Monday, March 11, 2013

Traveling with Creative Kids: 10 Things to Pack in Your Child's Carry-On (Preschool Age)

It has been five years since we last took a family vacation with just the five of us where we had to fly on an airplane. We decided it was time to go someplace warm for the winter. So we headed to Huntington Beach, California! I obsessed for three weeks before our flight about how to entertain three kids not only on the 3-4 hour plane ride there and back, but also during the downtime we would inevitably have in our rental house. The kids didn't have access to all their usual toys and art supplies. And I really didn't want them to be vegging out with their iPods for the whole trip. Even I get bored watching movies for four hours or more!

After much pondering and Pinterest searching, here is what I came up with to entertain my three-year old son during our family vacation. All of these would work for a long car ride as well. And many are sensory rich for helping your sensory sensitive child stay entertained while they are confined in their seat.

Here are a few things I kept in mind while packing my son's carry-on bag:
1--He will be carrying his own bag. So I didn't want to make it too heavy. Though most likely my husband or I would end up carrying this at least part of the time. Another reason I didn't want it to be too heavy.

2--A variety of types of activities: books, hands-on activities, coloring, toys, and lastly, headphones and electronic devices.

3--water bottle (empty through security, filled before we boarded the plane). They didn't even ask for a drink from the flight attendant (less chance for spilling too).

4--snack box (filled with some fun and some healthy snacks) If they each have their own box of snacks, they can just pull it out whenever they want and snack away. No bugging you for snacks every five minutes and keeps them happy.

5--Remember you have a return flight too, so don't put your whole bag of tricks into the first flight and have nothing left for the return flight.
 I found this travel backpack online. It received mixed reviews and I wasn't entirely sure about it.
But I really felt having some sort of tray for him on the airplane would save us all a lot of aggravation of constantly picking things up off the floor. And I didn't want him to have access to all of the activities I had packed for him at one time. So I put some things in this backpack and others in my carry-on. It ended up worked perfectly for us! I would recommend it, however, it does not hold very much at all.

Here is what was in his backpack to start:
PipeCleaners & Wikki Stix--At my son's age, I figure this will just be something he can play with, use as a fidget, scrunch up, etc.

I also packed both pipe cleaners and Wikki Stix for his sisters I figured I better have a couple for him in case he's interested when they are playing with theirs. I don't expect he'll really play with these much. However, if you have a child that is old enough, they could use the pipe cleaners and the wikki stix to bend over shapes, letters, numbers, etc that you write on paper as a stencil. Young children can also string beads or Froot Loops from their snack box onto the pipe cleaners, before eating them. In this case you could work on patterning or sorting.

Gel Clings--These can be bought at the Dollar Store. And are a great activity to do while you are sitting waiting to take off but don't want to have your bag or anything else out. All three of my kids LOVED these! If you know your child won't be in a window seat, you can include a transparency in your bag. They can just create an image on the transparency. We had the prettiest window on the plane! The stickiness of the gel clings also gives your child sensory input.
We received many compliments on these! :-) Below is the zoo parade my 9 year old created once we were in the air.
New Books--I bought everyone one or two new books for the trip. And also downloaded library books to our electronic devices.

Coloring/Coloring Book/Melissa and Doug Wow Book--I bought a Melissa and Doug Wow Water book. I picked the transportation themed book for my son because he's very into vehicles right now. Here are some others as well. Honestly, I like the Aquadoodle pens better than the Wow pens. They just seem easier to use for little ones. You can add water to these after security and before you get on the plane. Just store them in a ziploc bag so they don't leak on anything. My son is not into coloring at all, but you could also include a coloring book or crayons. 
Though my son isn't super into coloring, he really liked painting with the water pen. It had the added sensory experience of him being able to touch and slide his finger in the water on the page.

Travel mats (cars, trains)--I bought one new Thomas the Train set that he hadn't seen before. This one has an added sensory feature of pushing a button and a light on the front of James comes on. And I came across this amazing post on Pinterest for creating travel play mats and a tray for long car trips. Jamiee from Craft, Interrupted blogs all about the tray she made. And if you click on the photos in her post, she was kind enough to provide higher resolution images so you can create your own printables as well! I adapted this for air travel. I simply printed off four of the mats in her blog post, covered them in contact paper and folded them in half. I made sure they would fit in the tray portion of the travel backpack.
He really liked these mats!

