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21 versatile travel toys to keep toddlers entertained as long as possible on flights and road trips

Published by Business Insider on Wed, 26 Feb 2020


Traveling with a toddler is no easy feat. That's why travel toys for toddlers are not just good to have, they're an absolute necessity.To keep a toddler entertained on an airplane, in a car, or on a train, you need to have toys that are engaging and somewhat involved without being too challenging and frustrating.And to make it easier for parents, travel toys should be easy to carry and difficult to losethe fewer pieces the better.If you're flying with a toddler, we recommend a water paint book ($4.99), and for long car rides, you can't go wrong with a Montessori busy board ($27.87).Travel provides a lush breeding ground for boredom, which is why every caregiver needs a reliable selection of mobile distractions when traveling with a toddler. Versatility is key: Your to-go travel toys should work in trains, planes, automobiles, and restaurants. They should be quiet enough that they won't bother other people, are simple enough that you're not losing or picking up a ton of pieces, and can be safely handled by the child instead of you. Finally, you want them to work for you for as long as possible.As a person with two young children and a specialist in early childhood development, I have been fine-tuning my stash over many years.Here are 21 travel toys for toddlers, with age-appropriate pro tips.Reusable stickers that are great for window seatsMelissa & Doug Play House! Reusable Sticker Pad, 2 pack, My Town Bundle, $9.98, available at AmazonThese reusable stickers are perfect for travel because they can go on and off any surface, and the pad is small enough to fit on your toddler's lap. They're especially good for unbuckled travel (think: train rides) because your child can easily play with these while standing at a window, and the scene outside provides a dynamic backdrop.A toddler twist on an old classicBright Starts Lots of Links, $4.49, available at TargetAs young kids, when my sister and I had to sit through temple during long High Holy Day services, my aunt always gave us and our cousins a handful of paper clips. It was so simple, but so effective. These plastic rings are basically the young toddler version; plus, they can double as teethers, and you can incorporate all different sets.A magazine just for themHighlights Hello Magazine, 1-year subscription, $34.99, available at AmazonThese practically indestructible booklets contain miniature stories, poems, and/or songs, plus a find-it game in every issue. The content is geared toward 0- to 2-year-olds, but they're great for when your big kid wants to practice reading or storytelling, too. (You could also try Highlights High Five Magazine for 2- to 6-year-olds, which has excellent content but is considerably less indestructible.)Travel-themed magnets that are convenient to carryMagnetic Fun Cars, Planes, and Trains, $9.50, available at Amazon*This breaks my small pieces rule, but it gets a pass because the magnets are contained in a compact tin. Most importantly, the magnets offer myriad variations on a theme, and because it mirrors the toddler's travel experience it's easier for them to stay engaged longer.*only available via third party sellersA stuffy that comes with distractionsBuckle Toys Blu Whale, $23.99, available at AmazonThe Buckle Blu Whale is bright, soft, lightweight, and engaging. It keeps hands busy and provides lots of number and color learning opportunities. I recommend it for air travel in particular because it can double as a comfort creature to hug through airport overstimulation.A soft busy board with carry strapKenley The Original Toddler Busy Board, $27.87, available at AmazonTraveling with more than one toddler' Try this wool sensory activity board. It is similarly engaging to the Buckle whale but includes more variety in the fine-motor activities and has space for at least four tiny hands. It comes with a carry strap but could also fit into a small backpack or carry-on.A DIY project that keeps on givingStephen Joseph Crossbody Purse, $14, available at AmazonEncourage your toddler to make their own busy bag to bring on the go. These purses are adorable and durable; the zipper is easy for little hands to maneuver; and little kids love carrying around small domestic items (think: pretend keys). This one also breaks the few-pieces rule, but it's perfect for car rides with a toddler since everything will still remain in your possession.A travel-themed coloring rollMudpuppy By Air, By Land, By Sea Coloring Roll, $14.99, available AmazonThese roll-up coloring templates from Mudpuppy are each a whopping 10 feet long but still completely reasonable for travel. Older toddlers, especially, will appreciate all the different items to color. Unroll a small bit at a time while you're on the go, and unravel to display it all at your final destination!A mess-free paint pad and penMelissa & Doug Water Wow!, $4.99, available at AmazonFill the pen-brush with water and watch as your toddler intently "paints" the pages over and over again with almost no muss, and certainly no fuss. These work everywhere and are available in multiple designs (available in single