16 Ideas for Keeping Small Children Busy on an Airplane

16 Ideas for Keeping Small Children Busy on an Airplane

Last Christmas we had a 5.5-hour flight. No layover, no meal service, and no escape from the screaming toddler I envisioned would be mine. So like any mother suffering from flight-induced travel terror, I over-prepared.

Why? Because after 400 bajillion hours in the security line taking off/putting on shoes/jackets/belts, folding/unfolding the stroller that refuses to fit on the conveyor belt, checking my child’s medicine for national security threats, being felt up by a TSA officer, and trying to get the Little to stop licking the moving walkway, I don’t have the energy to be nice to everyone else on the plane who is mad my child is crying and thinks maybe I didn’t notice.

How to Keep the Toddler Happy on an Airplane

All 16 items are listed at the bottom of this post*, but since I know you’re busy packing for your trip, here is what kept my children in the horrible-airplane-age-range of 12-36 months occupied for the longest amount of time:

Easter Eggs Filled with New Surprises

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We used these when they were one (15 months, 21 months) two (30 months, 35 months), and even at ages 3 and 4. You can refill and close the eggs repeatedly to make the activity last longer. It’s more parent work, but it’s easier than crying.

Tip: Fill with toys that come apart. This lasted an hour, which is FOREVER in 2-year-old time.

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And even better, ditch the Easter eggs and get a medicine container. Endless fun.

medicine-container-on-airplane

Window Decals

window-decals

I find it hard to believe that I don’t have pictures of my children using these since we’ve used them on at least 10 flights in the past four years, but alas, I cannot find any. You can get these at the dollar store.

Toothpicks

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Rinse out an old seasoning container and slip toothpicks into the slots. Great for fine motor practice. Warning: they are sharp, but we’ve had zero casualties.

Beads and Other Lacing Activities

We’ve done beads on pipe cleaners, (gluten-free) macaroni necklaces on yarn, and a little homemade counting abacus (tutorial here)

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21-miriam-macaroni-necklace-concentrating

13-miriam-abacus-cute

NEW Stickers

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Another dollar store thrill.

Food

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Nothing grand because of food allergies/intolerances, but we go out of our way to have “special water” in fun bottles. I’m sure other moms can chime in here.

Bonus tip: bring their own backpacks, preferably with wheels

This served as our primary source of entertainment in the airport.

kids-on-ramp-airplane

The 16 Ideas All in One Spot 

Here’s the picture one more time for reference.

16 Ideas for Keeping Small Children Busy on an Airplane

  1. Cars. Small enough to fit comfortably in the bag, big enough to be stopped by the railing under the seat when they’re dropped.
  2. Coloring Supplies. New. Always.
  3. Pipe cleaners and beads for lacing
  4. Toothpicks and a sorting container.
  5. New-to-us books borrowed from a friend.
  6. Macaroni necklaces.
  7. Annoying sing-song toys. Passengers can’t hear them because the engine drowns them out.
  8. Movies. The DVDs with episodes are the best. We can watch another movie whenever they get antsy and the 20-25 minute length seems long enough. This is mostly for the older ones.
  9. Counting abacus
  10. Window decals
  11. Soft ball to toss back and forth.
  12. Felt board (cardboard with fleece over it) with extra pieces
  13. Maps
  14. Pictures of the vacation. We were going to Disney World, so we looked at different rides.
  15. Easter eggs filled with surprises
  16. Stickers

*Disclaimer: Use your discretion as many of these are not considered age-appropriate because of small pieces, Considering the close proximity of the airplane, I felt comfortable with my ability to monitor my children. Phew, hope that gets any legal stuff out of the way.

[UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who supplied info about the take-apart erasers. And for those of you I didn’t answer in a timely manner – please accept my apologies. From experience, I would not recommend losing your password/login for a website (or the email account associated with it). Luckily, there are magic elves at WordPress, MailChimp, and BlueHost that got me squared away.]

What did I miss? What are your tried-and-true airplane travel tricks?

66 thoughts on “16 Ideas for Keeping Small Children Busy on an Airplane

  1. 5.5 hours on the plan, how about 14 hours from Johannesburg South Africa to Atlanta with a 2 year old. As a grandparents with 10,000 miles between us and our missionary kids we are always looking for great ideas. These are as good as I have ever seen. Great ideas!!!!!!!!!!! THANKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Larry

  2. My sister recommended doing watercolor paints on an airplane (her son was 2 1/2 at the time). I thought she was crazy, but again with the fact that you’re in such close proximity you can hover and keep things in control, it’s actually a great idea! You just give them about 1 cm of water in their cup, keep a baby wipe on hand, and they’re good to go for a long time!

  3. Great post! Thanks for sharing your ideas. Many of these are things we would try at home, but are genius for car/plane rides. I’m definitely trying the abacus next time!

    • The abacus is a lot of fun and we even mastered counting to 10. It was extra special since we made it together, so they felt like they were in charge of the kind of fun they got to have on the plane.

  4. This is awesome!! I have a question about the eggs and medicine containers. What exactly did you fill the eggs with? I see the food looking toy but I’m not sure where to find something like that?

    And the medicine container…did you put anything in there or was opening and closing it enough fun?

