I teach Discovery Science Lab and Family Inventors' Lab, STE(A)M enrichment classes in Bellevue, Washington for ages 3 - 9. I am also a parent educator for Bellevue College, a childbirth educator for Parent Trust for Washington Children, former program designer for PEPS - the Program for Early Parent Support, a social worker, and mother of 3 kids - age 26, 22, and 9.)
Playdates have always been a powerful way to help children build social skills. In 2021, as we’re coming out of COVID, playdates are especially useful for helping your child make up for lost time on social development. Getting together with other families for small group playdates can allow you to manage COVID risks better, and those one-on-one or small group playdates are the single best environment for your child to learn social skills! Learn how parents can help to plan and have successful playdates.
The Benefits of Playdates
Many parents focus on the importance of academic skills for children, but relationship skills and emotional literacy are perhaps even more important for your child’s long-term happiness. Your child will learn some social skills at preschool or school, and in extracurricular classes they attend. But even if those teachers are trying to prioritize social-emotional learning, they also have to stay somewhat on task for teaching the alphabet and numbers, or how to do a somersault, or how to play an instrument, or whatever other learning goals you have for your child in that program. The social interaction in a structured class just can’t replace the essential social skill building that happens in one-on-one or small-group free play with peers.
So, when planning your child’s activities, make sure to leave plenty of room for free, unstructured play with other children. Opportunities include: play-based preschool, lots of time on playgrounds in the park, nanny shares or small home-based daycares, time with cousins or neighbor kids, and playdates. When children are allowed to just play together, without too much intervention from parents, they learn:
Bids for Connection: How to invite another child to play, asking to join someone’s play, how to notice that someone else is inviting them and how to join in. (This is primarily non-verbal bids for younger children, like when they hand a toy to another child, or take a toy from another child.)
Sharing and taking turns, advocating for themselves, making space for other’s needs.
Collaboration: coming to an agreement on what game to play, and what the rules are.
Teamwork – working together on a common goal, and re-negotiating what the goal is when conflict arises.
Empathy and social cues: how can you tell if they other child is having fun, or when they’re not having fun, how you can be sensitive to that and adjust your play.
Emotional regulation: how to stay calm when things don’t go as you wished.
At a playdate, children can work on all these skills, as they engage in whatever activity captures their attention – playing with toys, building with blocks, pretend play, playing in the playground, or digging in the sandbox.
How to Set Up a Playdate
First, find the family. You may meet possible playdate partners at preschool or school, in a class, at the park, in your neighborhood, or you may find them on social media. For younger children, like under 3, they’ll play with almost anyone and parents typically stay for the playdate, so I look for parents that I feel like I’d like to spend an hour with. That usually works out, but if the children are radically different temperaments – a super rambunctious child and a calm and meek child – it may end up not being a good long-term match.
For older children, definitely 5 and up, you need to pick kids that your kid likes – someone with a similar temperament and similar interests. Keep your eye out for who your child is connecting with, volunteer in their classroom to observe for this, or ask their teacher.
Test the waters: start a conversation with the parent to feel out whether this seems possible, and if so, issue the invitation. I live in the Seattle area, where we have a cultural phenomenon known as “the Seattle Freeze” where many people find that it’s hard to develop connections and that they get rejections and they give up. I would encourage you not to take any rejections personally – they might just be really busy, or might be shy, or new to navigating parenting just like you are. Try to feel out – are the interested in the idea in general and they were just turning down the exact details you proposed, or are they really just not interested? If they’re not interested, just move on to another family.
Other parents may reach out to you – sometimes it’s obvious, like they say “want to do a playdate?” but often they may be just testing the water and make slow approaches – tune into those… if someone regularly chats with you at preschool drop-off time, maybe they’re working up toward an invitation. It’s helpful to learn about Gottman’s idea of “bids for connection” – if someone invites you to do something, and you just say “sorry, I’m busy on Wednesdays”, that can feel like a turn against. Instead, first turn toward, and then work out logistics. “I’d love to get the kids together! Wednesdays don’t work for me – what else could we make work?”
Planning a Playdate – Tips for Success
Lots of people advise that it works better for children to do one-on-one playdates first. So, if that works for you, great! If it feels easier for you socially to have a few families get together, that’s OK too – it’s just more people’s schedules to negotiate.
Keep playdates short! For toddlers, start with 45 minutes to an hour. For preschool, an hour is plenty. Frequent short playdates with pleasant endings are better for building friendships than infrequent, long, and cranky ones. Schedule for a time of day when both children are at their best, not when one is heading toward naptime grumpiness.
