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Children's activities on family holidays

Dad travelling with children
Credit: iStock.com/Nadezhda1906

Everyone loves a holiday, but we don’t all love the process of getting there. To make sure your next family holiday is a success both on the road and at your destination, don’t forget to pack these age-appropriate travel tips along with the Santa sacks.

Car games

Babies

Car trips with a baby are all about getting to your destination with your sanity (and your baby’s good temperament) intact. If possible, try to time your departure with your baby’s nap: leave home about 40 to 60 minutes before their usual nap time – just enough time for them to sit happily in the car before (hopefully) nodding off for a sleep. When they wake, push the driving a little longer, take a break outdoors when the inevitable complaint comes, then rinse and repeat.

Toddlers

The toddler stage can prove a challenging time on long drives. Toddlers have short attention spans for organised games, and may or may not sleep for some of your journey. Even toddlers who sleep for long periods at home might ‘skimp’ on their sleep on a car trip, especially if they are excited about where you are headed.

Remember, pack plenty of snacks, as toddlers are typically unwilling to wait until the next small town to grab something to eat. It’s ironic, as you’ll probably be taking plenty of breaks: most toddlers last about 1.5 to two hours before they need a break from the car. In groups like my Kids Who Travel Facebook community you can ask other parents for the best playgrounds and kid-friendly stops on your route: this can help to make the break times a real hit with the kids.

Back in the car, book-loving toddlers can do well with short audio books. Buy a few stories they already know or use the free loan program available through most public libraries (this is usually set up through a program like BorrowBox).

Preschoolers

Things get easier in the car now, as preschoolers will be keen to play games like eye spy (use colours if they aren’t up to letters yet). You could also try a simple counting contest, looking for shops, trucks or birds: anything! Kids can count on their fingers if they aren’t ready for counting out loud.

If you set up the logistics well by providing a tray with a rim or a stable table, preschoolers can entertain themselves for reasonable stints by drawing (something for Santa perhaps?) or engaging with a sticker book or an Etch-a-Sketch. They will often enjoy ‘find an object’ books like “Where’s Wally?”.

Connecting with your children during travel time

Long periods in a car offer plenty of time to chat. If you’re stuck in holiday traffic or a construction zone use the time to point out and discuss the construction vehicles many toddlers are obsessed with.

Remember, toddlers need plenty of extra time to locate objects outside the car – and usually can’t see as high as the adults from their child’s seat – so think carefully before calling out something like, “Look at the horse over there” while the car is moving at 80km/h.

If you have two drivers consider seating one adult in the back to read books or support activities like drawing. Toddlers (and preschoolers) will love the extra attention.

Music is another great bond. Put on your children’s favourite and sing from the rooftops: kids will find it hilarious.

At your destination make an extra effort to do plenty of playing in the sand or climbing on the playground, even with preschoolers. Yes, they can slide down the slide by themselves, but they will love the novelty of a parent coming along for the ride.

Learning opportunities on the road

Babies and toddlers

Babies and toddlers often seem to experience a small leap in their learning after a holiday. Toddlers might start saying a few new words on their return, and often love the excitement of trying something new. Public transport is particularly exciting for many toddlers so if there are trams, trains, ferries or buses at your destination, incorporate these into the occasional outing.

Preschoolers

Holidays provide a wonderful opportunity for preschoolers to learn from new experiences.

Get them ready by talking about your destination in advance of the trip. If the holiday is to a big city and you live in a small town, discuss what might be different: for example, the fact you will see apartments and trains rather than houses with backyards. 

Watch videos or look at maps of your destination together before you leave, and, if it’s an international holiday, talk about some of the different customs or weather you’ll see and experience while you are away.

Creative ideas

Babies

Savvy parents often bring small ‘gifts’ for their babies on long flights so that every couple of hours there’s something to unwrap. The gifts aren’t really the point: anything from a $2 shop will do. Instead, it’s the novelty value of a new shape or texture, and the excitement of the unwrapping process that helps pass the time.

Toddlers

On planes, removable stickers are great for windows (just make sure they are really removable!). Similarly, some parents bring a pack of post-it notes and let their toddler stick away on their armrest, tray table or other surfaces. Sure, it’s chaos, but it’s easy to tidy up in a couple of minutes.

Preschoolers

On the road, let your preschooler be in charge now and then. Consider letting them ‘guide’ the adults for a couple of hours through a market or on a bike ride: they will love the opportunity to be the leader. Alternatively, get your preschooler involved in map reading by showing them where you are, where you are going, and talking about where you might stop enroute.

Items you won’t regret packing on your next holiday.

Babies

  • Baby carrier. It means you remain hands free through airports or on public transport. If your baby is unsettled in a new or busy environment a carrier is an easy way to keep them close for long periods without tiring yourself out.

Toddlers

  • Favourite books to make the bedtime routine similar to that of home.
  • Generous amounts of digging toys for the beach.
  • One or two of their favourite playthings of the moment.
  • Any special toys they sleep with.

Preschoolers

  • Lots of books if they like reading with you. Reading is a great distraction if you are stuck waiting for meals or a transport connection.  
  • A bike or a foldable scooter.
  • A small ball or Frisbee.