Traveling with children can be challenging, but it's also a great opportunity to develop skills including executive functions, the tasks and skills needed to think about, attend to, and solve problems safely and efficiently.
At a Glance
Planning a trip together is an opportunity to develop executive functions.
With a little prep, the journey is a chance to navigate, communicate, and play.
Get the most out of your destination with a few easy-to-pack toys and tools.
Planning a Trip Teaches Executive Functions
Planning a trip is a great way to practice and develop executive functions. Those functions include impulse control, emotional regulation, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation, and organization.
PLAN TOGETHER. Being involved in the planning process is a great way to practice making choices, budgeting time, and compromising. Give some thought to "Plan B" options in case of things don't go as planned, and include those ideas as part of your itinerary. Once plans are set, sharing a simple itinerary - or a visual schedule for little ones - can build anticipation and excitement, while encouraging smooth transitions and flexible thinking.
Skills: Planning & Prioritizing, Flexible Thinking
PACK YOUR STUFF. Even young children can be involved in a crucial element of the process: packing. For older children, packing can include checking the weather, writing a list, gathering the goods, and folding and packing for the journey. For younger children, focus on making simple A-or-B choices, such as which stuffed animal gets to come along.
Skills: Organizing, Bilateral Coordination (Folding)
STAY SAFE. Safety is an essential component to enjoying a happy and healthy trip. Set expectations ahead of time for staying safe while on your trip. These guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics are a good place to start.
Skills: Safety Awareness, Self-Monitoring, Impulse Control
Make the Journey Matter
Most of us don't look forward to the "travel" part of our trips - especially with young children. Still, packing some activities (and plenty of snacks) for your journey can make bearable - or maybe even fun.
MAP IT OUT. Nothing makes a parent's eyes roll more than the dreaded, "Are we there yet?" By giving your child a physical, foldable map of your journey, you can send the question right back to them. For young children, this map of the United States is actually a laminated placemat, perfect for marking up with dry erase or wet erase markers. It's also double-sided, so your child can keep a tally of every out-of-state license plate spotted on your way.
Skills: Sequencing, Spatial Awareness, Visual Perceptual Skills (Map Reading)
PLAY TRAVEL GAMES. Those teeny-tiny pieces that make travel games portable are also a great way to develop fine motor skills. For elementary-aged children, even if you never leave home, playing the miniature version of Connect4 or Battleship helps develop small muscles in the hand, and that translates to an efficient handwriting grasp. (Be sure your child maintains an “O” shape with the thumb/index fingers - OTs call it an "open webspace.") For young children, reusable sticker books encourage creativity, and peeling and sticking strengthens finger muscle.
Skills: Fine Motor, Social Skills (Taking Turns & Following Rules)
PASS NOTES. Sometimes we all need a little piece and quiet - especially while in transit. Declare it "quiet time" and communicate only with scratch-written notes and pictures. Try a travel-sized Etch-a-Sketch or this pad of rainbow scratch paper comes with a stylus, but you can literally scratch/write with anything - a penny, a fingernail, or a key. For young children, a mini Magna Doodle is a great early writing tool.
Skills: Fine Motor, Social Skills, Impulse Control
Make the Most of the Destination
Now that you've arrived, make the most of your trip with these portable and engaging activities.
GIVE THE KID A CAMERA. Giving a child - toddlers on up - their own (very durable) camera encourages them to observe their surroundings and focus on what interests them. You might be surprised at the results from their knee-high view. This waterproof, kid-proof camera is a great option, and it's practically indestructible. Alternatively, a pack of disposable cameras make an unexpected loss manageable.
Skills: Visual Attention, Visual Motor Integration (Pointing & Shooting)
WRITE ABOUT YOUR TRIP. Even for reluctant writers, sending postcards and keeping a journal can make writing fun. I'm partial to journals with graph paper (rather than standard lines or unlined pages) because the grids are equally conducive to writing or drawing. Bring along rock crayons because small writing utensils encourage kids to “pinch” with their thumb and index finger, promoting a more functional grasp.
Skills: Fine Motor
COLLECT NATURE. This plastic bug jar has a magnifier attached to it, making it a great way to take a closer look at your new environment.
Skills: Sensory Experience, Visual Perceptual Skills, Observation
BLOW BUBBLES. When little people need to get some energy out, blowing - and chasing - bubbles is an excellent strategy. These non-toxic bubbles last longer than standard bubbles, and they don't leave a sticky, soapy residue (which is great if you're stuck inside). As an added bonus, blowing bubbles in a slow, controlled manner can be calming. Bring along some pipe cleaners to twist into extra wands of all different sizes.
Skills: Motor Planning, Sensory (Oral-Motor), Fine Motor
PLAY BALL. Play a family game of volleyball with an inflatable beach ball that takes up next to no space in your suitcase. For younger children or indoor play, use a balloon to make the game easier to play - but just as much fun.
Skills: Visual Motor (Tracking), Motor Planning, Core Strength