Last week on the blog, we took a look at some great travel gifts for adults. This week, we thought we’d take a look at some great gifts for children who - be it visiting grandparents, or going on summer holidays - spend a certain amount of time on the road, or in the air. A goodly selection of projects and activities can make a big difference both for the children and the adults traveling with them, acting as fun and/or educational distractions, making the whole journey fly by that bit quicker.
A while back, while learning to sew tote bags, we got the idea that tucking a couple of totes full of travel-friendly goodies for a couple of wee ones we know and love would be a grand idea. As the notion had time to incubate, however, we realized that totes aren’t especially practical for children - and their accompanying adult(s) - to travel with. So, we course corrected and began researching children’s backpacks. Turns out there are a lot of adorable options out there, but we ended up opting for Skip Hop Zoo’s Otis Owl backpack and JJ Cole’s train knapsack.
As to what to tuck into a travel backpack? First up, a few things we suggest avoiding:
- anything with a million small parts that are easy to lose (e.g. Lego is one of our all-time favorite children’s toys but it’s not generally a great airport toy)
- anything that is noisy (parents and fellow travelers will not thank you for gifts that beep, toot, or involve horn-blowing)
- or, anything that cannot be done/accomplished while seated (i.e. nothing that would have the child running up and down the aisles of an airplane)
As for what works, it will depend a bit on the age and interest level of the children you are targeting gift-wise, but here are a few ideas we’ve found to be winners:
ACTIVITY BOOKS, CARDS + PADS: There are many great activity books out there for all age ranges. That said, we especially like Usborne’s books and have gifted several of their wipe-clean books over the years: Mazes, ABC, and their Big Activity Book. Their packet of travel activity cards, 100 Things for Little Children to Do on a Journey, is also top notch for kiddoes on the move as they are both engaging and compact. Word to the wise: if you are investing in some wipe-clean books and/or cards, we suggest picking up an extra packet of fine point dry erase markers, in case the accompanying pen gets lost, damaged, or dried out - not unheard of when it comes to children and markers (as we know from our own childhood). For the travel backpack we put together, we also splashed out on a Peppa Pig Smiles and Giggles activity book, and a School Zone Hidden Pictures Around the World activity book. An Usborne Travel Activity Pad is just a slight variation on the concept of the activity book. Instead of being a wipe-clean affair, the Usborne pad is a bit more compact size-wise and has 200+ tear-out pages. This makes it ideal for sharing if you have two children of similar ages traveling together. It contains everything from mazes, to connect-the-dots, to crossword puzzles - and more. As of writing, there is only one review of the pad on Amazon.com and it’s for 1 star. We think the reviewer may have gotten the system in reverse (thinking 1 star was the highest rating) as they seem to have been happy with the product - regardless, we definitely don’t think a 1-star rating is warranted. Take a closer look at the pad with the help of this YouTube video. The pad is geared towards ages 6+ but we found many of the activities can be done by a slightly younger audience as long as an adult is available to help with instructions.
DOODLING PAD WITH PENS AND MARKERS: We like blank pads for their endless potential, allowing children to use their imagination. In each of the backpacks we assembled, we tucked in a couple of Faber Castell doodling pads. We picked ours up locally and they were eminently affordable, containing paper in a range of colors which we thought would be fun for the kiddoes. Faber Castell’s sketch pad is a bit more expensive and a little larger but would also be a good option, or Melissa & Doug’s white paper drawing pad. We paired each doodling pad with a set of Toysmith mini markers which are great for small hands and handily fit in the front pockets of backpacks. While we were at it, we also snagged an ooly Sweet Things’ 6-click multicolor pink popsicle pen. Whether sporting 6-colors, topped with a cool eraser, or a pom pom, novel writing implements of any sort are fun to add to a child’s roster of drawing materials.
