10 Easy and Cheap Toddler Airplane Activities
We have family all over the country and are lucky enough to be able to go visit them regularly and are still traveling to a few weddings a year that often involve hopping on a plane as well. We mostly vacation within driving distance, but we get on a plane for “trips” (not a vacation if you are taking care of toddlers!) several times a year. We’ve had every disaster you can imagine - getting the stomach bug at the airport, having that crying baby, a toddler that won’t sit still, a toddler that won’t watch the tv we broke all the rules to let him watch…you name it. I’ve collected recommendations from more experienced moms and my own trial and error. Each of these activities is inexpensive, most can be re-used for multiple trips, keeping costs/stuff down and should keep your toddlers engaged for at least a few minutes.
A note on screens:
I am a big fan of screens on planes - you’ll see my recommendation below. My take? This is the time to bring out the big guns, it makes the flight go so much smoother, and it’s highly unlikely that you are flying enough for it to become a problem/habit for your kids. They’ll detox quickly, it’s so worth it.
However, there is an age between “baby” and full blown “toddler” where many kids won’t sit in front of a screen. Our son was one of those. Around 18 months, he wouldn’t just sleep in his car seat or our laps anymore - he wanted to be on the move always! - and he wouldn’t watch tv either. It was the hardest age for traveling. I was on a flight alone with my 18 month old once where I was hitting exactly this problem. I ran into an old friend from college who I hadn’t seen in years. She had two kids of her own - a ~3 year old and a new baby with her. And she ended up walking my son up and down the aisles while I sat in my seat and cried because I had just hit my limit. She explained to me, your kid is just exactly the wrong age. Her 3 year old would sit and watch cartoons and eat plane snacks for hours, and her baby was still in the sleepy-in-the-carseat stage. Her husband was happily watching sports between them no problem.
So whether your kid isn’t into tv yet, you want to limit it as much as possible, or you do manage to find a toddler’s attention span for cartoons, here are ten easy and cheap airplane activities, mostly without screens, that you can use to keep them busy!
10 Easy and Cheap Toddler Airplane Activities
Sticker Books - <$5, reusable
I was talking to a mom with older kids at work and telling her how nervous I was for an upcoming flight. Her first recommendation? Stickers! It had never occurred to me, but it was genius. These reusable books from Melissa & Doug allow kids to put stickers onto scenes and move them around, meaning this isn’t a one-and-done. It also requires some fine motor skills, which means it takes time for kids to get the stickers off the sheet, position them on the scenes, move them around, etc… All but the youngest toddlers should be able to do this totally independently, which is key. Slightly older toddlers will also enjoy making up stories and playing make believe with the scenes.
WikkiStix - <$5, reusable
Another classic activity for less than $5, WikkiStix are sometimes given out in small packs at restaurants to keep kids busy instead of crayons, but this pack has 24 longer stix that allow for more things to build! Easy for many ages - can be super simple or super complicated depending on what you are trying to build. It comes with inspiration but we’ve loved building houses, and scenes with birds and dinosaurs. Can be done in 3D or just on the airplane tray (after you wipe it down of course!)
Tegu Magnetic Blocks - $25, reusable
These are pretty pricey for a small item - the most expensive thing on this list that’s not electronic. However, they made the list because they are beautiful, will grow with your child (or keep you occupied as an adult!), and can be kept in your purse for any occasion - dinners out, car trips, anything really. I find myself gravitating towards this toy personally when we are in our playroom now.
They are engaging and feel really tactile and amazing in your hands and come with a list of 49 different things you can build with just the pocket pack. They also have more specialist packs if you think a helicopter or car or dog would be more engaging to your kids, but the size, shape and carrier with this is great for travel and this is one of the less expensive packs (it comes in many colors though!)
While this is pricey it is less than the very popular magna-tiles which are a similar concept.
Puzzles - $10 for 4, reusable
This is a wooden box with four different puzzles inside sized perfectly to do the puzzle right on the lid, meaning it’s a self-contained activity for travel. The puzzle pieces are even labeled on the back so you know which of the four puzzles each one belongs to (they thought of everything!) Melissa and Doug has these in all different themes - we are big “vehicle” people in our house, so this was a big winner. My almost-3-year old needed help with this, so it doesn’t give you independent play time until they are a little older, but he loved doing it so it kept him in his seat for a while. I also will say that he does want to do all four in a row, which buys you more time than a single puzzle and keeps it more interesting for parents than doing the same puzzle over and over again.
Water Wow - $10 for 2 - Not Reusable
These water wow coloring books don’t risk your toddler drawing all over the airplane when you aren’t looking and are easier for little kids than true coloring books. They come in lots of themes for whatever your toddler is interested in. They even sell these at almost every airport book/convenience store I’ve seen, so if you get to the airport without activities, go look for these! They are recommended for 3+ but we kept our 2 year old occupied with them for a few minutes.
Wrap Toys - Free!
This isn’t a product, but a tip I’ve gotten from other mothers. Whether it’s the suggestions on this list or small toys the kids already have that will be fun on the plane or once you get to your destination, one way to keep toddlers busy is unwrapping things! Everything you are going to bring on the plane as an activity can be wrapped up - even snacks - in leftover paper from the holidays or in paper bags or whatever you have on hand. Every time you bring out a new activity, it starts with unwrapping. It makes each activity last longer and feel more special, buying you more engaged time on the plane.
Play Doh - $8 - Reusable
Play-Doh is easy to travel with, fun and mostly-not-messy. Another inexpensive classic, play-doh is a great activity for the plane. Pick a couple colors to bring along rather than the whole set.
Kindle Fire Kids Edition - $124 - “The Big Guns”
The ultimate travel hack. Comes in pink, blue and gender-neutral yellow. Can be bought on Amazon or now at Whole Foods. It even comes in two-packs at a steep discount (choose your color combo!). This is what gets us through long plane rides with a toddler, no question - that’s "#reallife not instagram. Pre-download their favorite shows, movies and there are tons of great games - puzzles, etc… on here.
Toddler Head Phones - $17 - Reusable
Whether you spring for the Kindle Fire or just count on the back-of-the-seat programming on the plane, a good set of toddler headphones can be really helpful. These are volume limiting, fold up neatly and come in tons of colors. They can also be daisy chained so two kids can watch one tablet, each with their own headphones, saving you from buying multiple tablets for multiple kids. We’ve taken a pair of these on many trips, no problem.
Crayons - $6 - Reusable
I’ll end with a classic - no explanation really needed here. It’s always good to have some crayons in your bag for coloring, tic tac toe or making up games on the spot.