6 Educational and Mess-Free Activities That Entertain Traveling Kids

by ParentCo. December 30, 2021

kids in backseat of a car

It's that time of year again, summer is here! While traveling long distances is not a part of every family's summer plans, for some families who 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 ideally around nap-time to 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 looked for activities that will hold their attention for longer stretches and are low-cost. Here are a few I recommend:

1. Melissa & Doug OnThe Go Water WOW! Reusable Coloring Book 

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. 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.


2. App: Endless Reader 

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!


Make some booklets to illustrate & write 

All the credit goes to my husband for coming up with this one. My daughter got a subscription for Highlights magazine from her grandmother, and one recent edition had a pre-illustrated, 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 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.


App: Metamorphabet 

My three-year-old has outgrown this easy-to-use app, but my 18-month-old is just beginning to appreciate it. Children select a letter from the English alphabet, which then fills the screen. With each touch, the letter 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 

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 to 20 minutes), but even the prep-time can involve your children.

I'll be honest – putting together a felt button chain may require a bit of buy-in from you as the parent to get your kids 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 

These are another great activity toy that works those fine motor skills, and my daughter especially enjoys learning to "sew" like her grandmother. They fit easily 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 your great ideas.

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