STICKERS: If you’re including a doodling or drawing pad with your gift, may we suggest adding some stickers into the mix too? We have yet to find the child that does not love sticking stickers - often integrating them into the scenes they are drawing. Mrs. Grossman stickers are classics and they are quite widespread - we suspect you’ll be able to find a source locally. That said, we’ve also had good luck buying sticker collections in volume via eBay. Word to the wise: we recommend buying from a vendor that indicates they have a smoke-free home. From experience, we can tell you that smoke-smelling stickers aren’t the greatest and it took more than a month inside a bag with several sheets of fabric softener to get rid of the odor when we learned that lesson. Loose sheets of stickers aside though, we also recommend checking out Dover Little Activity Books stickers. Some of them are straight up sticker books - others are designed such that the covers display scenes where the child can stick the stickers. For the purposes of the backpacks we were assembling, we splashed out on Dover’s train station and little construction site booklets for a young feller who happens to love planes, trains and automobiles.
COLORING BOOKS: Offering a bit more structure than a blank canvas, coloring books are another great variation on the activity book. Choose a color-by-number coloring book for a clearcut project and bit of numbers practice, or choose from a wide range of more traditional, less proscribed coloring books. Another option is to “color” or “paint” by sticker, a hybrid of coloring and sticking, such as Workman Publishing’s paint-by-sticker Under the Sea book. We also really like Melissa & Doug’s Water Wow coloring books. Children “color” by using a water brush to reveal the colors in the drawing on each page. They are reusable (when they dry, the colors disappear) so can easily be used by more than one child in turn and/or over again by the same child. These are also a great option for car trips where marker or crayon style coloring books might be a bit more challenging, generally being a bit of bumpier ride when compared to air travel. Just remember to top up the water brush before setting off in the car. If you’re traveling by air, make sure the water brush is empty before hitting that security line - it will be easy enough to fill in a bathroom on the other side.
DRAWING KIT: Continuing on the theme of putting pen to paper, there are a couple of small drawing kits that we’d bring to your attention. First up are Kahootz’ fashion plates which involve mixing and matching plates, placing paper over them and rubbing with crayon to produce a relief image that is then primed for coloring. They are geared towards 6+ but, again, we have found that with a little adult prompting, that audience can even be slightly younger. Fashion plates come in deluxe and super size sets, but for children on-the-go, there is an eminently affordable, compact travel kit. Another option from Kahootz in a similar vein is their marvelous Spirograph travel kit. Spirographs are somewhat mathematically oriented, using gear-like pieces of plastic in different shapes and sizes to draw all sorts of beautiful geometric shapes which can, in turn, be colored.
AUTO BINGO: Go truly old school for a car journey and invest in a set of auto bingo cards. This can be a fun game for the whole family - as it relies more on luck than it does on skill, it’s appropriate for a wide range of ages. If you want to up the stakes, include a secret parcel to be won by the journey’s bingo winner. A surprise crepe ball - such as a TOPS Malibu ball or a homemade version - work well in this context.
GAME BOOKS: Compact game books can be a winning idea for extended journeys, especially when it’s possible to make up the numbers for a two-player game - so, more than one child traveling together, or an adult who is game (ha!) to play several rounds. We came across some fab game booklets made by UK-based House of Marbles at GiFtED, a superb little gift shop in the South End, here in Boston. For our target audience, Dots and Boxes was the way to go, but House of Marbles makes a slew of booklets and, of course, there are other options out there too. We’d certainly include Mad Libs, a staple (and never ending source of amusement!) from our own childhood in this category too. Small gift shops and local toy stores are often especially great resources for just these types of booklets and games. And, for the child who will not have a gaming companion (perhaps because they are driving and/or navigating), an invisible ink game book by American Toys may be worth exploring - they allow a child to essentially play against the book, plus the magic of using invisible ink!
