What I Pack for Screen-Limited Travel

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School’s Out

Time for long, hot days and long, freezing plane rides.

I have a 3- and 5-year-old, and last week I flew across the country (solo) with my two littles. Before I became a parent, I had a lot of rules in mind for my kids … many of which I have since crossed off my priority list. But, with my own background in early childhood education, and my husband’s background in neuroscience, we’ve stuck it out with our limited screen time commitment. (For the kids, not for us obviously.)

Let’s be clear, my kids are currently watching Bluey as I type this, so we’re not a zero screen time family. But we do have limits on what they watch and for how long, including when we travel.

Here’s My Fail Proof Carry-On List for Travel Days

  1. Water Wows. Made by Melissa and Doug, these spiral-bound booklets are the absolute best travel purchase. They’re small, lightweight, and reusable. They come with a pen that you fill up with water, and then your kid “paints” onto the pages, revealing colors and hidden images with each brush. They’re fun and relaxing (speaking from personal experience). Think watercolors, but no spills and no clean up.
  2. National Geographic Sticker Books. Any sticker books work, but these are my favorite. High interest topics, great photographs, and I’ve never met a kid that doesn’t like stickers. For these books, if you have younger kids, try cutting out the sticker sheets in advance, because each sticker section matches to a specific page in the book. And if you don’t want to help your kid pull off each individual sticker, try taking off the “negative space” sticker before you hand over the page.
  3. Bead Kits. You are likely questioning my judgment for offering a bunch of teeny, rolling spheres to a toddler on a plane, but these are honestly great. They don’t take up much space and keep kids busy for a surprisingly long time. Lots of fine motor skills and concentration needed for bead stringing activities. Not ready to take the leap? Roll out a portable beach blanket and use them during a layover.
  4. Coloring Book Surprise. A coloring book surprise is any coloring book that your kids have never seen before. If you don’t want to carry a bunch of markers around, try one of these Imagine Ink options. Tired of coloring books? Get a cute, blank notebook with a new multi-color pen. Or consider an activity-style coloring book, like a dot-to-dot (older kids love these more complicated ones as well). Whatever you choose, don’t show it to your kids until you need a new win. The element of surprise goes a long way in piquing–and keeping–kids’ attention.
  5. An iPad. Yes, a screen! I said screen-limited, and I have my limits too. In fact, my kids are (still) watching Bluey as I type this. Here’s what’s been working for me during travel… For the last hour of each leg of a trip, my kids can glue their faces to my iPad (no actual glue needed, I have no more space in my carry-on at this point). I bring a headphone splitter and two pairs of headphones, and the kids trade-off choosing shows (downloaded via Netflix in advance) or apps (usually Sago Mini World). On our most recent trip we had a 4-hour flight, then a layover, then a 2-hour flight. So three hours into the first flight they got the iPad, and it kept them plenty busy for the next hour. After an hour on the second flight, more iPad time. Worked like a charm.

But, Do We Really Need to Limit Screens?

On a travel day? Perhaps no need. But there are some benefits.

Outside of travel, my family’s personal decision in limiting screens is to make sure the kids do other stuff (including being bored, which is a very powerful tool for creativity). However, I do consider myself a fan of intentional screens for kids over age 2. High-enough quality content is not inherently bad for kids, and certain shows / games / apps are certainly educational. Clearly screen time is great for parents because we might be able to take a shower once in a while without someone barging in and screaming for a band-aid.

During travel, I find that my gaggle behaves much better across the day when they stay busy with a variety of activities, not just screens. By scheduling screen time towards the end of a trip, there’s a clear pause point to move on to something else. And, keeping up our non-travel screen time expectations is a lot easier when we don’t bend the rules too often.

Whatever works best for you, go for it! But, if you are interested in limiting screen time during travel, I hope some of these carry-on items will help.

What are your best tips for screen-limited travel? Please share in a comment below.

Maya lives in New Orleans with her husband, two daughters, and their beloved fur baby. She has 15 years of experience working in early childhood education, including roles in schools, local nonprofits, and state government. Maya currently works as a curriculum developer, where she gets to focus on one of her top interests, which is teaching reading. Her other top interests include her girls (of course), podcasts and audiobooks, anything outdoors in warm weather, and experimenting with new recipes.


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