When you decide to travel with children, one of the thoughts that is never far from mind is, ‘How are we going to entertain them?’ It’s not so hard when there are things to do out and about, and particularly in good weather. But in between outings or on dreary days, how will they amuse themselves without driving you up the wall? And more to the point, how do you manage to pack enough entertainment options for that?
We faced this problem when we headed overseas for an extended (nine month) trip. Of course the children wanted toys to play with, but luggage was limited and we didn’t want to be carrying their entire toychest with us. In the end we came up with a compromise – take some and replace some.
We let them choose enough toys to fill one small container each. That was the sum total of the toys we were taking, and it was up to them to decide what would be the best use of that space (although we did give some advice when they chose toys they never played with at home). We then gave them the option of storing any others until we returned, or selling those that were saleable and taking the money with them to buy new toys once we arrived. With that process complete, we supplemented their funds a little and set off.
Once we arrived at our destination we made sure we worked through with them some guidelines of what would be good purchases. Rather than buying lots of cheap toys that would give a brief distraction and then become clutter or break, we encouraged them to look for quality toys that they would get enduring entertainment from, and that wouldn’t take up too much space. Soon they were carefully considering what they really wanted, knowing they had limited space and funds to get something worth having. The results were heartening – they chose toys that would last, and that they generally still enjoy years later.
Some of the lessons we learned were simple. For instance, thinking about size and weight is important. Large, bulky toys are a hassle to pack and store, and rarely provide much more enjoyment than smaller alternatives. Where our son wanted a garage for his toy cars, a set of wooden blocks packed away much easier and ended up providing more play opportunities. That being said, small toys have a downside. Our children are all fans of Lego, but the tiny pieces have a tendency to vanish when you travel with them. We found they needed a dedicated storage box just for the colourful bricks, and strict rules on where they could be spread for playing. We also instituted a one-toy-at-a-time rule, simply because we didn’t have the space to have Lego bricks scattered around while they went off to play with something else.
Bear in mind too what you will do if and when you return home. Any larger toys you acquire will need to be packed, so consider how you will achieve that before you buy them. When we flew home we managed to accommodate the children’s new favourites as well as the old faithfuls we had taken, even packing the Lego into numerous zip-lock bags scattered through the luggage.
Zip-locks are actually a fantastic way to transport toys and entertainment, both in checked baggage and on flights or long drives. They keep puzzles and packets of crayons together without fuss and can be stuffed in a bag or compartment easily. Some toys may need a rigid container, but avoid those where you can and you will fit more in with less hassle. Just because it comes in a box doesn’t mean it needs to stay in one either – we even took several board games, with the pieces in separate zip-locks bags and the boxes stored until our return.
Electronic toys are usually great distractions, but they need to be carefully considered. Traditional toys of this sort devour batteries, and unless you have access to a ready supply or a good charger, they will quickly become dead weight. They also usually make noise – often incessantly. In a car or plane, that will quickly go from novel to a nightmare for everyone except the child incessantly pressing the same button, over and over. If they must have a toy like that, negotiate limits on playtime, or try to find one with a mute setting or headphones.
Modern devices like tablets and smartphones are of course brilliant travel distractions if you can afford them. However they do have a price beyond the cost of purchase. If you don’t have one per child you may need to monitor taking turns to prevent arguments, and still provide something to do for the child or children without a screen. These too require charging, and you may need to think about the availability of charging cords and sockets in your vehicle or accommodation to ensure you don’t have half your devices out of commission. For children with sensitive stomachs or eyes, using a screen while travelling can make them more susceptible to headaches or motion sickness. It may also be a good idea to limit ‘screen time’ just to ensure they also look out their windows occasionally!
Bear in mind too that some apps require internet connectivity to function or for regular updates. Many games will have an ‘offline’ option, but ensure that you have either figured out your WiFi solutions or preloaded offline apps before you set out. When you do have internet access, go through and check everything is updated before you head off again.
One of the best things we found was to offer creative options for our children. A camera, small sketchbook and pencils (inside a handy DVD case), and a journal provided hours of entertainment as they recorded, imagined and experimented their way across the countryside. Not all children are that way inclined, but a few blank sheets of paper and some drawing materials can provide a surprising amount of quiet for most kids.
Part of the purpose of travelling is to explore new places and try new things. Children still need to play though, and there are always periods for the kids to fill in where you aren’t engaging in any particular activity. A few familiar toys can help stave off homesickness and provide some respite for tired families, and we found a few carefully-chosen new toys added just enough novelty without blowing our luggage allowance. If you are thoughtful about your situation and help children choose carefully, there’s no reason why everyone can’t be happy.