5 Tips to Keep the Kids Happy While Traveling

Hint: A little rule-bending can keep you (and the people around you) sane this summer!

By Paula Kramer July 9, 2013
“Are we there yet?” Such a simple question can pack a gut-wrenching punch from a child when setting out for a new destination. Paula Kramer, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, a pediatric occupational therapist for more than 30 years, professor of occupational therapy at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, and mom to a 16-year-old with ADHD, offers the following tips for parents to find joy in the journey when traveling this summer:
  1. Explain what to expect to offer a sense of control. “Kids do better when they know what’s about to happen,” says Kramer. “Let them know they’ll have to wait in some lines, that his bag will have its picture taken, you’ll walk through a metal detector, and then we’ll be on a plane with a lot of other people so you’ll have to be extra quiet.” Arrival in a strange place can be unsettling to kids. “Offer the chance to select the day’s activity and, unless it’s completely outlandish, do it,” suggests Kramer. “If they are enjoying something, skip the next activity. Stick with what’s successful.” Read guidebooks with older children beforehand to help decide activities.
  2. Keep calm when traveling by air. Navigating airport security is always stressful but it doesn’t have to be. Leave yourself extra time so if there is an anxious person behind you in line, you can offer to let him or her go first. Remember that kids under 12 no longer have to take their shoes off. Carry-ons can be tricky when trying to hold a little one’s hand, navigate security and squeeze through narrow plane aisles. Check all baggage except for your “bag of tricks” (tucked into your backpack filled with necessities, toys and snacks that can keep your child busy, and your purse. Even if you normally stick to nutritious meals, have a snack ready during take-off and landing. Trade a toy you need to put away towards the end of the flight for a snack (that will also help relieve ear pressure).
  3. Stop jitters from bothering others. Ideally, children on a plane won’t be kicking the seat in front of them, or they’ll stop when you ask them to. But traveling jitters can change everyone’s behavior. Rather than scolding or using a time out, if you take your children’s shoes off, kicking the seat in front of them will hurt their feet and they’ll stop on their own. Ask the flight attendant if it’s OK to walk around with your child mid-flight. Bring little treats to share with passengers around you to help break the ice.
  4. Plan more than enough activities. Kramer suggests packing a “Mary Poppins Bag” with a bunch of old fast food toys because they are small and you can take a lot of them. “Divide up the time into 5- or 10-minute segments and bring two activities for each segment, if possible,” Kramer says. A bag of tricks can have stuffed animals, video games, books, Etch a Sketch, etc. The idea is to constantly offer something new to do, which can be even more effective if you’re sharing activities that you don’t normally allow at home. Remember: Quantity over quality, things that keep the child busy over what is educational.
  5. Find fun along the way. During long waits, don’t just throw activities at your children to keep them quiet - participate in some time-killing things together. When driving in the car, play songs (that won’t drive you up the wall) and sing along together. In the car or on a train, talk about what you’re seeing whiz past you out the window. Before the trip, use a map to explain where your home is and where you’re traveling. Discuss facts about different locations along the route. Plan pit stops at restaurants with playgrounds or rest stops with picnic areas so you can eat and burn off some energy. “Get your child back into their seat by offering a toy or snack that they didn’t know you had in the car,” says Kramer.
“I break all my rules from home,” says Kramer. “Lollipops, pacifiers, and unlimited video games or TV time are acceptable in these situations and can even make the trip feel more special to kids. The goal is to get there and get there happy and make sure the people around you are happy, too.”

Founded in 1917, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 140,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. The Association educates the public and advances the profession of occupational therapy by providing resources, setting standards including accreditations, and serving as an advocate to improve health care. Based in Bethesda, Md., AOTA’s major programs and activities are directed toward promoting the professional development of its members and assuring consumer access to quality services so patients can maximize their individual potential. For more information, go to