Traveling with Young Children

Life Skills for Young Children

Have fun, kill time, and boost your child's development.

Traveling long distances by car or plane with young children can be very challenging for you, them, and others who are on the same journey.

However, using these times as opportunities to build your children’s skills is not only rewarding, it can make the trip go faster. A good start is planning to take items that provide comfort to them, such as a favorite pillow, blanket and stuffed animal. Bringing several books to read to them will work for both air and car travel.

Activities to keep their minds engaged will require planning based on the circumstances of travel (for example, you cannot play a board game with your children if you are alone with them and you’re driving the car).

Flying with Young Children

Opportunities to observe through a window are limited on a plane, so being prepared with games is really important. Sometimes in an airline terminal I’ve noticed other passengers worried that they will be seated near young children on the plane, so it’s helpful for those adults to see the comfort items you have brought. And if they do sit near the children, they might feel reassured of a more relaxing flight when they observe the age-relevant, skill building, hands-on activities you will be doing with your youngster.

I like these games because they’re low-mess, engaging, and easy to take with you:

This game shutter slide windows that are easy for children to use when traveling. It’s an especially fun way to promote higher number math skills with preschoolers.

This memory game has double-sided themed cards, such as with animals, with flip windows for easy use for young children while traveling.

Children will enjoy matching the markers with the picture numbers, or just coloring the pictures with their own imaginative color ideas. The markers store inside the cover of the kit.

The Wikki Stix travel case includes safe, twistable sticks for children to use to create designs or real-life objects while promoting their creative and fine motor skills. Familiar games are also included in the case.

These games all have magnetic pieces. Children can easily play with other children and non-drivers in a car, and with adults on a plane.

The best features about these particular games is that they are designed so that there are few or no pieces for children to drop while they are engaged with the activities. It can be very frustrating to hear, “I can’t reach the _____, “ while you are driving, or trying to recover whatever fell between the ever smaller seats on a plane!

Car Travel With Young Children

Child Traveling

When traveling by car, children usually love to look out the windows and check out what they can see and hear as they pass things by. Their natural curiosity makes it a perfect time to enhance their observation and language skills as you and they identify and name things.

In the case of toddlers, they are especially aware of objects that have lights and make noise. A color is an abstract concept, which means that you can’t physically hand it to someone unless it is related to a real object. For example, if I asked you to hand me the color “red” you would have to give me an object that is that color.

Telling toddlers that you stopped the car because the red light means “stop” introduces them to the abstract concept of color in the context of looking at a real object – the traffic light. Stop signs are red, many store and gas station signs are red, and some exit signs are red, so you have a lot of opportunities to point them out along your trip. You child will enjoy pointing them out to you, too. And you can add other colors to your child’s vocabulary as well.

Child Travel Looking GamesLetters of the alphabet and numerals are also abstract concepts. You can’t hand me the letter “A”. You can only hand me something that starts with an A, such as an apple. And you can’t hand me the numeral “2”. You can only hand me 2 objects that the numeral 2 represents.

You have a great  opportunity to teach your children alphabet letters and numerals on you trip as you pass by familiar stores or buildings that have those features on them. Children readily recognize the letters, numbers, and symbols on the signs of Circle K and 7-11 stores, and on fast food chains such as McDonalds, Burger King and Subway.

These are examples of environmental print and you can enjoy telling your children, “What good observation skills you have!” as they name these familiar places they see.

In addition to the games that you can purchase, there are also games that you can create yourself. Based on your prior experiences traveling to specific places you may be able to design ones that have buildings, scenery, animals, etc. that you know your children will see along the way.

Some ideas:

  • Make a bingo card that has a picture of a cow, a stop sign, bales of hay, a saguaro cactus, palm trees, etc. You can draw these if you have art skills, or search for pictures of these kinds of items on the internet like I have to do.
  • Play “I Spy” if there is something that can consistently be seen.
  • Choose a color of car such as black, red, etc., and have the children keep count of how many they see between lights or in one town. If they cannot write numerals yet, you might plan to teach them to write tally marks (/////) before you go on the trip. After the trip you can help them count the tally marks and write the numeral for the total count.
  • Bring blank paper and age-appropriate writing tools for the children to use to draw pictures.
  • Tell funny and interesting stories about travel adventures you had growing up, and what kinds of activities you did before technology became available.

Be sure to invite other family members and friends who have traveled a lot to share their ideas for activities to do together. Spending time doing activities with your children in a confined space can actually bring all of you closer as a family. And a special thanks to my sister Debbie, who suggested this article topic, and spent time with me sharing her ideas!

Karen is an Early Childhood Specialist with more than 40 years of experience in teaching, consulting, and curriculum development for young children.

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