Maybe they're hot. Maybe they're anxious, hungry, or simply tired of being in cramped quarters. Fact is, small children get cranky en route, whether you're traveling by plane, train, or automobile. Most parents who've faced the challenge of traveling with toddlers and preschoolers in tow know that ensuring smooth sailing can be a tough job.
"The younger you are, the harder it is to sit still," explains Carol Kranowitz, M.A. So before you ask your toddler to stop kicking the seatback or touching the tray table, remember that it's completely natural. "Children are born with the urge to touch, move, take risks, and make mistakes" on their way to becoming good problem solvers, says Kranowitz, author of 101 Activities for Kids in Tight Spaces. The bottom line is, kids are just wired to resist the tight spaces they encounter in automobiles and airplanes, especially.
Basic Rules of the Road
Rule #1: Help your child find contentment in small spaces.
There's no chance you'll ever convince your young children—especially pre-readers— that being strapped into a seat is more fun than running and playing outside. What you can do is treat them to plenty of multi-sensory play activities that appeal to other basic needs. Playtime that releases a child's energy by occupying the mind or sparking the imagination does just that, says Kranowitz. Finding the right combination of activities can help soothe the gotta-stay-still anxieties of a youngster who'd much prefer to be on-the-go.
Rule #2: Be prepared.
Keeping your toddler (and therefore, you) happy on a trip requires advanced planning. Long before you leave, start stocking your child's carry-on with creative fun-time travel gear. Work together to choose portable, lightweight toys or supplies. In her book, Kranowitz suggests making a "busy box." Just fill a lunchbox or other small container with odds and ends from home, along with small, new items from dollar or grocery stores. Susan Hutton, mother of two, uses leftover birthday goodie bags to make travel easier. "I like reinforcing Carson's good behavior with little bags of stickers, matchbox cars, or treats. During the trip, they become nice incentives for him."
Possible busy box items:
- pad of paper
- pipe cleaners
- action figures
- small plastic tubs with lids, filled with foam cut-outs or rubber bands for sorting
- yarn or string
- empty thread spools
- small white board with erasable markers
When assembling your child's busy box, keep safety in mind and omit choking hazards for children under the age of three, or any other items better reserved for another year.
The busy box works best when the contents—used separately or together—require active participation. That means each activity should enable kids to use as many senses as possible. Watching movies or listening to books on tape or CD might make a trip calmer and more enjoyable for child and parents alike, but these entertainment options are passive. Involving the child actively in a game or project has more benefits.