My youngest daughter and I just returned from spring break in sunny Arizona. Most people think I'm crazy to travel alone with her because she is just 2 ½ years old. However, most people don’t know that this was our 4th cross country trip by plane, on top of three huge road trips when she was between 6 months and 1 year old. I’ve always had the travel bug, plus our family is scattered all over the West coast; I couldn’t stop traveling once I had a child, so I had to figure out how to do it with her. Nothing could have prepared me better for traveling with a child more than the countless field trips I’ve taken with groups of young children for work. Here’s how I used my field trip experience to make traveling with my daughter easy peasy and how I still relate our personal trips back to exploring with my preschoolers.
PLAN: This is probably obvious but start planning as early as possible. I start making lists and packing bags weeks before a trip. This way, whenever an item pops into my head, like the sound machine, I can quickly jot it down or toss it into our bag. I make a list of everything that would be HELPFUL for the trip. Not necessarily everything I need. When it’s time to actually pack right before we leave, I can narrow the list down and pick and choose based on what I think we’ll really need, or what will fit into our bags. Examples of items that would be helpful would be the sound machine for nighttime, sun hats, sunscreen, etc. However, these are items we could do without. A fan, or even a playlist on Spotify can double as white noise. Family members usually have sunhats and sunscreen to borrow so it may not be crucial to bring these items.
For field trip planning, you might want to keep a special notebook or folder full of planning ideas, lists, maps, parent forms, etc. Keep it in a safe space, perhaps near your designated field trip backpack.
PACK: Have a special travel bag that is always mostly ready. This piece is helpful if you go in the car often, or even more helpful for taking groups of kids on walks or field trips. Inside our to go bag- which also doubles as a diaper bag-there’s pretty much always snacks, wipes, pull ups, an extra pair of clothes, books, a fidget toy, and sometimes markers and paper, or a wipe clean dry erase book. My kid absolutely loves the wipe clean books! Ours are from Usborne, but you can find them on Amazon, and probably at Target or Barnes and Noble, too.
For your field trip backpack, I highly recommend a First Aid Kit and emergency contact list. These days, most of us probably have family phone numbers saved in our phones, but if there ever was an emergency and someone else needed to find and use the contact list, it would be there ready to go. Other handy items might be hand sanitizer, bug sprays, sunscreens, a garbage bag, an extra water bottle to fill up kid's water bottles if they spill or drink it all, books and an emergency snack like a granola bar or trail mix. Books and snacks can be an amazing distraction if you encounter an unexpected wait.
Be ready for messes and accidents. I will never stop buying and using baby wipes! They are incredible tools. When I pulled out my container of M&Ms on the plane I was not prepared for them melting all over in my toddler’s hand. Baby wipes to the rescue! Kids are prone to spills, stepping in puddles, or even potty accidents. Especially with a potty training 2-year-old. Extra clothes and even a plastic bag to put dirty items in might just save you when you’re out traveling and exploring.
ENGAGE and ENTERTAIN: Learning activities! My daughter is still sort of young for this, but I’m beginning to do it with her, and I always do it when traveling with my older kids. Last summer the five of us flew to California. We were lucky enough to do a nonstop flight but it was still a couple of hours in the car to Bozeman, then sitting at the airport, then the plane ride itself. I purchased a few activity books such as Sudoku, hangman, doodling, etc. Next, I purchased empty dry erase folders to put coloring pages and fun worksheets in. I printed and stuffed a variety of pages into the folders, one for each kid. My youngest got coloring pages of her favorite characters. My middle got word finds with California trivia and math puzzles. My oldest got fun history worksheets like states, capitals and countries, a California word search, and the list goes on. They act like they don’t like my “homework” but they love nothing more than to challenge each other to who can do math the fastest or who knows the most states and capitals. Be sure to bring extra writing utensils!
I’m proud to say this California trip I’m speaking of was screen free for the kids. This trip that we just took to Arizona was the first time I’ve let my little one watch a downloaded movie on a tablet. I try to avoid screens with her, but we’ll save that for another blog post. Another fun learning idea is printing out maps, or buying an actual map, and having your children track the trip and the places you go.
