Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Big USA Pilgrimage: Traveling with Preschoolers

I recently wrote a post about traveling between the USA and Australia with an infant in tow. As I said then and will repeat now, making these transpacific journeys with children adds a whole other dimension and as children age, their requirements change. So in this post, I'd like to talk a little bit about making the journey with preschool aged children.

The good news is, I think as my children have aged, the journey has gotten a bit easier. Firstly, the hard work I've put in in the past has started to pay off. The journeys I made with them as babies gave them an introduction to the trip itself and to the goodness that waits for them on the other side: grandparents, cousins, get the idea. My kids never complain about the length of the journey to the USA as they've been enough times to understand that the pain is worth the gain in the long run. Of course they get bored and sometimes frustrated during the trip, but the fact that they've been so many times now means that they well and truly have an understanding of how long it will take and as such have reasonable expectations as to what will happen and when. This understanding of the journey itself is priceless. So put that in the column of reasons to take them and take them often.

Once my kids were beyond the baby stage, I had to transition my thinking from how will I keep them fed, changed and well rested on the flight to how will I keep them entertained (and fed, and well rested and worst case scenario...changed)? So I began researching ideas on how to entertain young children on such a long journey. I spoke to other Expats about it, I read articles online and I tried to take away ideas that I thought would work the best for my kids.

The first thing I did was decide that the children were going to have to share the load a little bit. My children were still young enough to require some nappies and a few changes of clothes, add to that snacks, travel documents, cameras, wipes, medicines, and on and on and on and my carry on luggage was well and truly full. So I got each of them their own little backpacks. They both have a special blanket and a small stuffed animal they sleep with. I packed their blankets and stuffed animals in their bags so they would have those special comforts on the plane.

Then for about a month or so before the flight, I scoured the $2 shops for things to entertain them on the plane. Something I read online said you should take a mix of old and new things for the kids. A few old and loved toys that you know they will enjoy having along, but then something new to surprise them and distract them once their old favourites have lost their luster (ie the remaining 13.5 hours of the flight). Here's a few ideas of the sorts of things I've included in their backpacks over the last several trips (I've got a girl and a boy, so hopefully the list covers ideas for both genders):

*Small notebooks or drawing paper
*Coloured pencils/pens/crayons/textas (or markers)
*Stickers (pages of stickers)
*Colouring/Activity books
*Crayola Recoloritz (reusable themed pages that can be wiped clean and coloured in again and again)
*Story books (paperback is the way to go, even though board books are sturdier--they are heavy)
*Paper dolls
*Play doh w/a few small cookie cutter shapes
*Polly Pocket dolls & accessories or similar (small, light weight, but easily lost so beware)
*Hot wheels cars (or in my son's case the cars from the Disney Pixar Cars movie)
*Fold up play mat for the cars
*Small plastic animals
*Barbie dolls with a few accessories (again, accessories can go missing so beware)
*Magnetic Dress Up Dolls/Robots/Pirates
*Magnetic Playbooks by Tiger Tribe
*Playing cards
*Flash cards
*Figurines (choose your poison: Batman, Superman, the Wiggles, Ben 10, etc, etc)

There you go. A few ideas of the kinds of things we've packed during our past several trips. It sounds like a lot of items to fit into small backpacks, but we don't take very many of any one thing and we don't necessarily take everything on the list. For instance, this year my son was very heavily into the cars from the Cars movie. He has a small collection here at home so I got him to choose 5 that he wanted to take with him and we put them into a zippered pencil case to keep them together in his backpack. (A Ziploc would do the same trick, but a pencil case is sturdy and will last the whole trip.) Then before we departed, I got him 2 new cars for his collection which I put in his backpack. So when we are on the plane, he opens it to find the cars he packed and loves plus a surprise two new ones. He's happy. I'm happy. We're all happy and these cars keep him busy for ages. With my daughter, she was very keen on her Barbies. So I got her to choose two Barbies and a few changes of clothes that she wanted to take along. She stored her things in a pencil case inside her backpack as well. Then I found some mini-Barbie figures that were tiny and could be used as siblings or babies of the bigger Barbies and I put them in her backpack. On the plane she opens her pack to find her old Barbies plus a couple of new mini ones. She's happy. I'm happy. We're all happy.

At some stage, I began to question the number of things I was purchasing to put in their backpacks for these trips. Between the few new toys and the crayons, colouring books, etc. I was spending anywhere between $30-$60. Then in the middle of one of our trips, I realised something. These items in their backpacks weren't just for the plane. They were for the car rides once we got there. They were for the days at people's homes who don't have children or toys. They were for the fun of sharing with their cousins and the knowledge that even though my children were away from their homes, they still had a few things with them that were truly theirs. These items weren't just for 14 hours of entertainment, they were for 6-8 weeks of entertainment. When I thought of it that way, it seemed like money well spent.

What we don't take is a portable DVD player or DVDs of any kind. I often see people lugging these on the flights and I'm not sure why. Qantas has on demand movies and TV shows on individual screens in each seat. My kids can watch their choice of shows and I don't have to carry the DVD player. When we get to the USA, there is so much to do and so many people to visit that we don't usually have time to watch DVDs. So what would be the point of having it? Others might find it necessary or useful, but we've survived without it.

Hopefully this post is useful to those of you making this long haul journey with your preschool aged children. Do you have any useful tips of your own? Please feel free to add them in the comments section as we can all learn from one another.


Jenny said...

Great list! One thing I would add would be good kid-sized headphones. My 3 yr old loves to watch movies and play the games on the in flight system, but the headphones provided just won't stay on his head. We invested in these:
and they are brilliant!

Florida Girl In Sydney said...

You would fall over laughing if you saw what I carried on the plane the first time we took the trip from Florida to Sydney-- I have five MASSIVE carry on bags filled with actvities, food, and clothing- it was INSANE!!! Now we travel so light, kids each with a backpack, me with one or two small carry ons. I don't bother with any toys or activities, because all they want to do is watch tv or do stuff on the interactive tv system (they're now 5 & 6 but somehow they do).

suzinoz said...

@Jenny- Great tip. We've suffered ill fitting headphones as well. Thanks for including the link. :)

@FGIS-it's a big learning curve isn't it? I can't wait for the days when the kids pack their own bags and carry all of their own stuff. That day is coming right? Right?