It’s that time of year again! Summer is here, and while traveling long distances is not a part of every family’s summer plans, for some families who may live far away from grandparents and extended family, this is peak travel season.

This summer my family will travel to the midwest for my brother’s wedding, and while I love getting to go back to my hometown and see some of the people I love the most, I always get a little panicked worried thinking about the long airplane trips we sign ourselves up for. We usually have at least one layover, making for almost an entire day of travel with our two young kids.

While we try to schedule our flights around nap time to ideally pass a few of the hours with cranky and tired sleeping children, my three-year-old daughter has recently started giving up her naps, so I’m hoping to get a little more creative with how we keep her occupied on the plane ride this time.

While she is old enough to be addicted to appreciate screen time and apps, my son is still a little young to fully utilize them, so we’re looking for a mix of hands-on and screen-based activities. Thankfully, there are quite a few of both out there that can keep our kiddos occupied. I look for activities that will hold their attention for longer stretches and are low-cost. Here are a few I recommend:


Melissa & Doug On The Go Water WOW! Reusable Coloring Book


Melissa & Doug OnThe Go Water WOW! Reusable Coloring Book (from $3.49 on Amazon)


My kids are mesmerized by these reusable water-coloring books which were recommended by a friend this past year. Each one comes with a water-filled pen brush which they use to “paint” on the pages. As the water touches the page, the page comes to life with color. Better yet? As the water dries, it returns to its blank state and can be painted again.

There are several different themed books from fairy tales to animals to vehicles and beyond. Honestly, though, I find it doesn’t really matter which one my kids are painting, they just think it’s so cool that the colors appear and disappear. And as a parent who likes to eliminate waste as much as possible, I appreciate the fact that these are reusable.

Tip: If you have more than one child, get one for each. My 18-month-old and my three-year-old will wrestle over these.

Endless-Reader iphone app


App: Endless Reader (FREE on iPhone, Individual Reader Packs $5.99 each)

When we allow our kids screen time, we try to keep it as educational as possible. Originator has several great apps in the “Endless” series, but we happen to use this one the most. Children select a word and watch as all the letters from that word are scattered around the scene by a rambunctious group of friendly monster characters. One by one, the child selects each letter and drags it back to an outlined version of the letters of the word, placing it into the correct spot. As the letter is being dragged, it repeats its pronunciation (e.g. “t” repeats “tuh, tuh, tuh, tuh”) until it is correctly placed. My daughter has learned several of her letters this way. (Don’t worry – we read her some real books too!)

Handmade paper booklet



Make some booklets to illustrate & write (nearly free, some planning ahead needed)

All the credit goes to my husband for coming up with this one. My daughter gets Highlights magazine in the mail, a subscription her grandmother bought her for Christmas, and one recent edition had a pre-illustrated and written mini-book that could be made from cutting out, folding together, and stapling the center of the pages. It was so simple, and yet my husband took it to the next level by helping my daughter to create some blank booklets from sheets of construction paper. We hope to have her use these on the plane to illustrate booklets for family members who we will see on our trip.

  1. Cut blank paper into three or four equal strips (depending on how many pages you want your book to have), cutting parallel to the shorter (8.5″) end.
  2. Collate strips together and fold in the middle to create a booklet.
  3. Staple the middle binding together.
  4. Voila! You have your pre-made booklet, ready to be illustrated and written in.
  5. Pack crayons and markers to illustrate and write in the booklet.

Metamorphabet iphone app


App: Metamorphabet ($3.99 in Itunes App Store)

My three-year-old has outgrown this app a bit, but my 18-month-old is just beginning to appreciate it. Easy to use, children select a letter from the English alphabet, which then fills the screen, and with each touch of the letter it transforms into a representation of a word beginning with that letter (e.g. “H” becomes a hand, hen, horse, hog, hound, and hare). When a series of around four or five transformations is complete for that letter, the user has a chance to choose another letter to continue the fun.

Felt button chain



Felt Button Chain(less than $5, some planning ahead required)

My daughter loves using paper chains as a way to count down the number of days until grandparents visit or a particular holiday. This activity utilizes those fine motor skills but with reusable materials (felt and buttons). It will also require a bit of preparation before your trip (about 10-20 minutes), and even the prep time may be well worth getting your children involved.

I’ll be honest – putting together a felt button chain may require a bit of buy-in from you as the parent to get them excited about completing each loop, but in my own experience once you get them going with enthusiasm they can ride that wave for much longer than you’d think. If your preschooler needs a little more incentive, this is a good activity to award a snack prize for completion.

Materials needed:

  • several sheets of felt 
  • buttons
  • scissors
  • needle/thread (recommended) or glue gun.

Instructions for a Felt Button Chain:

  1. Cut felt into 1″ wide strips.
  2. Sew or glue button on to one end of felt strips.
  3. Cut a small button hole perpendicular to the short end of the strip.
  4. Voila! Pack strips into a bag and use them to create a chain while waiting in the airport or on the plane to count down increments of 15 minutes or so.

Melissa & Doug Lace and Trace Pets


Melissa & Doug Lace and Trace Pets (from $9.40 on Amazon)

These are another great activity toy that works those fine motor skills, and my daughter especially enjoys learning to “sew” like her grandmother. These are easy to fit into your carry-on or diaper bag as they are flat, but won’t get bent. I like that kids can be creative about what types of “stitches” they use to trace around each pet – will they do a straight stitch that moves up and down through the holes, or choose to bring the thread around the outside edge and up through each hole? My daughter usually ends up crossing over the pet to another hole as well.

I’d love to know what you would add to this list! Comment below to share the great ideas you have.