a little sticky so they don’t easily slide off of each other. Tiny Traveler stacked them, “baked” them and fed them to her doll.
10. Movies Many families swear by portable DVD players, but we don’t have one and probably never will. We have brought a fully charged laptop on a trans-Atlantic trip when we needed to have it with us anyway. (If you’ve never watched DVDs on your laptop do a test-run before you go to make sure you don’t need any new plug-ins). You can also rent/buy movies and cartoons from iTunes for your iPhone or iPad.
Regardless of the electronics you choose to fly with it’s essential to have headphones that are specifically for kids with an adjustable headband and volume limiter.
• Books: Aside from very small, chunky (2-inches square) picture books, I’ve learned to leave these home. They’re heavy and bulky and don’t have engage little kids for more than a few minutes.
• Naptime: If the flight it more than 3 hours the excitement will wear them out and they’ll nap at some point. Bring items to help them along including a pacifier, a favorite blanket and a second-favorite cuddly toy. Unless you have extras or your child’s favorite snuggly is easily replacable, having them settle for number 2 can be easier than dealing with losing number 1.
• Snacks: Bring plenty of snacks, especially those you normally don’t allow. I like snack mixes because the kids will sort them and stack them and sample and decide what order to eat them in and it nicely draws out snack-time. Let them have whatever the flight attendants offer, even if it’s junkier than you usually allow. The novelty factor goes a long way. And by all means, let them have a meal if one is offered. There will be something on the tray they like. Plus being handed a miniature tray, plate and utensile that seem made for them is such a kick, they might actually try something new!
Be sure to pack an empty sippy cup so you can get juice or water from the flight attendants without having to worry about spills.
• The plane. Let them thoroughly explore the seat, the seat belts, the seat pocket, the window shade, the air vents and lights, etc. It’s all new and fascinating.
[More: Our picks for the best travel toys and games for 2013]