I also packed two cars, one of which was a Marble Racer police car that lights up (more sensory fun). He would have the option of running his new train along the tracks/roads or two cars. Switching out the mats helps make the experience new and fresh so maybe the child will play a bit longer. These can also be used on the floor at your destination for play mats and a quiet time activity. (If you are adapting this list for the car, you can use a cookie sheet for a tray and add magnetic play to the list as well).

And here is what I had in my carry-on for him:
Foam puzzles--I bought two foam puzzles at the dollar store. SUPER lightweight! And great for younger kids because there is no right or wrong way to put the puzzle together. So no frustration involved. It simply provides a nice tactile experience and works their fine motor skills. Added can create a roadway with the puzzle pieces once you reach your destination. You could even flip the pieces over and draw road lines on the white back side of the puzzle.
 How it's meant to be used:

 And as a circular track:
 As a road:

Calico Critters--My son LOVES to manipulate things and these are a great thing to bring. They are tiny (so be careful with kids who are really young) so they don't take up much space. But they offer a great pretend play experience both on the plane and at your destination. The only downside to these is their price. However, I used rewards from our credit card to purchase these from Barnes and Noble. So I wasn't really out anything getting them.
My nine year old really enjoyed playing with these at our destination and on the return flight. These can appeal to a large age range of children.

Pop Beads--I bought these at Dollar Tree. Just another cheap, easy, and SMALL fine motor activity to keep little ones busy. Provides resistance and works on strengthening their grasp by pushing and pulling the beads apart.
Similar to these--just a Dollar Tree version
iPad (AppMates)--My son received a fun new toy for his birthday: Cars-themed AppMates. He can use these little cars and "drive" on a special app on the iPad. He can explore different roads, race, etc. So even though he's using an electronic device. This is a bit more interactive. He also has several apps he likes to play on the iPad (Monkey Lunchbox, Monkey Preschool Math, Word Wagon, Bugs & Bubbles, Bugs & Buttons, and the Wreck-It Ralph storybook).
New worksheets/printables on the iPad: You can use this tutorial to put printable worksheets on your iPad using GoodNotes and Dropbox (there's a great tutorial here). You can have your child practice writing, matching, do mazes, coloring sheets, etc all on the iPad. And you can just clear the page and do it all again!

iPod & headphones (movies)--After all those activities are exhausted, then you can haul out the iPod/iPad and headphones and have them settle down for a movie and hopefully (crossing fingers) a nap! I use iSkysoft Media converter software to put my son's favorite movies on our devices.


Again, I got all of this packed into his travel backpack and this Lay-n-Go Lite bag in my carry-on. And it can all be played with during downtime at your destination. I got my Lay-n-Go Lite for a great deal on

With children this age, you probably don't want to bombard or overwhelm them with all their options for activities on the plane at one time. My son is still mostly nonverbal (he also has sensory sensitivities) and we use a ton of photo/visual cues for him. I use an app called Pic Collage (it's free) to create "choice" pages for him. I made three collages for the plane, each with three or four choices of activities. I show him the collage image and let him pick what he wants to do. Once we are finished with an activity, he puts the image in the Pic Collage trash and picks a new activity from the remaining images. Once we were done with one collage, I moved on to the next page/collage. This is a great way to give your nonverbal child some power over their situation while you're still controlling the choices.

(Everything I've discussed in this post, we either already owned or I bought specifically for this trip.)


  1. Fabulous use of window gels! We used them o a little road trip last weekend thanks to your post and the boys loved it. I'm definitely getting some for our upcoming flight!

  2. All of them are amazing.. really nice and helpful i must say... - funskool toys

  3. This is a great list! Why didn't I think of gel clings for our last flight?! My daughter loves those! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Where did you find your travel backpack tray? I have seen some like this but they don't extend out as far as yours!

    1. Hi! I bought it off Amazon. Here is a link:

      There is also a version that is green and pink. Hope that helps! :-)

  5. Hi Holly! Thanks for showcasing this item and THANK YOU for your pictures of it being used! I'm considering buying one for my 2-year old and a plane trip we're taking. I'd LOVE your input about how you think the traykit will reach him sitting in a forward facing car seat. This is our first trip with him forward facing in his seat and I'm concerned the pack will be lower than he is and will slope back toward the back instead of toward his lap. Just wondering what input you have migh about this though I don't know exactly how high he'll sit because we've never used this seat on the plane before. Thanks so much!

  6. I also use my iPhone 6 a lot. It takes great pictures and is sometimes easier to grab. online travel

  7. Awesome stuff, thanks for sharing