MATCHBOX PUZZLES: For a tactile puzzle experience that’s eminently compact, you may wish to check out Professor Puzzle’s matchbox puzzles. These wee puzzles easily tuck into the front pocket of a knapsack and offer one or more challenges (depending on the matchbox) for your small recipient to tackle. We opted for Tangram and The Pyramid based on the age of the little one we were gifting to, but there are a whole range of puzzles to choose from. Note: we purchased our matchboxes locally but, if you are US-based and can’t find Professor Puzzle products, you may wish to check out Hobby Works which sells their matchboxes online. We happened upon them while checking for online sources and, unlike many other vendors of Professor Puzzle’s matchboxes, they allow you to choose the puzzles you receive.
NO-SEW STUFF ANIMALS: We’re not sure why Short Stuffs’ Create Your Own No-Sew Stuff Animals project books are not more readily or widely available (we checked locally to no avail). After reading very high reviews of this project book, we ended up securing one from a toy store selling as a third party vendor on Amazon.com. As it so happened, we ended up working through the booklet with our young recipient at first - then, she got the hang of things and began creating her own little creatures. The kit includes everything you need to assemble the various critters proscribed in the book - bodies, stuffing material and body parts with velcro for easy assembly. Cheerily colored and versatile, there is a lot of scope for a child (or children) to use their imagination here. A great little project for any imaginative youngster!
FISHING GAME: When we splashed out on a Lewo fishing game, we envisioned our little recipient sitting in an airplane seat, “fishing” off the floor. Honestly, though, it would work equally well while waiting in a terminal, at a bus terminus, or on the train. Two fishing rods are included so it can even be a multiplayer affair.
HANDHELD GAMES: Handheld games needn’t be electronic. Who remembers Wooly Willy magnetic boards - where you “draw whiskers, hair and eyebrows” on a clown-like face? Other examples of non-digital handheld games are mini maze puzzles - flat or spherically shaped - or an introductory Rubik’s cube.
SHOE LACE TYING PRACTICE: Gifting to a little one who is learning to tie their shoelaces? Did you know that there are shoelace-tying practice boards out there? We didn’t until recently. For example, ALEX Toys makes a lightweight set of four foam shoes that are awfully easy to tote around in a knapsack. Each shoe effectively acts as a puzzle, plus teaching a useful skill at the same time.
COMPACT JIGSAW PUZZLES: From the get-go, you might think that this violates one of our travel advisories - namely, not to get things that have lots of pieces with high loss potential. And, you’d be right, except that some puzzles out there are designed to be compact and easily packable. In this context, we especially like Melissa & Doug’s wooden vehicles-themed jigsaw puzzle set. The puzzles come in their own box which is comprised of four compartments - one for each of four 12-piece puzzles. As far as portable puzzles are concerned, we can’t imagine a more travel-friendly set up, never mind the fact that our small, vehicle-obsessed recipient was delighted with the resulting images, completing each puzzle many times over.
PARTY FAVORS: We love shopping at Henry Bear’s Park, a local toy store, because in addition to stocking a great selection of toys, puzzles and games, they also have a section devoted to small trinkets, items that would be great as party favors but many of which work equally well as added little distractions in a travel pack. We’re not talking party blowers or whistles, but things like finger traps or kaleidoscopes. If you have a local toy store or party shop, definitely check out the party favor section for a few extra bits and bobs to sneak into a child’s travel backpack.
SNACKS: Last, but definitely not least. Are you familiar with the feeling of being “hangry?” Much as we try to be our better selves at all times, occasionally we find ourselves guilty of food grumpiness. Though, as often as we fall victim to that state of being, children seem to be doubly (if not tripley!) more susceptible. As such, we recommend tucking in a small snack, great for unexpected delays on the tarmac, or when caught in a horrible traffic jam. Whether it’s Cheez-Its, goldfish, or fruit Shredz, a little something to stave off the munchies is often what’s needed to keep the peace, more so than any game or activity. So, we suggest covering as many bases as you can by sneaking in a little pick-me-up for your lucky little recipient.
Whew! Well, that’s it from us today. We hope that our suggestions prove helpful as you look to lock in a gift or two for a small traveler in your life. And, of course, if you come across a great idea (or two! or three!) that we haven’t touched on here, please do let us know. We’re always keen to learn of new and different gift ideas!
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