Packing an Airplane Busy Bag

Packing a travel busy bag is tricky business. Pack too little and you'll be trying to turn napkins into toys. Pack too much, and your backpack will be so heavy that you are sorry you ever left home. Last week I posted a picture of our most recent travel busy bag, and now I want to share my thoughts on how to build your own. After four-plus years of experimenting, here are my best tips for packing an airline busy bag.

E is entranced by his train coloring book
E is entranced by his train coloring book

What makes a good airplane toy?
Some stores would have you believe that the perfect travel toy is expensive and intricately designed. Instead, I find that a selection of simple, well designed toys works best. The ideal toy is:

  • Quiet
  • Compact
  • Small pieces are easy to contain so that they don't end up on the floor, and loosing a piece doesn't destroy the play value of the entire toy
  • Not so precious that you would mind loosing it
  • Not fragile
  • Preferably no batteries (or if there are batteries, make sure they are fresh)
  • Engaging. Self contained crafts are especially great, but be wary of crafts that might make a mess or contain smelly glues or paints.
  • Can be played with independently or with a parent

Here is a list of some of my favorite travel toys

What makes a good "mix"

  • Choose toys that let your child engage in different types of play - for example, instead of four coloring books you would have one coloring book and some action figures or other manipulative toys. Instead of four cars, you might have a car, a driver, a bicycle and a horse.
  • Choose toys that work well together. For example, I might start with a Playmobil person and horse. When that gets boring, I could add a stroller, or a wheelchair or a car to the mix. Ask your child to draw a road a piece of paper, and let them "drive" a toy car on the road.
  • Include something soothing, like a storybook.
  • Plan to let the kids shop for some special new toys at your destination. You can use them on the return journey.
  • A good rule of thumb is one brand new toy per hour, along with some old favorites.
  • Be sure to bring along a few toys that are intended for the return flight. If you use more toys than you had planned on the outbound flight, you can always pick up something new at your destination.

Where to look for toys
You can find good toys almost anywhere. It helps to keep an eye out for travel toys throughout the year, and stow them in your empty suitcase until you need them. Here are some of my favorite places to find airplane goodies.

  • Craft stores often have self contained crafts for under a dollar
  • Target dollar area
  • Independent toystores often have "goodie bag stuffers" in bins near the front of the store
  • Japanese dollar stores, like Daiso have a particularly engaging selection of sticker books, cute pens, snack containers and other trinkets
  • Large toy stores often have a good selection of the smallest Lego and Playmobil sets
  • Teacher supply stores sell engaging, educational, small toys meant to be used as rewards in the classroom

    What else can your child play with?
    Keep an open mind, and you'll find lots to do without breaking into your busy bag!

    • Neighbors (assuming they are interested and willing)
    • Snacks
    • Anything in the seat pocket. For example, my kids are always interested in the emergency information cards and in learning how all of the various doors on the plane open. Even the barf bag can be made into a puppet or used in play.
    • Your personal electronics, including an iPhone with games, a camera loaded with pictures or an iPod loaded with kid-friendly music
    • A parent! The best way to ensure good airplane behavior is to pay lots of attention to your child when they first get on the plane - if your home is as busy as mine, that's a rare treat that kids will, quite literally, bend over backwards to encourage.
    • Here are some more tips for keeping your child busy on a plane without using toys.

    On the Go With Your Busy Bag

    • Wait to bring out your busy bag until you've exhausted all the "built-in" entertainment.
    • Try not to open the busy bag in the airport terminal. As exhausted as you might be, the terminal is the place for your child to stretch their legs and, if possible, run.
    • Dole out the items one by one, making sure that play is exhausted before starting another
    • Consider wrapping each item. Young children are so thrilled with unwrapping "gifts" that they won't mind if you wrap something they already own.

    Related Links
    Favorite Travel Toys
    Ten Great Travel Toys You Already Have at Home
    Ten Tips for Keeping a Toddler Busy on a Plane
    Flying With Babies, Toddlers, and Kids

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    1. Amy @ The Q Family on November 9, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.

      Thank you for a great and appropriate post as we are planning our Thanksgiving trip. :)

      I love the idea of wrapping the toy so they will be excited to open up a new present.

    2. Shelly (Travels with Baby) on November 9, 2009 at 2:24 p.m.

      Great tips, Debbie! I agree the airplane safety card is always a hit (strange but true). ;-)

    3. Jean - OurExplorer Tour Guide on November 9, 2009 at 11:56 p.m.

      Very good tips and thanks for sharing. Quite agree with your criteria on "what makes a good airplane toy". Once met a family traveling with kids, the boys could be very noisy with some toys while so engaged and quiet playing other toys.

    4. Victoria on November 10, 2009 at 8:57 a.m.

      Excellent tips, all of which I agree with ;) I can't wait to go to Japan to stock up my craft cupboard, I remember their stationary shops being amazing.

      Here's what I take travelling (not just on planes) http://itsasmallworldafterallfamily.w...

    5. Holly White-Wolfe on March 10, 2010 at 5:50 a.m.

      We are taking our first family plane ride this month and I am sure to take along these ideas for my busy 3 year old boy!

      I wrote an article about traveling with kids too - it can really take some good planning ahead can't it?