This blog post was updated on June 25, 2020.

Parents flying with kids don’t always feel welcome on a long flight. The unavoidable mid-air tantrums, seat kicking, and the occasional diaper mishap usually mean other passengers often try and distance themselves — either physically or with the help of some noise-canceling headphones — from young families on flights.

So parents resort to the most convenient way of keeping their kids calm when flying; they finally surrender and give their kids hours and hours of screen time, either on their phones and tablets or through in-flight entertainment.

But, what’s all this screen-viewing actually doing to the minds of young children? The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that children aged 2-5 years old should be limited to one hour per day of high-quality educational programs WITH parents co-watching in order to help kids understand what they’re seeing and apply it to the world around them.

However, if you’re stuck on long round trip flights to and from your family vacation, then what do you do? Well, this is where we can help. Keeping your kids happy on a long flight doesn’t have to involve brain-numbing screen time. Follow these simple tips for your kids to be happy and occupied during your flight —  leaving mom and dad with a little time to relax and enjoy the journey too!

Play a Card Game

Brothers playing Card Game

Whether it’s fam favorite Uno, a simple old-school 52-card deck, or any of the new generation of brain-power-boosting games, there’s a myriad of benefits your kids will get by engaging in a (somewhat) quiet game of cards. Instead of just blankly staring at a screen, kids will be able to use their minds for math, problem-solving, and deduction as they work to win a game against their siblings or parents. And, yes — they can be lightheartedly competitive! You can encourage your kids to engage in more and more games, and even try and keep score so that epic comebacks over a dozen round or so are encouraged (which means their scatterbrained minds are kept busy for longer — wink, wink). As a bonus, your flight may go a lot smoother than you initially thought!

Surprise Them with a New Toy

Which kid doesn’t get that look of amazement on their faces when they receive a new toy? Well, if you can store that surprise for when you’re in the air — it’s a double win for mom and dad! Not only will your kids be amazed by the new toy,  but they’ll also have that “new toy fever” where they’ll want to explore everything it does for the next few hours. Want to up the ante? Why not pack in more than one toy, and present them to your kid/kids over the period of your flight? It could be something as simple as Play-Doh or even something more complex like a model they have to assemble (warning: keep tabs on the small parts. They can end up under seats, never to be found again!). Whatever it may be, make sure to build up to the moment by dropping hints before your departure and maybe even hiding the toy in their backpacks. Your kids will find hours of non-digital entertainment…leaving you with some quiet time to finally finish that book you started last year!

Bring Along Some Healthy Food and Snacks

Two children, eating sandwiches on board in aricraft

While we don’t sanction stuffing your kids’ faces full of food just to give them something to do, the truth is that growing children will have an almost bottomless appetite. Plus, they’ll probably be seeing you indulge in some snacks sometime during the flight, which will automatically make their tummies rumble too. Having a snack can also help keep them from being too restless. You can pack healthy snacks they usually have at home, including their favorites. Some healthy options for kids are yogurt, fruit (they will stay fresh with a small ice pack), and cheese and multi-grain crackers. If you are worried that these may not be enough, you can always pack that one “cheat” item that is not necessarily healthy but will come to your aid in a last-ditch effort to calm a tantrum.

Related: How to Save When You’re Traveling with Kids

Introduce Your Kids to the Cabin Crew

In our experience, most cabin crews are always kind and courteous to families flying with kids. By introducing your kids to the crew, it immediately puts your child/children on their radar and they will make a note to treat them to the occasional airline trinket or keepsake that will make them feel important. You can even take the opportunity to visit the service area in the back of the aircraft when the crew is having some downtime and engage in some conversation with them along with your kids. Your children will love to learn more about what they do, about their colorful uniforms, and how they could grow up to be a pilot or flight attendant one day.

Read Them a Book

Mother with daughter sit on their place in airplane economy class and read a magazine

Ah, the classic parent-child activity! Even though screen time has decreased quality reading time with our kids, storytime has survived as one of the best ways to bond with our kids. Pack some of your brood’s favorites so that they can beat the boredom on a long flight. If your children are old enough, have them take part in the reading, too — not only will they improve their reading skills, but they’ll take more time to delve into the language presented in a book as they read the story back to you. If they’re in the pre-reading toddler age, you can find books that are more picture-based in nature and engage them with what they see on each page. Remember not to pull out too many books all at once, as kids may not focus on one at a time.

Talk to Your Kids

how to entertain kids on flight no screen

It’s no secret that kids love to chatter and ask their parents tons of questions. Take advantage of this and use your time in the sky to entertain your kids (and yourself) by talking to them all about what they’re going to see and do on their trip. Not only will you probably get some adorable answers, but you’ll also get to spending time bonding with your children without being distracted by a screen. On the way back, ask them questions like what they liked the most from their trip or what they remember learning about. This can help distract them and take their mind off of things they may have started to whine about, and it can especially help to distract nervous flyers. If you don’t know where to begin, bring a map or globe (no screen time necessary) and get your kids excited about your upcoming trip.

Download Music or Audiobooks

If you have to go digital, then music is a safe choice. Many kids would love to listen to their favorite nursery rhymes selection or even a story being read to them via audiobook. Thanks to headphones they’re also likely to get lost in their own little world for hours on end. If you do select the right mix of songs and stories, your kid might even doze off for a few hours during the flight and not notice the time passing. Just make sure to select the right kind of age-appropriate headphones, and make sure your kids do occasionally unplug so you can have a conversation with them and ask them how they’re enjoying their trip.

Bring Along Some School or Art Supplies

girls traveling by an airplane and spending time by drawing and reading a book during the flight

You’d be surprised at how kids can keep themselves occupied with some paper, crayons, glue, and child-safe scissors. It’s a safe bet to pack a bunch of notepads where kids can let their creativity go wild. You can even pack in some stickers with their favorite branded cartoon characters. If you’re traveling with toddlers, invest in water reveal pad (where they use a water-filled pen to reveal colors on a pad —  totally safe, clean, and fun). While this craftwork could keep them busy for hours, just make sure you supervise them closely — you don’t want their handiwork to end up stuck to the back of a seat, or worse, on the back of another passenger’s head!

As a parent, you obviously want what’s best for your child’s development, even though there’s a quick-and-easy fix with screen devices. By following these simple suggestions you can sit on those long round trip flights with confidence knowing that your kids are going to be busy, happy, and learning something new as well.

Do you have any other tips for traveling screen-free with kids? Please share them with us in the comments.

One Response

  1. Priscilla

    I totally agree that screen time should be minimal to none, in any situation. Many of your suggestions won’t work with toddlers, though, and remember than little people have short little attention spans, so typically, no activity, even age appropriate ones, will last more than 10 or 15 minutes. That being said, the paint with water will work for a while, especially if it’s new. I have also used the reusable (vinyl) sticker scenes with success…it actually seems to build attention span over time. And of course favorite books! Especially if they have a lot of flaps to lift and things to do in them!


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Socialite, philanthropist, costumed crime fighter by wait...that's bad ... Musician, writer, travel junkie, dog lover, and database of useless information. I love to learn about new cultures, experience new cuisines, meet new people, and have a few laughs along the way!