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Toddler Talk: Airplane Playtime

Is there anything than better than a vacation... but anything more stressful than getting there with a toddler?

With family scattered all around the country, my husband and I have had the, um, wonderful opportunity to travel with our little one many, many, many (like, a zillion) times. I've learned that, just as each of our little snowflakes is unique, each plane trip you take with a baby or toddler has its own particular character, shape... and melting point.

I've had new toys, handcrafted games—and, yes, an iPad stocked with toddler-friendly games/Angry Birds—and still my kiddo has been the most intrigued by the free cups of airplane ice. You just never know what will tickle your toddler's fancy—or peak his pique—on any one travel day.

Nonetheless, you gotta be prepared. But beyond sippy cups, snacks, and the most organized diaper bag in the world, you'll need entertainment for your little one. Here are five airplane playtime tips that make traveling with your little ones a lot easier... even (gasp) fun!

1. New Toys

We all like shiny new things, and your rugrat is no different. If you don't feel like shelling out for actual new toys after shelling out for your five-hundred-dollar coach seats, visit the library or do a toy-trade with friends. New toys and books will delight your little one...mand for once, you won't be upset when they spend as much time playing with the packaging as with the toy. Every happy minute on an airplane counts!

2. Pack Light, Pack Right

While it's tempting to bring a new toy for every five minutes (i.e., my toddler's attention span) that you'll be flying, you'll want to pack light. I've found it best to focus on my kiddo's current favorite things, then find activities that are small, lightweight and can be used again and again. Remember that toddlers love to move items from one container to another. My child likes counting and the ABCS, so I filled an empty wipes container with alphabet and number puzzle pieces. On the plane I dumped them into an empty Starbucks cup, then showed him how he could move them one-by-one from the cup to the wipes container. He repeated this activity for forty minutes. I've also cut out pictures from magazines, and we've practiced saying the words (puppy, balloon, bacon), then he'd move them from one pile to another, over and over. Toys that can be reused are awesome, as well: Removable sticker books and travel Magnadoodles can be mommy's best airplane friends.

3. Electronic Babysitters: iPads, Laptops, and the Like

Even if, on the ground, you're devoted to all-wood, eco-friendly toys and don't own a TV, trust me, on a six-hour plane ride you will want some form of electronic assistance. At 18 months, a Sesame Street video would keep my boy happy for a half-hour. At 24 months, he's more into Angry Birds and toddler playtime apps. For frugal mommas, you can also make your own "apps"—I've recorded the pages on alphabet books, or pictures of the numbers one to twenty. It took up twenty minutes of flying time, so I consider it a success!

4. Ice, Ice Baby

I wasn't kidding when I said my child once spent most of a cross-country flight playing with ice. (And, of course, before I boarded the plane I actually said, "I read online that you shouldn't let your kids ingest airplane ice.") I ate my words; my child ate the ice. He was younger and it was a totally new experience for him; he dumped ice from one cup to another. He licked it. He spit it out. He dropped it on the floor and we frantically tried to keep him from licking that piece. Your child may be an old hat with ice, but the point is: You never know what new thing you'll discover on the plane that will intrigue your child. Maybe there's a nice grandma sitting behind you who will happily make faces at him for half an hour. Maybe this ride is when you toddler will discover the joys of opening and closing the window shade for an hour. Maybe he or she will be enthralled with air vents, stacking plastic cups, or reading the letters in the Sky Mall catalogue. Just be open to playtime serendipity.

5. You, Glorious You

You could bring fifty pounds of toys and spend fifty dollars on iPad apps, but your toddler will still value your time and attention most of all. Singing your favorite songs, playing hand games or just tickling and cuddling your little one will be his or her favorite airplane activity. If you can keep calm and cool, chances are your toddler will, too. And even if he or she has a meltdown and you are surrounded by the annoyed, childless masses… just stay centered and remember, this too, shall pass. And hopefully soon you'll be sitting on a beach, or at the very least, in your mother-in-law's living room, surrounded by free babysitters.

What are your best travel toys, tips and games?

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