Traveling with kids is not easy. Listen closely to people who do and you'll rarely hear them describe it as a vacation. Packing reserves of patience, compassion, and new things to play with does make downtime more relaxing and enjoyable for everyone involved. As someone who almost exclusively travels with kids, a bag of tricks has become my travel essential. I take mine everywhere so that I'm ready for action at the first sign of airline delays, broken in-flight screens, long car rental lines, slow restaurant service, and when I'm just not quite ready to get out of my hotel bed in the morning.
For those new to the concept, I recommend employing the parenting technique known as The Slow Reveal, which involves strategically introducing one item at a time (over the course of the trip) rather than showing all your cool stuff to your kids at once. It doesn't even have to be all new stuff — I keep things fresh by rotating through a mix of old favorites and new finds.
You’d be surprised by the lack of pragmatic thinking when it comes to product design for kids. Cupkin is thoughtful and clever in its approach — as if their designers have actually spent time crafting with 4-year-olds. This sticker book is spiral bound, so it’s very easy to flip and balance on a small lap. Instead of all of the sticker pages being at the end of the book, as is standard, each themed sticker page is next to its blank scene page, meaning nothing needs to be ripped out of the book and lost on the floor of your car. Chubby toddler fingers can peel the (hand-drawn!) stickers easily — kids won’t have to ask for help every three seconds. There are themes you expect (dinosaurs, princesses) but also a few fun twists (food trucks, winter whimsy). ($18)
This super-soft building compound is a little bit stiffer than kinetic sand but easily molds and holds its shape. Stretchable and addictively squish-able, the tactile material calms kids and is pretty easy to clean up. Gluten-free, toxin-free, and made in Sweden, this is a great thing to break out while waiting for dinner to be served at the restaurant. ($13 for a 10 oz. pack)
Another good one for the restaurant, as the only other thing you need is a flat surface and a glass of water. These coloring pages are primed with paint dots that are blended together with a wet paintbrush. The Easy and Fun brand is nice because the images are nice and big and the paper is a bit thicker and holds the water a little better than the super cheap versions, which — if your tiny artist is as generous with the water as mine is — can become a soupy mess. ($8)
Kind of like a crossword puzzle without the board, the kid version of the popular spelling game (so beloved by Fathom adults) includes letter combo tiles to help new readers with spelling progression. Letters are colored and lowercase and come in a green banana bag (instead of the OG game's yellow one), perhaps as a clever nod to young bananas everywhere. ($15)
This San Diego-based arts and crafts company delivers quality across the board to its imaginative product line. Everything about it is joyful and clever. My 7-year-old in particular was psyched when I broke out this pearlescent paint set on our trip to the desert. All of our landscape paintings had a cool metallic sheen. ($11)
My kids go crazy for these things and find it especially tantalizing when I let them use it on hotel windows. Each kit includes a variety of stencils, a sheet of vellum, and colorful tubes of fine-tipped glue. When squeezed out on the vellum, the glue is smooth and sticky; when it dries, it can be peeled off and stuck on windows for a makeshift stained glass effect. ($18)
This quick craft will get kids moving outside. Perfect when hiking, camping, or hanging at the beach, it involves a little bit of foraging for natural materials like leaves, flowers, rocks, and shells, which are placed on sheets of acrylic paper and exposed to the sun for a few minutes before being rinsed in water. This version is slightly pricier than SunArt (which is also fine!) but I like how the subject matter shows up like a white shadow on bright blue paper. It makes a neat souvenir and is a cool intro to cyanotype. It feels like a little bit of magic. ($20)
This game is a real crowd-pleaser. Just about any kid of any age can play (it says 6+ but my 4-year-old son is as into it as my 42-year-old husband) — and age doesn't necessarily have a bearing on who will win. The picture-matching game involves observational chops and reflexes and is fast to teach and fast to learn. It comes in a spiffy tin carrying case and only involves flipping over two cards at a time, meaning it's easy to break out even in tight spaces (like a bus stop or airplane tray table). ($13)