Screen-Free Activities For Vacation Travel

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine


Keeping children entertained while traveling can be a challenge, especially for parents who prefer to limit their children’s screen time. Often, irritability and crankiness are at an all-time high when you finally arrive at your destination from lack of brain stimulation and physical activity.

But breaking up a trip by keeping young minds busy between screen time and brain games -- as well as some intermittent walks or stretching -- can make travel by plane, train, or automobile a pleasurable experience for all. Here’s some simple suggestions!

Mix Up Activities

Make sure to plan, bring, and facilitate a mix of activities while traveling. Suggest ways for children to pass some time on their own, such as playing small hand games, looking at books, reading, coloring or drawing. You can also get the whole family involved -- try games like hangman, spot the license plate (different states) or vehicle (by type or color). Initiate a dance break in the car or a walk up and down the aisle of the plane.

If your children are old enough to have their own music players and headphones, make sure they are charged (and remember to pack chargers or plenty of extra batteries), especially if the trip is long. Headphones are also great if you do allow ipads, video games, or game players. Headphones give everyone some necessary quiet time.

Break Up The Time

Children often have a hard time knowing when it is time to change activities or when they simply need a break. Evidence is watching a child who has played a video game too long or needs space from a sibling. Chaos and teasing ensue as they try to release the pent up energy. Children need breaks and transition time.

Imagine the time of your trip in segments and facilitate an informal schedule. For example, 20 minutes of playing a video game or watching a show, 20 minutes of reading or looking at books, 20 minutes of drawing of coloring, 20 minutes of listening to songs, 20 minutes for snacks (eating only), 20 minutes of playing a hand game, 20 minutes of stretching (even up and down the aisle of the plane every hour or so), and so on. A shake break or dancing in a seat for a few minutes can give a child a needed break and release of energy. Even stopping a 2-hour movie to take a break with a small child is a good idea.

Twenty minutes is a guide. Time will vary by age, attention span, and activity. The attention span of a child will be much shorter when engaged in a stimulating activity over watching TV or a movie because the brain is more active. Stanford University School of Medicine conducted a study that found more calories were burned just reading a book over watching TV because the brain stays metabolically active!

If you are traveling by car and can stop, it is important to break up a trip with physical movement at least every hour, for a bathroom or stretch break. Children need constant breaks and frequent movement.

Breaking travel time up into segments keeps young minds active and busy, even while sitting for long periods. And repeat the schedule over and over again if you have a trip longer than a few hours.

Individual Activity Bags

A great habit to get into is to have each child be responsible for packing a small activity bag or backpack to carry. Have your child, no matter what age, pick what to include and bring on the trip no matter what method of travel or distance. This bag can also be their carry-on on a plane or train.

These different activities go a long way even if one only lasts for 10-15 minutes. This bag can also serve as a source of entertainment when at a hotel or a relative’s house, when there are no toys available or nothing else going on.

Ideas and items to include:

-Favorite snuggle toy or blanket (or a few if small for pretend play)

-Box of crayons, set of colored pencils, markers

-Small notebook, paper, or coloring books (color by number, how to draw books for older children)

-Music player (and now ipads)


-Small collection of toys (for younger children). My son would bring about 10 cars or army guys, my daughter a bag of Shopkins, my oldest her Uglies. The dollar stores have great options for this, children can pretend play quietly with small toys. I often buy a set before we travel (like sea creatures) so it is a new toy to explore.

-Book/Magazine. Graphic novels are great to read or be read to. One of my favorite are seek-and-find or I-SPY books where you have to find objects (even for adults). Chapter books or magazines are great for older children.

-Print outs. Simple printouts of favorite characters or pictures to color, and games can be downloaded online.

-Reusable Sticker Books. These are great for smaller children because they use the stickers like figurines.

-Puzzles. Crossword, Sudoku, Brain Games.

-Other. Whatever small things your child wants to bring and carry! This is a great way to introduce responsibility.

-Family/Group Games. Many of our best memories as children are when we played games with our parents, siblings or other relatives. Bring those games into the car or other when able!

Try games in which you have to ask each other questions and guess the answers, or start a group story where one person beings with an idea and the next has to continue it, and so on. Imagination games are also fun. Use a small notebook and drawing a picture and have others guess what it is, try hangman, or tic tac toe. A fun verbal game is to start with a word (like a state, Rhode Island) and the next person has to use the last letter of that word to think of another (Delaware). This also is a great opportunity to teach new things and practice memorizing facts!

And don’t forget the simple things like telling stories! Make some up and tell real ones. Listening and talking are some of the greatest ways children learn.