Choose a location mindfully. Many parents may feel more comfortable if your first get-togethers are in a public place rather than at one of your homes. But… also take your child’s temperament into account. Shy or anxious children may do best on their own familiar turf. If you choose a public place, be sure to choose somewhere that the children can play freely, since that’s the whole point! Choosing to meet at a coffee shop or restaurant can make it hard for the children to connect. Choose a place where there won’t be tons of other kids there – that can make it hard for your child to actually connect with the child you planned the playdate with.
Discuss expectations in advance with the other parent. First, be clear on whether the parent will drop off or stay – my assumption is that for children under 4, the parent stays and for children over 6, it’s usually drop-off, but there’s a gray area in between and other parents might have other assumptions. So, be clear! Talk about illness rules – if anyone has signs of illness you’ll re-schedule the playdate. (During COVID times, also be sure you have similar expectations about vaccination status, masking and indoors / outdoors.) Figure out what the ground rules are and how you’d like to handle discipline issues that arise. With casual acquaintances, I’ve tended to say “if the kids are having a conflict, we’ll step in and I’ll handle my child and you’ll handle yours.” So, if the discipline issues can be handled with simple positive discipline techniques like distraction or substitution, I’ll do that, but if more is needed, I leave that to the other parent.
But I’ve also had other families where we’ve agreed that we’re on “sibling and cousin rules” together – which means we’re accepting the fact that our kids might squabble and we’ll try to let them work it out on their own so they get that practice with problem-solving and conflict resolution. But that if it hits the point where an adult intervenes, we trust any of the adults to step in and handle it.
Activities for Playdates
Plan playdate activities that are engaging, are collaborative (like building a fort or playing with blocks), not competitive. If there are especially cool toys, try to have two of them so the children don’t have to fight over them. It can help to have toys with many pieces (Lego) rather than single items (trikes). If your child has a hard time sharing their possessions, you could put away their most treasured toys on the day of the playdate to minimize conflict, or you may be better off having the playdate elsewhere on neutral territory.
Have an activity idea so that if the children aren’t doing well, you have a new distraction to try: “hey – who wants to blow bubbles!” or “shall we make cookies?”
Snacks? Snacks can be a great option for shifting the mood – if kids are squabbling over a toy, sitting down for a snack together can help. But make sure you talked with the other parent in advance about what the snack plan was, and what kind of snacks work for their kid and what doesn’t (e.g. no sugar, or avoid allergens.)
Plan an ending. It’s good to think about how you’ll signal that playtime is coming to an end. Maybe that’s with a snack, or a story, or maybe just a heads up that “we’ve only got five more minutes together – what do you want to be sure to do before we’re done?
For the first few playdates, expect to be very hands-on, helping the children learn how to play with each other. As they become more independent, you can fade back. If your child is autistic or has issues with sensory processing, you may need to remain close by for longer. (I still have to keep an eye on 10 year old who is autistic, and can escalate quickly.)
What if it’s not going well?
If they start to have a conflict, don’t feel like you have to intervene the moment it begins. Small disagreements often work themselves out, and children learn through the process. So, try sitting back and seeing what happens. Sometimes, things will start to go south, and they may need help negotiating a compromise. Rather than telling them they have to share, it may be more helpful to say let’s take turns – you can have it for one more minute, then it’s their turn.
If the children are heading toward hitting or biting, step in immediately. State firmly what it not OK, and tell them what to do instead.
It may help you to think in a flow chart mode, like this discipline flow chart. You’ve tried to prevent problems with good planning. If something starts, but it’s not a big deal – pick your battle and sit this one out, or tell them what TO DO. If it starts escalating, I do an “if/then” – “if you keep fighting over the toy, then I’ll have to put it away for today. So, let’s say that A gets it for two minutes then it will be B’s turn. B, what would you like to do while A takes their turn?” Praise good interaction as soon as you see it.
When it comes to playdates with small children, it helps to go in with low expectations, and celebrate success however big or small it is. If the first playdate fails – at least you tried! And it doesn’t mean every playdate with that child will fail – we all just have rough days sometimes. So, just think “well, they’re learning new skills and they got to practice today some things that don’t work well. That’s a learning opportunity.” And you know what skills you can work on at home to help give them a better chance of success next time.
In 2021, as we are beginning to come out of the isolation of COVID-19, parents may feel a special urgency to make up for lost time on social development. Learning about developmentally normal stages of social development can help you to prioritize what support your child needs and how to help them make connections.
Making Up for Lost Time
Early childhood is prime time for learning social skills. For children that were socially isolated during those years due to coronavirus, parents may worry that their child’s social skills will be irreparably damaged. But children are so resilient – when social play opportunities open up, they’ll catch up!