or multipack). Pro tip: When your toddler inevitably smushes the brush bristles, toss a regular paintbrush in your bag and let them dip it in a cup of water at a restaurant or on a flight.A cute, erasable drawing padMini Q Colorful Doodle Board, $15.99, available at AmazonThis LED doodle board provides lots of opportunities for freehand drawing alone or playing games with you. Strokes of the pen reveal a colorful background behind the black screen, and starting over is easy with the erase button. It is built to travel: The board is small enough to sit on a toddler's lap, the pen clips into a piece on the top, and it comes with a convenient lanyard so you don't lose it under the hotel bed.A very fun activity for older toddlersThe World of Eric Carle "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" Lacing Cards, $11.16, available at AmazonFrom Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" come these 10 lacing cards, perfect for older toddlers. Not only are they a beautiful way to travel with illustrations from the classic story, but they are perfect for keeping hands busy while fine-tuning those fine motor skills.Books that distract without disturbingCoolplay Baby's First Non-Toxic Soft Cloth Crinkle Book, Set of 8, $13.99, available at AmazonWe got these four years ago when my daughter was an infant, and she still enjoys them and can share the excitement with her baby brother. As advertised, the books make a crinkling sound, and the set features themes such as color, number, and animal. They are small, light, and fall easily to the bottom of our backpack, making them the perfect clutch surprise when we've run through the rest of our options.Durable headphones for toddlersLilGadgets Connect+ Wired Headphones, $14.95, available at AmazonPlugging your kid in for the trip' LilGadgets Headphones are light and flexible but can handle a little rough play. The cord is encased in nylon, and the audio volume maxes out at 93 db, which is safe for limited use. Perhaps the most attractive quality of these headphones is that they have a port on each side, so you can link more than one pair together to watch/listen on a shared device.Settle tiny hands with sensory sticksBunMo Stretchy Things, $8.99, 6-pack, available at AmazonThese sensory sticks are designed for restless hands and are very discreet for public spaces. My kids love using them one or more at a time, and I also appreciate the stress relief they can provide. Even better, they are designed with neuroatypical people in mind, so if your child has autism, ADD, or ADHD and benefits from sensory stimulation, give these a try.Travel with some familiar friends"Sesame Street" Playskool Collector Figures, 5 pack, $14, available at WalmartIt feels almost foolish to try to pitch the benefits of keeping a "Sesame Street" character or two in your travel bag, so my only advice is this: occasionally rotate the characters.Letters and words, delightfully boundMudpuppy Alphabet My ABCs Ring Flash Cards, $11.51, available at AmazonR is for ring! I like playing cards as a toy in general, and these have the added benefit of being attached to a ring for easy use while traveling. These flash cards are brightly designed, and toddlers of all ages can engage with the illustrated animals, letters, and words.Easy-to-hold sketch pads, by the dozenKicko Mini Spiral Prism Notepads, 12 pack, $8.49, available at AmazonI cannot recommend mini notebooks enough if your child can be even marginally entrusted with crayons or pens. They can be used for scribbling, tracing, learning, taking pretend food orders, and so on. Suggest prompts that align with your current travel and watch their imaginations take off. Pro tip: Put one in each bag you're traveling with! They'll all get used.Give your brain a stretch on the goMelissa & Doug Flip-to-Win Memory Game, $12.49, available at AmazonGreat for older toddlers, this memory game comes with 14 themes for repeated rounds of play. The cards slide into the back, and most importantly, the memory pieces don't detach at all.Slow and steady wins the rideKid O Free Play Magnatab, $20.58, available at AmazonThe Magnatab's strength as a travel toy is how slow it is. Creating any discernible shape on it requires deliberate action and occasionally correcting errors. It also works surprisingly well as a group toy because the level of concentration each child emanates is practically contagiousI once watched four pre-kindergarteners patiently alternate turns.A 2-in-1 learning toyDisney Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Learning Board Book, $12.99, available at AmazonOlder and younger toddlers alike will appreciate this two-in-one toy. At top, there is an erasable drawing pad with a conveniently attached pen. On the bottom is a board book with simple corresponding games.A classic set for pretend playToysery Cell Phone and Key Toy Set $14.99, available at AmazonPretend phones are an old standby in my house, and this combo set has the added bonus of pretend keys so you don't have to accidentally lose yours! They are chunky but lightgreat for tiny handsand make just enough sounds to keep toddlers interested without bugging your seat neighbor with aggressive songs. Throw them in your purse, or theirs!
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