Speaking of screens, here is the most important (in my opinion) travel hack! Save the best for last! My daughter had no idea that I even had the tablet. I didn’t pull it out until we absolutely needed it, which was mid melt-down inside of the airport while waiting to board the plane. She gets her own travel bag, but I save the extra special surprises in my own bag for when we really need them. Of course, this will get harder with older kids who obviously know you have a tablet or iPad, but you can still make deals with them like, “the tablet is for the plane ride only” or “after you read two chapters in your book you can watch a movie”. This applies to the best snacks, too. I usually hide a tiny container of M&Ms or gummies for a time when I am desperate. For the most part, I like to pack all of my own snacks in reusable containers. I like to take sliced up fruit and veggies, crackers, granola bars, gummies to help with ear popping, water, etc. The reusable containers are great because you can wash them and then refill them before you travel back home.
Sing, dance, distract! Songs and games are incredibly helpful for distracting a “bored” or tired child. I put bored in quotes because these are their words, not mine. (Post on boredom coming soon!) Simple games like I spy, finding objects for every letter of the alphabet, would you rather, coming up with rhymes, and singing favorite songs is a great tool for entertaining children; I just used “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” last week for hiking up the M!
PREPARE: Go over rules, expectations, and plans multiple times before you leave. Some children thrive on knowing the plan and what to expect. You can have your children brainstorm travel rules with you so you can all hold each other accountable. You can have a question answering session where children that are feeling worried have a chance to visit with you openly and honestly about any fears or pressing thoughts. Write down your rules and plans so you can refer back to them throughout the trip. Create a schedule of events so impatient little ones can check off the steps required before your final destination. This might help you, too. Having a typed up or written note of bus times, how long it takes you to reach the bus stop, when to leave the library to get back to the bus stop, can be very helpful when responsible for a large group of children. All of this information can live in your travel folder or field trip backpack.
BOUNDARIES: Set and maintain your boundaries. This is one area that was tricky for us during our trip. My daughter still needs a nap but sometimes skips it when traveling. I had to account for her being tired and having a little too much fun which meant extra patience and sometimes staying even more firm in my boundaries. There was one moment where she refused to get into her car seat. She wanted to do it herself (which she can), but she wouldn’t. I gave her warnings that I would be coming to buckle her if she didn’t start. This led to a big fight, but after I came and buckled her and maintained my boundary, we didn’t have any more car seat trouble the rest of the trip. Make sure the child knows the expectation and knows that you will stay firm in your boundaries, especially if the expectation is safety related.
PRACTICE: This is great, and almost needed, for going on field trips with children in your program. Some children don’t know how to walk next to a street safely, or sit on a bus quietly and respectfully, or even how to visit a library. You can set up play scenarios to practice these new things. Walk up and down the sidewalk in your neighborhood and use chalk to illustrate things like staying on the side closest to the grass or sharing the sidewalk with bikers or other walkers. There are plenty of books that demonstrate traveling safely, visiting a library, riding a bus, etc. Use these books as brainstorm sessions and lesson plans. Hold a puppet show demonstrating how two friends visit a park. Set up a bus or airplane using chairs and let kids take turns being the pilot, flight attendants, and passengers. The opportunities are endless, and kids will enjoy playing this even if you don’t visit the library or go on an airplane anytime soon!
REFLECT: Depending on how much you travel or take kids on field trips, you might want to start yourself a travel journal complete with quotes, pictures, best and worst moments, and ideas for next time. This can be private for just you, or something you share with your family members or children in your program. It might be beneficial for children to be able to reflect on their own journey to help them remember what happened and to get them looking forward to their next big trip!
Meghan is a born and raised Montanan, mama to a rambunctious toddler and a bonus mom to two amazing preteens. She recently earned a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education. In addition to her position as an Early Childhood Specialist at the University of Montana, Meghan enjoys a variety of odd mix of jobs; nannying, creating and selling travel play dough kits, making essential oil blends for kids, providing families with child guidance on Facebook and Instagram, and now providing ideas and tips to child care providers in partnership with Raise Montana! Meghan is also a content contributor for 406 Families, a site dedicated to connecting families to local events and resources.