First, remember – your child has been practicing social skills! Even if it was just one child and one adult living together, there was plenty of opportunity to practice talking and listening, taking turns, playing together, and conflict resolution. (If there were additional people or animals in the mix, even better.) If you want to evaluate whether they’re on track with social skills, check out this checklist of play skills (or this one) that children typically develop at each age – you may discover they are right where they should be developmentally. If they haven’t yet mastered some of the typical skills, the checklist will give you a sense of what to work on.
Learn what’s normal / what’s next:
It’s helpful to know what we’d typically expect at each age for children so as they start to play together, you can watch for these skills. It’s also helpful to know what’s next in typical development, so you can foster opportunities for learning.
Infants – if your baby was home with only you during the first few months, that’s fine! A young baby can get all the social cues and interaction they need from just one or two caring adults. Just practice serve-and-return interactions, where your baby smiles at you and you smile back. Your baby coos and you coo back. (Learn more.) And learn about infant cues to guide your responses. If your baby has the opportunity to interact with additional adults or older children, they will likely happily engage with anyone.
Older Babies. From 6 – 12 months, your baby learns to play more interactively with you and will likely enjoy peek-a-boo, copying your actions, clapping with you, passing toys back and forth, and finding toys you have hidden. Some babies may play happily with all they encounter. However, it is important to know that even in normal times, many infants develop a fear of strangers at around 7 to 8 months, so interacting with other people in person prior to that may help to reduce that. If you’re just introducing your child to other people at this age, reassure yourself that stranger fear is developmentally normal, not just a product of coronavirus quarantine… they will outgrow it just as all babies have always outgrown it. Here are tips on reducing separation anxiety. And more tips.)
Young Toddlers – up to 2 years. Before 18 – 24 months, children primarily engage in solitary play, where they engage with toys, but often appear uninterested or unaware of other children. So, if your child was in isolation during this period, don’t worry about it! If you bring them back into connection with other kids during this period, know that it’s normal for them to not really engage much. They do engage with adults or older children more effectively than they do with peers, so if you’re choosing only one COVID playmate to help build your toddler’s social skills, 71 year old grandma or 17 year old babysitter may be as good a match as a 17 month old buddy. To build social skills, try Floortime play, which begins with child-led play, then “stretches” the play to be more interactive and turn-taking.
Onlookers: Around 2 years old, they begin to shift to spectator play, where they may begin observing other children more. This is a great time to take them to public parks where they can watch other children at play, up close or from afar.
Older Toddlers – 2+ years. Children begin to engage in parallel play. They will play next to each other, often mimicking what the other child is doing. They may not often engage in reciprocal back-and-forth play with a peer, but they are learning from each other. If your child was isolated during this stage, they almost certainly did parallel play with you. If you’re re-integrating them into social play at this age, they can do fine one-on-one or in groups, with familiar kids or with children they’ve just met.
“Stealing” toys is very common at this age. They are not intentionally trying to deprive the other child of something… it’s just that they noticed what the other child was doing and they want to do it now. One of the most effective ways to handle this issue is distraction – let the child who seems more focused on the contested toy keep it, and distract the other child with a new toy. That will work better, and is more developmentally appropriate than telling children to share.
Three Year Olds. Around age 3, children begin to do more associate play. They start to interact more with each other, trading toys, copying each other, or “inviting” the other child to participate in what they are doing. They become more interested in the other child than in the toy. They may work together on a goal – like building with blocks, but there aren’t usually “rules” to the game. They can learn social skills by playing with adults or with older children, but it’s great if they can have peer interaction at this age. It does not have to be in a large group pre-school. One-on-one or a few children at a time is fine. It may be tempting to enroll in classes as your primary place to connect with other kids, but if your main goal is social skills, it is easier for children to learn those in settings that allow lots of free play (a playground, playdates with other families, a play-based preschool, or a family size child care setting) than in a structured class (like a gymnastics or soccer class where the teacher is trying to keep them on task.)
Check out the “skills to practice at home” section below.
Four and Five Year Olds. At this age, they have moved into true cooperative play. They share toys, they share ideas, they create “rules” or agree on which role each one will play in a pretend game, and work together toward goals. They start learning more about cooperation, compromise, and fair turn-taking. Whereas at younger ages, it’s fine to have your child play with lots of different kids, this is an important age for children to have a few consistent buddies to play with repeatedly, to build friendship skills. If they are enrolled in a group setting, like preschool or extracurricular classes, look for children there that they most connect with, and try setting up playdates with that family to give them more opportunity to connect. Or, if you’re still limiting exposures to other kids, find just one to three families for a low COVID risk playgroup. Check out “skills to practice at home” below, and my post on “Teaching Friendship Skills.”
Reducing Coronavirus Risk
Every parent has to make their own calculations, but here are some things to consider.
If the number of vaccinated people in your community is high, and the number of current cases are low, there is less risk of community transmission than when there are fewer vaccinated folks and case numbers are growing.
