5 DIY Games for Travel with Toddlers
Even though my son Judah is turning 2 in a few weeks, he has traveled more in his short life than I had by the time I was 30. In the last two years, we’ve taken the him to Paris, Mexico (twice), New York many times, Chicago, Arizona, California, South Dakota, Denver, Michigan, Missouri, and New Hampshire to name a few. Our rate of travel has no correlation to Judah being easy to travel with: I’m holding him out for scientific study as the next generation of ADHD. But, when my husband and I were pregnant with Judah, we agreed to continue our life after baby the same as before we had him. That doesn’t mean, though, that we’ve opted to take him on all of our trips: he sojourned with Grandma and Grandpa during our last trip to California and at the end of last year when the two of us went to Costa Rica for 10 days.
On this side of the fence, I remember the non-walking stage to be the easiest with the worst case scenario being the baby crying the entire flight or frequent and ugly diaper changes. If I only had a frequent flyer mile for every time we’ve been reprimanded as “unsanitary” by a flight attendant for changing diapers at our seat, we could have taken 3 trips around the world by now.
I’m loving each sequential stage of babydom more and more, including the one we’re in now where Judah is just beginning to express himself in the world with funny phrases and adorable expressions. But, in lieu of his character as an active child (read: perpetual and unabated compulsions to break, damage, climb on, eat and/or lick everything within a 50 foot radius) with a fleeting attention span (5 minutes max), flying on a plane with him quickly becomes an anxiety-producing experience at least for me (not necessarily my husband) or what I like to refer to as Germfest International. Before we’ve even taken off, Judah has licked the arm rests, reached his hands into the backseat pockets, eaten any crumbs he’s discovered inside (as well as any morsels off the airplane and airport floors regardless of size, age, or consistency), kicked the back of the seat enough times for all 3 people in front of us to have turned around, instigated at least one request from an adjacent or nearby passenger to have their seat reassigned, slammed the tray up and down incessantly, crawled underneath the seats, taken off his shoes and socks, and stuck hands in between the seats (front and back) to tap a shoulder or feel the texture of a nearby coat. Yes, all of this has happened and yet we have travelled on.
In part, because of these lifesaver DIY games that I’ve put together and tried out with my son over the past two years, all of which were created in a state of anxiety a week or two before an upcoming trip, while I was pondering what Judah would have in store for us. (When he was 16 months old, I actually found him in our bathroom drinking water out of the toilet with his shirt collar soaked. When he saw me coming, he increased the rate of speed at which he was maneuvering his cupped hand from the toilet to his mouth and after I pulled him away, he speedily put his shirt collar in his mouth and sucked the any last remaining toilet water out of his shirt before I could change him, just to give you an idea).
Here are my top 5 DIY games for travel with toddlers and particularly active ones. These games keep his attention longer than any toy, book, or puzzle we have . I appreciate that none of the games require much effort to make and if any of them get lost, destroyed, or forgotten (which has happened), I just make another one.
1. (Above) The Cat and the Hat cardboard cut-outs I bought at Walmart in the party aisle. I originally used them as decor in Judah’s room, but ended up using a few as number flashcards. We line these up on the airplane tray, putting them in order, or just count through them together.
2. (Above) There was a point in the not too distant past when we’d ask Judah what a certain color was and he’d scream, “Green!” for everything. I actually began to worry that he might be color-blind because his responses were so confidant and enthusiastic. But, he’s eventually coming around, naming the correct colors when he’s in the right mood. I created these flashcards from paint sample cards from Home Depot. Ideally, it’s best to use sample cards with nothing on the back so the words are easy to see, but we happened to have most of these Martha Stewart samples because we’re in the process of choosing paint for our new home. (Side note: one recently very cool thing I’ve discovered is that Martha’s sample paint cards show recommended ceiling colors on the back. You fold the bottom and top of the card over and you can compare how the colors look side-by-side.)
3. (Below) This variation of the color game is my son’s favorite probably because it’s the most interactive. I simply cut the sample paint cards in half and he matches them himself. The more prompts you can think of, the more effective these games will be. For example, for this one, we line up the first cards and having him match the second or we’ll ask him to match a certain color or we’ll ask him to give us 1 or 2 of a certain color, etc. You’d be surprised how many times you can play this matching game on a 5 hour flight and how after doing this for 5 hours, you will find almost anything you previously considered mundane mysteriously riveting (e.g., doing laundry, conversations with your accountant, waiting on hold for customer service, Sesame Street).
4. (Below) This game consists of finding one-off, seldom-used, solid-colored objects and finally putting them to good use. We have dozens and dozens of these wooden blocks of various shapes that are part of other toys or hand-me downs. I took large plastic bags and wrote one color on each bag for every color of blocks we had (in the example below, I included a colored card in a handy slot on the bag to indicate how the bag was to be sorted). The game is to sort the blocks by color and then put them in the correct labelled bag. Again, the child has to be at the right developmental age, but this game can keep my son’s attention for quite a bit of time. (Say, 5-7 minutes.)
5. (Below) And last, threading objects is always fun and develops hand/eye coordination. This is one of the types of “work” that Judah does at school, and I have seen him get better and faster at doing it. He also really enjoys the thrill of finishing his necklace, and I am secretly training him as my personal jewelry designer, right after he learns how to enter receipts in quickbooks.
Wishing you many moments of respite on your future long flights.