Traveling with pre-school aged children is not for the faint of heart. It will probably be messy (physically and emotionally), uncomfortable, and at times, interminable. For those families that have the means, value seeing the world over comfort, and/or who have out-of-town family that they want to visit, these hurdles are fleeting and worth the struggle.
Fortunately, there are also MANY shortcuts and simple solutions to make your travels during this season of life easier. One of these shortcuts is technology! It can be daunting to find the “best” ways to engage your child with technology during a travel day, but here is generally what has worked for us through two kids and countless flights/multi-hour car rides. Whether you’re staring down a long-haul flight, puddle jumper, or road trip, I wish you the best of luck and hope these tech tips work for your littles!
As I covered here, kids (or at least my kids) were not interested in technology full stop until toddler-hood, so technology is more limited to what Mom/Dad need to survive if they are given a spare minute to use it.
If you are lucky enough to be sharing parenting duties while traveling, I would highly recommend investing in some noise-cancelling headphones where you can tune-out whatever struggles are happening between your parenting partner and your offspring when you are “off duty” or to block out anything happening while you are “on duty” but your faculties beyond sleeping pallet are not being utilized. Equally important is entertainment that won’t catch the eye or attention of your infant (for me, this meant nothing that required a screen, so books on tape and podcasts were vital if I wanted to take a mental break but wanted something more substantive than music).
As for those times where you are the “on” parent, but you are gifted with a break (i.e. your child is sleeping or actively nursing), I would also recommend having something handy that doesn’t require a screen to hold (music, book on tape, podcast, etc) and headphones that are easy to take on/off. I find I travel with two pairs: ear buds for being the “on” parent and noise cancelling headphones as the “off” parent.
Starting at about 15 months old (give or take), we started “training” our kids to use headphones and technology for long haul drives and flights for when Mom/Dad simply need a break from the constant entertaining. Especially if you have a child that considers sleep “the enemy,” these 5-10 minute breaks are essential for overly tired toddlers and parents alike.
Headphones: These headphones have worked amazingly well for my kids from 15 months to 4+ years old. I learned that most volume-limiting headphones won’t allow the volume to get loud enough to hear on a plane, and since this is where we use our technology, this was a big problem. These headphones allow for volume control via the cable, BUT they can still be loud enough to overcome the white noise on a plane. As a result, we max out the volume on the headphone cable and then control the volume to our preferred level on the device before enabling “guided access” (see below).
Preventing completely independent usage: When you are first teaching a child to use technology, it’s helpful to have a way to limit their exposure to what is currently on the screen. To do so (at least on Apple devices), we’ve LOVED the guided access feature, which you customize depending on your needs. While you will have to set and reset this feature for each activity, it is an invaluable tool to prevent kiddos from getting overly frustrated with the newness of technology.
My final motivator for early technology usage is cost. It didn’t make a lot of sense to use to spend money on a basic app that may or may not grab the attention of our kids beyond one flight. I’ve broken up my suggestions into three categories:
- Music videos: If you have access to WiFi during your travels, you can easily access YouTube Kids and their myriad offerings of short clips and snippets. For us, this has mostly been successful with music videos from Disney movies or videos of favorite real time things like animals, construction trucks, or ballet.
- Yo Gabba Gabba: For some reason, this show has proved to be the only fool-proof “gateway” show for my two (so far) kids. It is constantly engaging and managed to encourage both of my screen-age kids to sit still for longer than 5 minutes…incredible!
- Fisher price free apps: These apps are pseudo-responsive and colorful enough that they can keep the attention of a toddler without too much required of Mom/Dad. They are, however, very basic so may not last your kids long before they want to move on to something else.
- Piano: I try very hard to look for engaging apps that have different features so that my toddlers would learn to navigate technology (and stay interested for longer than 5 minutes). Pianos with varieties of features, like this one, seem to fit that bill well, and there are several free options available.
- Coloring: Anything that helps littles engage with color and hand-eye cause-and-effect is effective, and apps like these make that easier to find.
- Zoo/Barn: My kids seem to be very excited about animal noises that this age, so this type of app was always a big hit.
- Shapes: Especially on “toy box,” this app provides some good stimulation for young minds. The app itself can also be used in many different ways, which helps it grow along with your child.
- Baby soother: If your child is losing it and needs something calm to stare at, this is a wonderful non-interactive app.
- Quiet music playlist: If our kids actually fell asleep, we found it was difficult to keep them asleep for any length of time with announcements, passenger conversation, or other kids working through their travel day. As a result, we started putting together quiet music playlists to play in through the headphones once they fall asleep, and it works incredibly well!
- Music suggestions include classical, religious music, lullabies, etc.
- White noise app: Another way to keep a sleeping child asleep is a white noise app (blends in with plane noise to be a constant sound uninterrupted by other travelers/intercom). I’ve used this app before and recommend it.
For us, this stage started around 2.5 years old and has only gotten better from there! Basically, once your kid can use technology independently (with parental supervision for content), you are in the clear. Now, it’s a matter of choosing what is best for your brand of pre-schooler and how to best engage their minds and hands while traveling. Here’s what’s worked (is working) for us:
In taking a straw poll of our friends/family, the ridiculous variety of kids shows out there means that you will probably come to find the “favorite” sampling of shows for your family and your kids. Here is our shortlist for right now with a 4 year old and 2 year old.
- Daniel Tiger
- Dinosaur Train
- Super Why
- Thomas the Train
- Leo’s Pad: Love these appisodes for problem solving, and the stories themselves truly capture my 4 year old’s imagination.
- Agnitus: Expensive, but we’ve loved how it has grown with our kids and, given how much we travel, it has been a great investment on technology + education.
- Endless Alphabet, Numbers, Reader, Wordplay: These apps are great to test out for free, and you can choose to buy bigger packages as your kids becomes more and more engaged with the features.
- Daniel Tiger Apps: While just about every major kids show has its related app, I will say that I love the Grr-ific Feelings app for just about any kid as it does give them a beautiful way to understand, engage with, and work out their emotions.
- Duck Duck Moose: We certainly have not tried every app in this collection, but the ones we have (Wheels on the Bus, Itsy-Bitsy Spider, Trucks) are awesome and a real crowd pleaser!
- Skybrary: As with most apps at this level, there are in-app purchases that allow you to check out numerous books, but we’ve been going strong with our original, free sampling.
- Bible for Kids: Love how interactive and simple the stories are for young minds. I’m pretty sure there are secular books or religious books from different faith traditions that also do the interactive book app thing.
For more travel tips/tricks/tales, check this out: Traveling with Pre-School Children