The risk of transmission in outdoor, socially distanced settings is lower. The risk at indoors, poorly ventilated, non-distanced settings is higher.
If the parents at the playdate are vaccinated and wear masks, the risk is lower.
If children (over age 2) wear masks, the risk is lower.
Fewer people involved means fewer exposure risks.
You can plan activities that make it easier for children to stay distanced, or provide supports to help them remember to be distanced (like hula hoops or sit-upons to mark places to sit.) Teach them to wave hello rather than hugging or high fiving. Have them wash hands before and after play. Save snacks for after the gathering.
Skills to Practice at Home
You can boost their social skills by practicing in advance of playdates. Do lots of pretend play, puppet shows and role plays, and talk about the social and emotional experiences of characters in stories that you are reading.
When teaching about emotions, I have always taught children to recognize how facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice all communicate emotion, but especially when masks cover up much of our facial expressions, the other non-verbal cues are especially important to teach.
Practice give-and-take conversations, where you take turns fairly, don’t interrupt each other, and ask the other person questions about what they said rather than always just telling them things. Role model social skills by how you interact with friends, family and people in the community.
Introduce the ideas of taking turns. Play side by side with your child, and occasionally ask: ‘can I play with that toy now?’ Or say ‘you can have that toy for one more minute and then it’s my turn.’ If they try to take a toy from you, say ‘I’m playing with it now. You can have it in a minute. Here’s another toy you can play with now.’ Don’t expect 2 – 3 year olds to be good at sharing and taking turns! It’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and they just have to reach a stage of development where they can empathize with another child’s feelings. But practicing at home gives them a chance to build trust in the idea that if they let you have your turn that you will give it back when it’s their turn.
If your child seems shy or withdrawn, don’t assume it’s because of COVID. It could just be their natural temperament. Just search online for tips to help with a shy or introverted child, or what I like to call a “slow-to-warm-up” child. Some simple ways to help them are: get together in smaller groups in quiet, not chaotic environments; arrive before the other child(ren) to get settled; sit on the ground and let your child sit on your lap till they feel ready to venture out. Don’t push.
If you live in King County, Washington, you have access to one of the best public library systems in the entire country! And it’s all FREE of charge. Here’s an overview of the services they offer for parents with young children, both in person and online.
Going In Person
There are LOTS of library locations. (Click on that link for directions AND hours.) You may choose a favorite one to go to over and over, or you go on a grand tour and check out a new one every week!
Note: as of July 2021, libraries are all open, but all unvaccinated people over age 2 are asked to wear a mask when visiting the library.
When you arrive, you can go to the children’s section – if you don’t see it right away, just ask someone to point you there. You can choose any book on the shelf and read it to your child then and there, or you can choose to take it home. If you want to check it out, you’ll need a library card. Just go to the information desk and they’ll help you set up an account. You can check out up to 100 books! You can keep videos for up to 7 days and books for 28. You can often renew for longer. (More details on borrowing.) When you’re done with them, return them to any KCLS library.
When my children were little, I allowed them each to have ten library books out at a time. We kept them on a special shelf at home. We went to the library once a week and they could choose which ones they were ready to return, and which they wanted to keep a while longer. If they brought 3 back, they could get three new ones. If they brought all 10 back, they could get 10 new books that week.
On their website at https://kcls.org, you can search for any book you want. The results will look something like this:
You can choose a physical book (and sometimes a book with a CD of the book read aloud); an ebook that you can read on a browser or download to a device; or a downloadable audiobook.
If you choose an ebook or audiobook, and a copy is available now, you can download it right away. (Learn more about downloading e-books.) If a copy is not currently available, put it on hold, and you’ll get an email notification as soon as one is available for download.
If you want a physical book, then place a hold. You’ll then choose a library branch to have it delivered to for pick-up. There are lots of locations all over King County.
If no one else has requested it, you’ll typically have it within a week. If you see that there are something like 83 holds on 12 copies, you know it will be longer. When your book arrives, you’ll get an email. You can go to your library to pick up the book during business hours any time in the next few days.
Once you’ve checked out a book, you have it for 28 days (21 days for e-books). You’ll get an email when it’s due. If you want it for longer, you can renew online, unless someone else has placed a hold on that book.
KCLS has books available in over 20 languages. You can do an advanced search that limits your results to books in that language. Learn more at: https://kcls.org/world-languages
Online Resources available through KCLS
There are several libraries of online children’s e-books. We can access, for free:
Hopefully soon library storytimes in person will return. They are a fun free outing, a good learning experience for your child that will help get them excited about reading. If your family speaks a language other than English at home, they do have storytimes in some other languages, or the English storytimes offer a great opportunity for children (and parents!) to get more familiar with English. They are offering some online storytimes in summer 2021 – learn more at https://kcls.bibliocommons.com/events.
