Spending long periods in a car or on a plane with young children is asking for trouble.
I am often left wondering why some airlines don’t have a separate line for parents traveling with children. It would certainly benefit everyone involved to avoid the awkwardness that ensues as we fold up the stroller in the security line — not to mention the mandatory stripping of my 2-year-old’s stuffed bear from his hands as he goes into a fit of rage.
Still, airport awkwardness aside, one of my biggest challenges with kids and travel remains finding ways to keep them engaged. As a parent, it’s all too easy to fixate on preventing fits of boredom, and we can forget it’s also important to afford our children new learning opportunities in these moments.
So I’ve come to rely on a few simple strategies that go beyond the obvious distractions like movies and electronic devices. If you’re looking for ways to engage your kids without depending too much on screen time, give these strategies a shot:
1. Set up interactions with strangers.
Striking up conversations with new people — with adult supervision, of course — can not only keep your kids busy, but also allow them to ask questions and learn about people outside of their normal day-to-day interactions. Even something as simple as going to the concession stand to choose and then appropriately pay the clerk for their snack can be an educational experience, complete with “please” and “thank you.”
2. Encourage your kids to make friends.
There are tons of kids like your own — on the road, in airports, and at your end destination. Encourage your children to be brave and introduce themselves to other children in the airport or at rest stops. Once you reach your destination, go to an out-of-town playground or landmark where you can also encourage new connections. Sure, they may not ever see each other again, but you’ll be supporting invaluable social skills — and maybe even finding a future pen pal.
3. Assign a vacation project.
Many teachers are open to the idea of a post-vacation show-and-tell so students can share all about their adventures. Ask your kiddos how they want to share their vacation with their teachers and friends when they get home. Do they want to write about it? Draw a picture journal? Create a poster? You can use this as a way to give them some autonomy to plan what they want to see on the trip and to keep them engaged with their surroundings along the way.
4. Go souvenir shopping.
Souvenirs at those airport newsstands are built-in educational opportunities because you can explain and then casually quiz your children about why something is on that mug or that book cover. You can also make a game out of it when you visit famous landmarks and tourist attractions. If they can tell you three facts they learned once they reach the gift shop, they get $10 to spend. Is it bribery? Kind of. But they will definitely learn something, and hopefully they’ll always associate that souvenir with those bits of knowledge.
5. Gamify the quiet moments.
We often play a game called “guess that flight.” We talk about where certain planes might be heading, which allows me to teach the kids about cities, states, and countries. When we’re in the car or on the plane, the kids write lists or draw pictures of where they want to go or what our family portrait will look like on vacation. These little “games” give the kids something to look forward to and helps focus them on something other than “are we there yet?”
6. Don’t overplan.
All this having been said, don’t forget about the lesson of just being. As I’m sure most parents can relate, I tend to make sure my kids are on the move as much as possible when we’re traveling. But kids also need to be OK with downtime and learn how to manage themselves when they have time to just be. Adults can’t entertain children 100 percent of the time and boredom is inevitable, so these are also good moments to help our kids practice just managing quiet time on their own.
Traveling can be a trying time, but it can also be a joy. Even when troubling moments occur, hold on tight because enriching family experiences are just around the corner.