When my kids were little, I tried pretty hard to balance non screen entertainment with screen time on our trips. We always relaxed our screen time rules on trips, so some screen time (more than usual) still always happened. But I also found some unique activities that they liked and that were often reserved for airplane time, and that made the activities special. My goal was to hold out as long as possible into the flight before getting out the screens, because once they were out they tended to stay out for the rest of the flight.
Here are the things we found that stuck from one trip to the next, to the point where our kids would work their way through these activities on their own before pulling out their screens.
1. Airport BINGO
My kids got to the point where they insisted on having an airport BINGO board for every trip clipped into the front of their clipboard, and they would pull out their clipboard as soon as we got through security. When they were very little we gave them both the same board so they could work together, but as they got older they each wanted their own so they could compete. They especially enjoyed when I included things specific to our flight, like putting down the Gate # so they knew what to look for as we walked through the airport after security.
You can try an airport BINGO board for free
Get the kid-sized clipboard and pen in blue, red, green, or yellow
Teach your kids lots of things at the airport
2. Moving Sidewalks
This will not be a novel idea to any parent who has taken their kids to an airport that has moving sidewalks. Kids just love them. My suggestion is simply to embrace them. Since my kids wergoing to have to sit still for hours on the airplane, I tried to get them as much exercise as possible while at the airport. Using the moving sidewalks was a great way to keep them moving. I showed them how fast they could travel if they walked (rather than stood) on the moving sidewalk. And then, depending on their age, I’d have them walk on the moving sidewalk while I walked next to it in a ‘race’. Then we’d trade places and see if they can beat me when I was the one on the moving sidewalk (or course with lots of instructions about how to be respectful of other travelers).
3. Airport themed ISpy
This game is a classic since it can be played anywhere without any extra supplies needed. We especially enjoyed playing it at the airport because we could ‘spy’ unusual things our kids might not have seen before. We always looked for seats (or even sat on the gross floor) overlooking the tarmac so we could play iSpy about what was happening out the window. Our kids learned about luggage trains and traffic controllers and all sorts of new things.
4. 2-player Trip Clip games
The Trip Clip website has a few 2-player games that our kids played on almost every trip. They include Hangman, Tic Tac Toe, Dots & Boxes, and Battleship.
You can purchase a bundle with these 2-person games on Teachers Pay Teachers.
Battleship was probably our kids’ favorite, and the pen and paper version works great, especially when used with a small, kid-sized clipboard. They played all 4 of these games, though, at the airport and on the airplane.
Read more about these 2-player games
One of my more magical discoveries was the rule that you can’t get out electronics before the airplane reaches cruising altitude. My kids internalized this rule, so I found this to be magical, enforced by someone else, screen-free time. Sometimes they used their Trip Clip activities and clipboards, but often they would pull out the physical book they each had in their backpack because that’s why the book was in there! When they were really little and couldn’t read yet, I would use this time to read out loud to them (hopefully quietly so we weren’t annoying other passengers), which is probably why they always think that getting on the plane means pulling out a book. Usually this only lasted until the announcement was made that it was ok to use electronics, but every once in a while one of them would get so wrapped up in their book that they chose to continue reading even after that announcement was made. Like I said, magical.
My most inventive discovery was that airplane tray tables are an excellent surface for playing Memory. When I started this my kids were super little, so I would bring just 12 or 16 cards (6-8 matches) in a ziploc to pull out during the flight. We could play over and over again, and with so few cards they were pretty successful at it. It’s also a game that I don’t particularly mind playing repetitively. As they got older I would bring a few more cards, and we could spread across 2 tray tables. This wasn’t something we played often at home, so it became a special airplane game that they asked for whenever we traveled. Even if it only worked for half an hour, that’s still another 30 minutes without screens!
7. Card games
Over the years, and as the kids got older, we found other card games that worked pretty well. Often we ended up playing these in the airport rather than on the airplane (and they occasionally saved us when winter weather caused cancellations and long flight delays). But they work on the airplane too! Our favorites were Love Letter and Frank’s Zoo. I found this article that had a lot of other great suggestions that we haven’t tried but that also look like they’d work well.
8. Rush hour (single player)
This game was an excellent discovery and ended up being another one that we saved for airplane trips to make it special. One benefit of this game is that it’s single player, so no 2nd kid or parent was required! I took it out of the box and put it into a ziploc to make it fit more easily into a kid backpack.
You can get it here on Amazon
9. The Trip Clip Clipboard & Activities
The other thing we always took on every trip was a clipboard, pen, and set of printed activities geared towards each kids’ interests. In addition to BINGO (mentioned above), they liked crossword puzzles, mazes, word search puzzles, cryptograms, and the 2-player games. If your kids are more into creative or drawing activities rather than the games, you’ll find lots of those, too.
The Trip Clip website makes it fairly easy to automatically generate a set of activity pages that are the right difficulty level for your child. I usually threw these together late at night as we finished packing for our trip, and they often gave us a little extra screen-free time on each of our flights.