Traveling with young children can be challenging! But there are many things you can do to help it go more smoothly. Here’s the TL; DR, with links to more details below.
Cultivate Flexibility: Even when not on vacation, use flexible routines to help your child learn to adapt to change.
Plan Carefully: Think about your child’s basic needs for sleep, meals, down time. Can you schedule travel times to be compatible? Can you choose lodging that’s a good fit? Is there another adult who could travel with you – that’s more fun, plus an extra set of hands.
Prepare Your Child: If they know what to expect and what’s expected of them, it will be much easier for them to behave well.
Packing for the Trip: Pack light so you’re not juggling lots of heavy suitcases and cranky children. Strategize ahead of time how you’ll carry everything.
Pack a Carry-On Bag of items you’ll need easy access to. Include: snacks, a water bottle, extra clothes.
Activities to Keep Kids Busy while traveling include: reading materials, activity books, art supplies or drawing tools, painter’s tape, assorted small toys, a tablet/phone with headphones, and a parent with ideas for fun games to play while sitting still.
On your travel day, dress in comfortable clothes, allow lots of extra time, and try to model calm, patience and flexibility.
However, you want to be sure to build flexibility into the routines, and be careful not to be too rigid. For example, if your child will only go to sleep in their bed, with their fluffy comforter, and these twelve stuffed animals surrounding them, that will make bedtime on vacation very challenging! I try to create portable rituals. For example, my son likes listening to music at bedtime – we use a Pandora playlist that is available on all our devices and even offline so we can have it anywhere (as long as a device has battery life left.) Although my daughter loved being surrounded by stuffed animals, we practiced having her choose just one on some nights so that on trips that would be a familiar situation.
Also, practice skills at home that your child may someday need on a trip. Take rides on your local bus. Go to the mall to learn to ride an escalator. Eat at restaurants. Use porta-potties. Go places where they have to wait in line with you for something. Try a small local water slide before a trip to a huge water park. Before going camping, first try using the sleeping bag in the house. Then try camping in a tent in the backyard. Don’t try all these sorts of things for the first time while you’re on a big holiday trip you invested a lot of money into!
During coronavirus, your child may not have had many outings in the world, so they may need extra practice at things like staying at the table in a restaurant, or sitting in a car seat for a long time.
Planning the Trip
In my personal experience – your mileage may vary – vacations with young children have to be primarily planned around the children’s needs first, and it is easiest for me to think about it as “I’m taking my child on a vacation and will adapt as needed to make sure they enjoy it” rather than getting caught in a trap of “this is MY vacation, and I need it to be exactly what I want it to be.” Around when my kids reach age 6 or 7, that shifts, and their vacation is also totally my vacation and equally enjoyable for us both.
So, think about your child’s napping needs. Think about how much stimulation they can take in before they melt down. Think about their food and mealtime needs. Their attention spans. What time of day they are most flexible and willing to do anything. Do they do well in the car seat for long trips? If you first attend to making sure your child’s bodily needs are met, then it’s easier to plan in fun activities and have them be successful.
For example, if booking a flight, will you be more successful if you travel mid-day than if you have an early flight you have to drag your child out of bed, or if you have a late evening flight that is past their bedtime? (On the other hand, for road trips, we often plan our driving for early morning, nap time or after bedtime so our child will sleep in the car…)
When choosing lodging, having a kitchenette may give you more flexibility for meals; having a washer/dryer can be helpful; having a hotel “suite” with a living room may make evenings more manageable as you can put little ones down to sleep in one room while adults relax in another room. Also, consider airbnb or VRBO instead of hotel rooms. It’s not always a good match, but I personally like sharing walls with as few people as possible when I’m traveling with a baby who might cry in the middle of the night. (I also preferred it when traveling at the peak of coronavirus as there’s fewer people sharing the same spaces than at a hotel.) And they may have an outdoor area where your child can play.
Many parents choose to travel to the same place over and over in those early years so they know how everything works there and they don’t have to keep figuring new things out for every summer – plus, you can have fun traditions like taking pictures of your child in the same place and see how much they’ve grown. You can save the more adventurous travel for when they’re older (or when you get an opportunity to travel on your own without kids!) When I was growing up, in a family with 4 kids spanning 10 years, we traveled in a motorhome, so that we could have lots of familiarity surrounding us as we ventured to new places.
You can choose cheap vacation destinations for young kids. Pick any small town with a cheap hotel, a playground, a lake or stream to wade in and throw rocks in, trees to climb, places to go for long walks, and a library to drop into for some story-time. Your child will be perfectly content. I also find this makes decision making easy… when there’s only a few restaurants in town, you don’t have to debate where to go… you just say “I guess on Tuesday night we’ll have Mexican and Wednesday night we’ll go to the soda fountain.”