    I’m flying for the first time next week and I’m freaking!!

    • I filled the eggs and medicine containers with anything small. A big favorite were mardi gras necklaces, stickers, bouncy balls, and squinkees.

      Opening and closing the container was also fun enough, but she started to want to put things like ice from her water. So look out for that.

  5. I do the same thing for my children when we travel by car, for every hour they are good, they get a prize from the treasure chest (which is a square cardboard box I used construction paper to make look like a treasure chest) same ideas as you listed above but with one fun addition, I wrap them in tissue paper, so they get to “open” the prize. Each child has their own color tissue paper so I can individualize the prizes

  6. Hi. I’m still finding Easter eggs under my couch weeks after Easter. Those things are so entertaining. We use glow sticks, reusable sticker books, mini white boards and temporary tattoos. Happy travels!

    • Ooh, I’d like to try that. My Littles didn’t care for Play-Doh in the past, but that’s probably because you can only make so many snakes before you get bored. But I’m pretty sure they’d have a ball if there were presses and stamps.

  7. I know it has been several months since you posted this but thank you. I have 3 children, with my youngest at 22 months old with 8 yrs between her and my middle! Yikes. Surprise! Anyway, we had start all over again with our thinking and of course she is majorly different than the other two. They were content to sit, read and eat. She is not. These are great. Not only for travel but for dining out! Thanks!

  8. This is great – Thanks. Travelling across hemispheres and large timezones this coming Christmas… VERY nervous. Mainly because of the dirty looks (you know what I’m talking about). Terrific tips

    • I sure do know those dirty looks you’re talking about. However, I’ve found my children (almost) always do much better than I expected. Which is a pleasant surprise for everyone else on the plane who thought they’d be little gremlins. Good luck!

  9. Thankyou so much for these wonderful ideas! I am flying home to the UK with a 2 year old in a few weeks and I am dreading it! I will definately be using some of your tips :) I was just wondering where you got your tiny hot dog and sandwich toys from?

  10. Great ideas!!! I know this is an older post, but several people have asked about the tiny food–those are Chinese erasers. We have bought ours from out local toys stores (not the big box ones). They are about $0.50-2.00 each here. And I think Amazon carries them, too!

  11. I just flew solo with my 2 and 3 year old for the first time over Thanksgiving. I read lots of tips and articles in preparation, and it went pretty well! I would say to definitely bring a kid-sized backpack for each child who can carry her own. I filled each backpack with never-before-seen surprises such as you mentioned, plus a few others…
    -small playdough tubs
    -Color Wonder drawing pages and coloring sheets with markers
    -a small doll/ stuffed animal
    -LOTS of snacks (plus my bag had a picnic lunch, treats, and suckers in case of ear-popping issues)
    -new books (especially activity/ sticker books for non-readers)

    Other tips:
    -Don’t forget a change of clothes and underwear for the kids! I experienced an in-flight potty accident followed by a three-person visit to the TINY airplane bathroom… and did I mention I am 6 months pregnant?! That was our low point, for sure.
    -When at the airport, look to entertain/ wear out your kids: escalator rides, running/ climbing around gate areas that are not in use, walking/ sightseeing/ people watching, BONUS if your airport has a designated play area!
    -I let my kids have juice on the plane, and they thought it was the biggest treat! They loved using the cupholder in their trays, too.
    -We borrowed an iPad and headphone splitter from friends, and I bought $5 headphones for each child. That was my trick up my sleeve that I was so thankful for when things got a little hairy. They got to watch a couple of shows and play some games that were already loaded on the iPad…it was the quietest stretch of the entire trip when they were using the iPad.
    -Stay calm, breathe deeply, apologize to the people in surrounding seats ahead of time, and don’t be afraid to ask flight attendants or others for help!

  12. Painters tape or washi tape! It peels on and off the chairs, windows and tray tables. No residue is left and it’s easy to crumple the used tape into a small ball to throw away.

    • GENIUS! We bought our daughter those little colored Scotch tapes for Christmas because she can’t seem to get enough of it. Never thought about bringing it on the plane. Now I just need a trip to go on…

  13. Awesome ideas! We travel on planes quite a bit (live in a remote community but hubby works for the airline) so we use a lot of the same tricks especially the plastic eggs! We also ALWAYS let the two year old indulge in some gum or other chewy treat like Nibs or gummy bears. Not just for the distraction but to help with ears popping on take off and landing. Works briliantly!

    • Ahhh – I never thought about chewy treats to alleviate ears popping. I always wondered what to do in that strange phase where pacifiers were finished, but gum was still too difficult to handle. Brilliant.

  14. The felt/cloth mini foods are available at a variety of stores, mostly craft stores like Michaels, AC Moore, Hobby Lobby, etc. You can also get felt and cut it out yourself!

  15. For those of you who were asking where the small put-together toys came from that she put into the eggs, I have found those at JoAnn fabrics. If you don’t have a JoAnn fabrics where you live, call any fabric/craft store and you may find them there. Good luck!

  16. I too was wondering where those cute little take apart toys came from. Found them on amazon. They are called iwako Japanese puzzle take apart erasers. Very affordable too!

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