In-flight entertainment for young children


I have already written a philosophical post about our recent holiday and how the children grew up in that one week and all the stuff we learned.

This one is where I give you some Extremely Useful Tips about travelling on a plane with small people. Brace yourselves.

On the plane on the way over, we were sitting opposite a mum travelling solo with four children, ranging in age from 18 months to 7 or 8. Having some experience of taking my two children on an aeroplane by myself, first of all I need to say: my hat off to you, you are one brave lady. Her kids behaved atrociously during the whole flight: bickering, arguing, screaming, crying, kicking against seats, making outrageous demands, not staying in their seat at safety-critical moments etc. Their rather stressed and worn out mother, trapped with the youngest on her lap, made empty threats from across the aisle at her three older kids who were seated together by themselves.

I felt great. My daughter was sitting on my lap munching on some raisins, my son was calmly studying a book about multiplication tables. Suddenly, by comparison, we were doing great and our kids were a credit to us.

I had plenty of time, while my kids were so well-behaved, to study what was going on with the “neighbours from hell” as one cranky old man sitting in front of the unruly threenager called them, and to think of some Points for Improvement to put on their feedback sheet. Combined with some exciting craft ideas, I present to you my:

Tips for travelling with under 5s

1. Do not under any circumstances let them sit by themselves

Keep your small people within easy reach. You need to be able to grab them if they work out how to undo their seatbelts and stage a break out. Also, you want to be able to hiss dire threats into their ear without the whole plane listening in and judging your parenting techniques. Disciplining your child in a foreign language is definitely a bonus here, but beware: people on aeroplanes are 56.7% more likely to speak your language than the average stranger in a soft play place. The best place for parents to sit is so that the children have to get through you to get to each other. Another good option is to flank them, one parent on each side.


2. Pack snacks. Healthy snacks. Without E-numbers.

The rowdy kids on the plane devoured their body weight in Haribo, chomping through their entire supply within the first ten minutes. We hadn’t even taken off yet. The rest of the journey they were high as kites. Whereas food is an excellent way to entertain your small people in flight, make sure the food helps rather than hinders. Good snacks take a long time for your 3 year old to unwrap and an even longer time to eat. They are exciting enough to act as a bribe for sitting quietly during take off, but not so exciting that they prompt tantrums when they are all gone. If you have a child that still naps, good snacks also have plenty of sleepy making carbohydrates in them so that they will nod off for the latter half of the journey. I’d packed brioche (sweet, filling, takes a while to eat, not too crumbly), raisins (take ages, fun to get out of the box), bread sticks (appealingly crunchy) and flavoured rice cakes. Fruit is great but often doesn’t survive long enough.


3. Bring entertainment that doesn’t annoy other passengers and if possible, can’t get lost too easily

The latter is almost impossible, but mostly I bring sticker books and magazines with activities. Also colouring pencils (not felt tips, or they will decorate you and the plane as well), sticker sheets and little books to read/look at. On our last trip I brought pencils but no paper, so we invented a lovely activity that I named “Decorate your own Sick Bag”:



4. Use what is available

If you run out of snacks or your carefully chosen activities are spurned, look in the seat pocket in front of you or the arm rest beside you for inspiration. Besides sick bag decorating, we have played “pull the safety card from where Daddy wedged it under the catch that holds the tray table up while giggling insanely”, we have studied the in-flight magazine with interested and named everything in it, we have looked out of the window and, as my son is completely obsessed with numbers, he spent a happy fifteen minutes changing channels on the armrest radio.



5. Stay calm and engage with your children

Nothing makes a potentially explosive child more likely to explode than you losing your cool. You are stuck in a seat together for a while, so it is best to keep the tone light, the mood up-beat and the snack and hugs coming. If your child finds something that amuses them and wants to do it again and again and again, for goodness sake keep doing it. If you have to read Topsy and Tim have a Birthday Party eight times in a row, do it with feeling. It might even see you through until the plane lands. This is not a time to strike up deep and meaningful conversations with the person next to you (yes, I’m looking at you, solo-travelling-mum-of-four), you are needed to be entertainer, referee, play facilitator, snack provider and conversation partner. This is a time to give your child all the attention s/he asks for.


Finally, if your kids do end up crying inconsolably and all you can do is grin and bear it, just keep in mind that it is in no way my fault and you probably did something wrong by not following my advice to the letter.

Note: if anyone reading this was on a flight to Spain last autumn and thinks they saw me walk up and down the aisle with a screaming baby for an hour, that absolutely categorically was not me.

Note 2: Got any great tips of your own that you’d like to share? Put them in the comments! 


13 responses

  1. This works well on my 4 children: expectation management. Discuss beforehand what the child can expect from the situation and make arrangements with the child about what you can expect from him or her. I often include behaviour towards brother and sisters in the arrangements. A reward for good behaviour at the end helps too. Remind the child of the arrangements when things get tough.

    • Ooh yes, very good, expectation management! That’s a good one for any age and situation. We always talk through when my son will be allowed to ride on his trunki and when he will need to sit in the double buggy because we’ll have to be fast.

  2. Love this post so much. Even more than I usually love your posts. Well done to you for being such a good parent. I must say I do always enjoy it when my kids unexpectedly behave better than other people’s 🙂 Did you leave the sick bags behind to brighten up someone’s vomiting experience?

    • Yes! I thought about taking them with us but I would have just binned them at the other end. And it is rather wonderful when they make your parenting look good. Really it was all them!

  3. That definitely was a brave lady, or maybe she didn’t have a choice! Good tips here, and I think it’s especially important to stay calm and not worry overly about what others are thinking about you!

    • She did a lot of talking to the woman sitting next to her, so I learned a lot about her life. She said her husband was away for a month so she thought: “What shall I do? I know, I’ll take the kids on holiday.” !?!?!?

  4. It’s not exactly rocket science, is it? How does one normally entertain, encourage, feed and coax young children when in a confined space? Healthy snacks, cool stuff to do- which can include handheld consoles now too. I like Kate’s suggestions.

    We’ve played copious amounts of I Spy, word games, number games, choose a colour and count how many things we can see in that colour games…you are so right, unlike the neighbour from hell, you MUST keep kids entertained in order to (hopefully) avoid drama. The other thing we have done is to time flights when they would be likely to nap, either on the plane or in the car beforehand. Tired, grouchy kiddiwinks on a plane = tired, grouchy mother!

    Also, if not potty trained, take nappies/ spare clothes in hand luggage or you’ll be very, very sorry! And so will the flight attendants…

    • I find timing the flight to coincide with nap time a risky undertaking – sometimes they don’t nap and get very cranky. This is of course totally not at all what happened on that apocryphal flight to Spain…. But timing the drive to the airport to coincide with naptime is usually a success. You are very right: tired children leads to disaster.

  5. Good grief! I have flown travelled a few times with Harry alone for up to 5 hours with success but he was a lot younger back then. I’d dread travelling with him now as he doesn’t nap but your advice seems sound. Poor woman travelling alone with 4 kids though!

  6. I’ll be on a plane with my kids in the morning. I’m just praying they won’t be like the awful brats you so brilliantly describe here! Thanks for the top tips. They’re all very good ones that have proved useful on prior occasions! Especially the food one!

    • I’m sure they will be excellently well behaved! I do find that as long as i have packed enough food the kids are ok. When I run out of food, however…

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