You can save the exciting destinations for when they’re older and will appreciate them. We went to the world famous San Diego Zoo when my oldest was two. He spent the day being fascinated by the manhole covers in the sidewalk. Luckily, my husband and I thought the zoo was great!
Consider traveling with family members or adult friends. When my older kids were in elementary school and middle school, they weren’t that excited about visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Wyoming, but were very excited to MEET Grandma and Grandpa in San Diego or at the Grand Canyon or whatever. It was a fun vacation for everyone. When my youngest was little, my sister-in-law was our ” vacation nanny.” We’d meet at our destination, and that meant there was one more grown-up to help with the baby, but also meant that we could leave one grown-up with the napping child while the other two went to a tequila tasting.
If you’re planning to visit attractions, purchase your tickets in advance online if possible. It can be cheaper, and also means you won’t be disappointed by something being sold out when you get there.
Prepare Your Child
Tell your child what to expect and what’s expected of them. Sometimes I see parents scolding their children saying “would you just behave??” And I wonder – does your child know what that means? Seriously – if your young child is in a new environment, how can you expect them to intuit what the rules are there?
So, talk to them about what the plans are for the trip. Pay particular attention to explaining things they might be experiencing for the first time (or in a new way… if they were there as a toddler one year ago, then it will be a whole different experience as a preschooler!) Think ahead where the trickiest parts of the trip will likely be, when you’re trying to attend to adult issues on adult timelines and may not have your full attention available to explain things to them… think about getting through airport security or about setting up a tent or transferring from one train to another. Walk through those tricky parts in detail.
Lots of “travel with toddlers” tips start with a big list of all the things to pack and talk about how important it is to have everything you’re used to having with you when you’re traveling.
That is NOT my approach. I believe in traveling light because some of my most miserable moments of travel have been about trying to schlep too much luggage, abandoning valuable items while chasing children, and struggling through a bus door with suitcases hanging off both shoulders.
Before you start thinking about what to bring, first ask yourself: Realistically, how much can you carry while tending to children? I saw one suggestion which was “don’t pack more bags than you have hands”, but even that can be problematic if your hands are likely to be carrying a child who is tired and cranky.
I find roller bags can be tricky to pull when you’ve got a toddler by the hand, so backpacks can be easier since they leave your hands free. Some parents recommend having 3 – 6 year olds start being responsible for their own bags, and that’s great… but make sure you’ve also planned for how you can add their bag to your load when that backfires. Some parents love traveling with a stroller (often loading it with the luggage while they hold their child). Others find it’s just one more thing to schlep. (A mom I know who travels solo with kids highly recommends a low cost travel stroller.) Some parents use a toddler harness with a leash to make sure their child doesn’t escape them at an inopportune moment. If I’m flying in the winter, I either leave extra space in suitcases so I can shove our coats in before we check the bags, or if we’re doing carry-ons, I bring a plastic or cloth bag I can shove all the coat in to keep them together in the overhead. In the summer or on spring break escapes, I always have plastic bags for wet swimsuits that didn’t dry before it was time to pack.
Regarding car seats and airplanes: my preference if I’m traveling with a child under one is to check the carseat and wear the baby. For one to four year olds, it’s nice to have the carseat on the plane because that can keep them contained for more of the flight rather than wanting to run up and down the aisles. If you have not purchased a seat for a toddler, and it turns out that there is not an extra available, you can gate check the carseat.
It is a pain to carry carseats through airports. Make a plan for how to carry it easily – can you put it in a bag to carry it? Strap it to a suitcase? Here’s info from the FAA about how to use a car seat or a CARES harness on a plane. https://www.faa.gov/travelers/fly_children/
For bigger equipment, like carseats, strollers, and cribs / pack-n-plays, you may be able to borrow one or rent one at your destination. It’s not likely to be the newest or nicest one, but should be serviceable. I’ve known some grandparents to purchase needed items at a consignment store, and then when the children go home, sell it back to the same store.
Food: My oldest child was a flexible eater, who was happy to eat almost anything anywhere. My youngest is super picky. So, on all trips, I have a stash of snacks in the suitcase that I know for sure that he will eat. Otherwise, we don’t pack a lot of food for trips because I don’t want to schlep it and I don’t want to spend my vacation time cooking and cleaning. So, we often just hit a store when we get there and get simple things like cereal, cheese, crackers, fruit, veggies and dip. And we eat one meal out a day for nutritional variety and as one of the “events” of the day.
