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Traveling with Young Children: How to Play While on Your Way

I find myself longing for summer throughout the year. Though there’s something special about each of Manhattan’s seasons, I crave summer’s warmer, sunnier days and look forward to traveling with my husband and 20-month-old son, Henry.

My closest circle of friends currently includes many parents of young children. Within this group, I’ve noticed that conversation about summer travel inevitably leads to feelings of anxiety… and sometimes even dread! Whether you’re traveling by plane, train, or automobile this summer, these tips will help your family enjoy the journey.

Let’s prepare!

Prepare your child for upcoming travel adventures by sharing photos, books, or brochures of the people or places you’re visiting. If your family has travelled to this particular place before, consider printing photos of your previous visits to share with your child. I love the inexpensive “brag book” photo albums available at craft stores;  I can fill it with photos in a matter of minutes, without worrying about Henry ruining a beautiful, fragile album.

As a child, I helped my parents and younger sister create large countdown posters for upcoming family trips. Each morning, we would rush downstairs to cross another number off our countdown.

“Yay! 12 days until our camping trip to Maine!” This is a tradition that I’ve continued for my own family. It’s a daily reminder that we are about to embark on an exciting adventure together.

Involve your child in the packing process. Even very young children can help you place items in a suitcase. Explain where you are going, what the weather will be like, etc. If your child has an understanding or appreciation of where your family is heading, it may make the journey there a bit easier and more enjoyable!

Let’s pretend!

Finger puppets saved us during Henry’s first flight. He was 9 months old at the time. One year later, we won’t travel without them! Small animal figures are also a big hit. During long car rides, I pass Henry one or two animals at a time. Small cosmetic bags or zippered pouches keep things interesting. When Henry drops a toy on the floor or decides that he’s “all done” with something, I pass back a pouch that contains two new animal friends. “I wonder who’s hiding inside this bag… Are they hungry for a snack? Do you want to share your apple slices with them?”   

Let’s play!

This summer, my family is making the long drive from NYC to North Conway, NH. I’m looking forward to taking on the role of DJ for a seated version of Family Freeze Dance!

To play along, create a playlist of your family’s favorite songs and encourage everyone to “dance” along from their seats. When you pause the music, shout “freeze!”

Offer different prompts to keep your youngest passengers engaged. “When the music stops, put your hands up high!” “This time, put your feet in the air!”

Visual bingo games are fabulous for older children. It doesn’t take long to make your own version with places, animals, or objects that you expect to see along the way. Adapt for air travel by including photos of things you might see at the airport or in the airplane itself. If you want to get really fancy, laminate the bingo cards and pack a set of dry-erase markers. Your little ones will have a blast playing again and again! Check out this article for more tips on how to create a simple bingo game for your family.

Let’s build!

I had never considered building an on-the-go activity, until I learned that Tegu blocks are available as travel-friendly sets. Henry is fascinated by these incredible, magnetic blocks! I love that the Tegu block pocket building set includes a felt pouch. It’s small enough to keep in our family backpack and I don’t have to worry about losing a single block. Tegu travel pals are another great option for spontaneous building! Between road trips, picnics, and days spent at the beach or lake, our family will certainly get a lot of use out of our Tegu sets. They are also the perfect addition to any restaurant outing with a young child.

Let’s create!

Pipe cleaners and Wikki Stix are fabulous for children (and adults) of all ages. Be sure to have a flat surface, such as a hardcover book or airplane tray, available for the Wikki Stix. You can press the Stix directly onto this surface. Creative play becomes more interactive when everyone takes turns creating an object or animal. If you participate in a family guessing game, clues are often helpful. “I made a pipe cleaner animal that lives in the ocean. It has 8 wiggly arms. Can you guess what I made?”

Consider packing drawing materials for your journey, such as colored pencils, crayons, and washable markers. (This certainly isn’t an option for my family right now, since Henry is compelled to draw on walls, tables, himself… A mess-free drawing surface like the Kukkia Oekaki Drawing House is the perfect solution and one that he’ll use for years!) As you travel, encourage older children to draw different sights that interest them. A small sketchbook is a great traveling companion and can serve as a wonderful reminder of your adventures.


Here’s to a summer filled with playful travel experiences!

Do you have any tips for how to play while on your way?   

About the Author

Lauren Vien moved to Manhattan as an undergrad to pursue a career in musical theatre. While studying at NYU, one babysitting gig led to another; Lauren soon learned that she was happiest when working with young children. She returned to NYU for a masters in Early Childhood Education and Special Education. She has taught in private preschools for over 10 years and lives on the Upper West Side with her husband, son, and cat. Outside of the classroom, Lauren’s greatest passions are: practicing yoga, preparing plant-based meals, planning her family’s next outdoor adventure, and enjoying all that their lovely neighborhood has to offer!

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