How to Keep Toddlers Busy on Airplanes


Flagstaff Moms Blog - Airplane

School’s out for the summer and it’s time to pack in all of our summer adventures and travel plans.

I’m sure the thought of traveling with a toddler gives you anxiety, especially if you’re flying and have to navigate the airport, security, and all of your luggage with a two-year-old. Not to mention trying to keep your child awake long enough to board the plane and get settled in so that hopefully they fall asleep and snooze for part of the flight.

This may be obvious, but I’m going to put this out there again, because I recently was the victim of a 7:55 am flight … that I did not book. 

Try to schedule your flights, if you can, around your child’s nap schedule. Be sure to consider the time you’ll need to get to the airport, check-in, check bags, get the security, etc. I know it’s not always feasible, but it could make your flight a little more enjoyable.

My daughter Tilly has been traveling since she was nine weeks old, taking her first flight from Buffalo to Phoenix (4.5 hours one way). We’ve flown coast to coast with her, visiting Orlando, San Francisco, Buffalo, Phoenix, Los Angeles and our most recent (and longest) trip to Lihue, Hawaii. She’s also traveled by car long distances and is generally a very good traveler. Yes, I know, I’m very lucky.

Because our flight to Hawaii was 6.5 hours, I knew I had to prep an activity bag to keep her busy. If you get to travel with grandparents, aunts or uncles, that’s always helpful as they can help occupy your kids and give you a break; however, on this flight, it was all me — and she did awesome.

Here’s what I packed:

1. Colored pipe cleaners and assorted beads (including letters): We made bracelets for everyone on the trip. Tilly helped me choose the color of the pipe cleaner she wanted to make for each person and then customized the bracelets with the person’s name, plus extra beads. Let your child string the pipe cleaner through the beads. This takes some concentration and good hand-eye coordination so it takes up some time. Once the beads are on, twist the ends of the pipe cleaner to form a bracelet and voila! This kept her busy for about 45 minutes and delighted her grandparents when she delivered them.Warning: Be careful not to let your child hold the bag of beads in case they drop the whole thing and they go flying everywhere. I used a big zip lock bag to store the beads.

2. Matching card game – Tilly got this card matching game in her stocking for Christmas last year and I saved it specifically for traveling. The cards are small and thick, about half the size of a regular pack of cards, and the game objective is to match the animal to their shadow. Very fun for kids and good educational activity. We first put all of the cards out face up so that she understood the point of the game, then with subsequent rounds, we flipped them over so she could play a memory game, too. She loved this and we did a few rounds of this on the flight.

3. Melissa & Doug On-the-Go Water Wow! – My cousins introduced these water activity books to me when Tilly was younger and they’ve always been a hit. We use them at restaurants while waiting for our food and I always keep one in my bag. All you need is water to color and then the paper dries and they can do it again. There’s no mess! For this trip, I packed the numbers one as she had not seen that one and it would be new to her. She knows her numbers but is learning to count, so this one was a fun one to do.

4. Snacks – This one is a no-brainer but it does keep kids busy for a bit. Tilly loves pretzels, so that was one thing I didn’t have to pack since they give them to you for free. We packed some cookies, pirate’s booty, goldfish and pocky sticks. I also bring a take & toss sippy cup for her so we can pour her milk/water into it and don’t have to worry about her knocking over a plastic cup of liquid.

5. iPad/Movie – I’ll put on a movie when I sense that Tilly is getting tired or let her play her Alphabet or Numbers app on the iPad. We usually try to find a movie that shows her where she is going so she can get an idea of what she will see there. For this trip, we bought Moana on iTunes and that’s what she watched before she fell asleep. It was perfect because she made connections between the beach/ocean, leis, roosters running around, sea turtles, etc. and she saw all of those things on our trip!

6. Books – Similar to the movie, a few weeks before we go on a trip, we order a few books about that destination and read them to her at night. It’s so awesome when she sees something from her books and tells us about it. When we read the books again, she will point out what she saw in real life and vice versa.

All in all, she was fantastic on the flight to Lihue. It could have been the excitement of going on an airplane (and understanding what was happening), the perfect timing of her first nap of the day for the first 1.5 hours of the flight, or just her general happiness, but even the people around us commented about how great of a traveler she was — which always makes a parent happy!

I hope these tips help. If you have other ideas on how to keep your child entertained on a flight, leave me a comment below. I’d love to know!