When I’m packing, my approach is to pack the minimum I think I’ll need. After that, I ask myself – “if I don’t have that, what will that mean?” For example, I now always bring a few Tylenol and a few allergy meds on every trip because of multiple holidays where we had to abandon plans to search out meds and then pay ridiculous prices for a large bottle when we only needed one. And Tylenol is small, so that’s an easy decision to make! For other things I’ve thought: “if it turns out I need another sweatshirt, I can always buy one in a gift shop.” When packing, I have that willingness to buy items if I end up needing them, and it actually has turned out that I’ve almost never really needed anything beyond that minimum that I had packed.
I involve the children in choosing a few comfort items to bring along (like a small stuffed animal), but I also make sure they know that we won’t have as many toys there as we do at home, and that’s OK, because we’re sure to find new and interesting things to do there. (This lack of distractions from home can actually help you be more present and more open to discovery on your trip.)
Packing the Carry On
Whether we’re traveling by plane, train, or automobile, we always have a “carry-on” bag packed with the items that need to be easy to access. I’ll sometimes even pack one for going to a restaurant or to grandma’s house where my child may be expected to stay in one place and quietly play.
I don’t like a bag with a lot of pockets where I need to put things away “just right” for them to fit. I like a tote bag or messenger bag I can shove things into quickly. I use a lot of ziplock bags to organize things in the bag – the extra clothes are in one baggy, the electronics in a baggy, the snacks in a baggy… then it’s easy for me to reach down, and pull out the bag for what I need without rummaging through everything. Also, when I had multiple small children I had separate toy bags for each.
Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about what your child needs in their carry-on:
pacifiers or teething toys – have extra in case one gets lost or dirty
wipes and diapers – have more diapers than you expect to need
have some napkins or wet wipes handy for clean-ups
extra clothes for the child, and maybe for the parent (I have a friend who swears that every time she went on a plane from her children’s birth to age 10, they ended up spilling a drink on her.)
smartphone or tablet loaded with interesting content (make sure it’s fully charged!!) plus headphones your child is willing to wear
snacks – think about things that don’t make a lot of crumbs (like muffins!) or are hard to re-seal and will get goo everywhere (like yogurt tubes). I personally prefer large items they take bites of (chewy granola bars or protein bars, string cheese, fruit strips, applesauce packets) to lots of little bits that get dropped (goldfish crackers, pretzels). But other parents swear by the trick of getting a pill organizer or “snackle box” and filling each section with tiny snacks like Cheerios, raisins, nuts, M&M’s to keep the child occupied for a long time with opening sections and eating little bits.
a sippy cup for water (if you’re traveling by plane, fill it after security)
for plane rides: the pressure changes during takeoff and landing can be really hard on a baby or child’s ears, causing a lot of discomfort and leading them to cry a lot. For a baby, plan to nurse or give a bottle during these times. For an older child, have them chew gum, suck on a lollipop, or use a sippy cup with a straw to relieve the pressure on their ears
toys / activities to keep them entertained (see below)
a plastic bag – for trash, for wet clothes, for an “I don’t have time to re-pack these things properly so I’ll just shove them in here for now bag)
Whatever you as a grown-up need to survive the trip. For me, honestly, when traveling with small children all I bring on a plane is a bottle of water and something to read – with no real expectation of getting much reading done while keeping the child happy
Keeping Them Entertained
Whether you’re on a road trip, on a bus, train, or plane, or in a restaurant with hangry folks who are all up past their normal bedtime, there will be times on a trip where you just need your child to sit still, and play quietly.
Some entertainment options that work well:
Screens. Tablet or phone with books, movies, or apps loaded and ready to go. Yep… no matter your usual attitude toward screen time, this may be a great time for it. Normally I advocate for passive toys to encourage kids to be active, but here, we actually want a passive child so occupying their attention with the screen can be helpful.
Reading materials: I like magazines so we can recycle them when my child finishes them and we don’t have to carry everything with us for the whole trip.
Puzzle books / activity books: I would take a trip to a bookstore or Lakeshore Learning before a trip and get workbooks.
Art supplies / drawing toys: You could pack a small pad of paper and a bundle of colored pencils or markers. These are great for art, but also for all sorts of paper-pencil games like Hangman, Dots, Tic Tac Toe, etc. I also like small white boards and magna-doodle toys – where the drawing stylus is attached by a string and can’t be dropped, and paint with water books, and Wikki Stix.
For toddlers and preschoolers: masking tape / painters tape or post-it notes are so fun to stick down, pull up again, stick down again, and so on. You can make roads to drive their cars around, or draw pictures to stick around them. For older children, I like the removeable, reusable sticker books. (Don’t use regular stickers or you’ll be scraping them off everywhere the child could reach!)
For road trips: I love audiobooks and podcasts – it’s a great way to have a shared experience with kids – especially tweens and teens – it gives you something to talk about at the next meal as you reflect on what you heard in the story. I also like singalongs – put on the Beatles and singalong, or sing every camp song you know. (I have great memories from childhood of traveling in the RV, belting out camp songs!)
Assorted small toys – you know how random inexpensive toys enter your life from time to time? I’m talking birthday party favors, Happy Meal toys, good behavior rewards from the dentist, and so on. Things that aren’t great toys, but do provide short-term entertainment? Toy cars, plastic animals, and so on… Pull those out for trips. Some parents wrap them up like gifts or as rewards for good behavior, because opening them also keeps the child occupied a little longer, but I don’t like dealing with the mess of the wrapping paper. (Note: save a few toys for the trip home.)
don’t bring anything that is irreplaceable. (Remember how at the start of this article I talked about teaching your child flexibility? If they are utterly reliant on a single comfort item that is irreplaceable and that gets lost or damaged, that can be devastating. Encouraging your child to rotate between multiple comfort items – if possible – gives you more flexibility. And you can leave the irreplaceable one-of-a-kind item at home, and bring the generic, easily replaced item along.)
don’t bring expensive or valued items you feel you must bring home with you (I like the freedom of feeling like if I want to, I can leave anything behind and it will be OK – I rarely do, but I like that I could)
don’t bring things that are really messy (paint! play-dough, stickers with backings you remove) or really loud (instruments, electronic toys)
avoid items with lots of little pieces where if you drop / lose some pieces it will create great frustration (puzzles, Lego sets where they want to follow the instructions precisely, games with irreplaceable pieces)
If you can check in online, print baggage tags online, get your maps ahead of time, or any other preparation, do so! The less you have to juggle on the road while juggling kids, the better. Dress everyone in comfy clothes, with layers to adjust for too much heat or too much air conditioning, and shoes that are easy to get on and off.
Allow LOTS of extra time. More than you think you’ll need! If you get somewhere early, you can always walk around to burn off some kid energy, or play I spy, or whatever, and you won’t be nearly as stressed when inevitable long lines or delays crop up.
The calmer you stay, the calmer your kid will be. If you’re extremely anxious about your baby crying on the plane, they’ll pick up on that anxiety, and be more likely to cry on the plane!
Teach your kid about “Opportuni-pee.” That means when we have a convenient opportunity to make a bathroom stop, we use it, even if we don’t HAVE to pee right then. Not just before you get on a plane or get on the road, but even at the fair or amusement park – when anyone needs to use the restroom, we all take our turn so it will be longer till we all have to stop again.
Be flexible, be nice to people, have fun… model for your child all the best traveler behavior you can think of! My partner calls this Vacation Mode – if you’re actively relaxed and having a good time, it helps those around you do the same.
At Your Destination
In the packing section, I mentioned we don’t bring a lot of toys, other than a comfort item and the distractions in the carry-on. When parents have a lot of attention to give to kids, it’s easy to improvise play activities. When you’re in a new environment, there’s lots of new things to discover and explore.
Some of my favorite vacation memories: fireflies in a midwest campground after dark, collecting a rainbow of colorful rocks in Australia, stacking plastic cups from the airplane with my toddler son, building driftwood cabins on a beach, making “sock bunnies” when we forgot to bring my daughter’s stuffed animal, stacking flat rocks into tall towers, facepaint from a gift shop, cutting out models of the planets from a cheez-it box when my two year old child was obsessed with the solar system, playing whatever board games we find at vacation homes – including the 80’s classic Mall Madness, and making improvised nature art with my toddler when my teen was sleeping in late.
For summer 2021, you may have questions about the safety of traveling with unvaccinated children. I gathered resources and questions to consider in this post.
Affiliate links: Note that some of the links in this post will take you to product descriptions on Amazon. If you order anything on Amazon after clicking on these links, I do receive a small referral bonus, at no cost to you.
For summer 2021, many parents are facing a dilemma. Adults are able to be vaccinated against COVID, but children under the age of 12 are not. Is travel safe? It depends on a lot of things, and every parent needs to make their own judgment call.
Questions to consider:
Who will the child be interacting with? And how likely is it that those people are vaccinated? And how likely is it they will be taking precautions against transmission, whatever their vaccination status?
How / where will your child interact with others? The risk of transmission in outdoor, socially distanced settings where most people are vaccinated is low. The risk in indoors, poorly ventilated, non-distanced settings, with unmasked and unvaccinated people is much higher.
How prevalent is coronavirus where you will be traveling to? If the case rates in the community are very low, that’s safer. If they’re high, that’s riskier.
Will your child (over age 2) wear a mask? That helps reduce risk.
How concerned are you about your child getting COVID? Does your child have any health conditions that would make COVID especially risky for them?