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Must-have gear to make traveling with kids easier

Handing over your iPad isn’t your only option.

Elena Gurova via Getty Images

Traveling with young children is like trying to turn a cruise ship: It’s cumbersome, takes a significant amount of planning and requires a team effort. Because I apparently lack any amount of common sense, I recently took a 3,000-mile RV trip with my partner and two toddlers. Traveling with little ones can be stressful because they rely so much on their established routines; anything that deviates from that is going to be hard for them and you.

While we tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy by bringing along familiar toys and blankets, we also took the advice of a close friend who is an early childhood development specialist. She recommended keeping our twins engaged and entertained by grouping toys or activities together and rotating them throughout the day. Here are a few things that we tried that we’ll be returning to the next time we travel.

Depending on how you’re traveling, music can be a great way to entertain tiny travelers. The repetition in children’s songs help kids learn patterns and expand their vocabulary. What’s more, musical play encourages movement along with both fine and gross motor skills. That’s great if you’re in a car where you can clap, sing and wiggle, but gets more challenging when you’re stuck on an aircraft with dozens of other people who don’t want to hear “Old MacDonald” seven(-ty-seven) times in a row.

Sesame Street Music Player
Sesame Street

My mom bought us this “CD player” for our trip and weeks later, the twins are still fighting over it. My daughter really likes the music, my son really likes taking the “CD” out repeatedly to figure out how the player works, and they both like the colorful book of lyrics. Fisher Price has a similar option with light-up buttons, which is perfect for occupying little hands.

Another cool gadget we’ve recommended in the past is the Blipbox, an entry-level synthesizer that comes with 300 melodies and a synchronized light show. It contains a digital synth engine that includes an amp envelope, two LFOs, a modulation envelope and a low-pass filter — perfect for teaching kids about creating music while also entertaining their caretakers.

Buy Sesame Street CD player at Amazon - $10 Buy Fisher Price CD player at Amazon - $19 Buy Blipbox at Amazon - $189

When my twins were infants, the only thing that got them to sleep was playing Maxence Cyrin’s version of “Where is my mind?” on repeat. We still have a classical playlist of songs for when it’s time to sleep, but I also keep a playlist of songs that are entertaining for adult passengers as well (think: “Yellow Submarine” and songs by They Might Be Giants). It’s nice both to switch up the endless parade of nursery rhymes and expose them to different types of music.

On the other hand, kids respond to nursery rhymes because they incorporate simple melodies, repetition and actions (some of which can be easy to do while seated). YouTube has dozens of long playlists of classic nursery rhymes, some of which include the lyrics, which is helpful if you’re like me and have long forgotten the words to “Three Blind Mice.”

Older kids might enjoy one of the many educational podcasts out there. As a bonus, if they’re able to keep headphones on for a decent stretch of time, this makes for a good airplane option, too. As an avid podcast fan myself, I’m excited for my twins to be old enough to enjoy them with me, and I’ve already bookmarked several to try out. The But Why? podcast from NPR answers questions that kids send in themselves from “how do you make ice cream?” to “why do we wear clothes?” If your kid is into science, try Brains On or Tumble to explore topics like “how far can a cloud travel?’ and “how to become an astronaut.”

For more narrative style podcasts, check out Little Stories for Tiny People or Story Time. And for those kids, and parents, who are into exploring different musical genres, there’s the Saturday Morning Cereal Bowl and Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child podcasts, which feature songs from the Orb, Cake and Bob Marley.

Montessori Busy Board for Engadget's 2021 Back to School guide.
Will Lipman Photography / deMoca

Being stuck in a car or plane seat for long periods of time can make it challenging to find activities that involve younger kids’ need to explore, but there are still a few options. Most notably, a kids camera, like the Action Cam or the Creator Cam from VTech, can help them stay amused. They can document the trip with photos, videos and use stop-motion or time-lapse effects. The Action Cam can be mounted on a bike and comes with a waterproof case, while the Creator Cam comes with a small tripod and includes more than 20 animated backgrounds that the kids can use to spice up their photos and videos.

For kids younger than the recommended age for a camera, I like busy boards. Car time with my twins has become a lot easier since we got a few of the soft, zippered activity books that feature a variety of buckles, zippers and clasps for them to fiddle with.

Buy VTech action cam at Amazon - $53 Buy VTech creator cam at Amazon - $50 Buy deMoca busy board at Amazon - $60 Buy deMoca quiet book at Amazon - $80

Etch A Sketch
Etch A Sketch

If your child is into arts and crafts, you’re not out of luck when traveling (although maybe leave the glitter at home). There are a few easy ways to travel with a crafty kid, like bringing along a trusty Etch a Sketch, which never needs batteries, or investing in an airplane busy box, which includes coloring books as well as activities like creating a puppet show or superhero mask.

If you’d like something a little more high-tech and easy to pack, try a color by numbers app for your phone or tablet, which are engrossing even for adults. Or there’s the Osmo kit for Fire tablets which incorporates games, drawing and problem solving via various games and animations.

Buy Etch a Sketch at Amazon - $15 Buy airplane busy box at Etsy - $35 Buy Osmo kit at Amazon - $70

Amazon Kindle Kids Edition

My kids enjoy reading as much as I do, which means there are always at least a few books included when we travel. They’re not quite old enough for a Kindle Kids Edition yet, but it will be a great option when they graduate from board books. I honestly can’t wait to load up the Harry Potter series and a selection of Roald Dahl onto an e-reader for them.

In the meantime, I compromised by taking short videos of me reading through some of their favorites, like the Grumpy Monkey, and brought a selection of others like their Indestructible books. Not only are the Indestructible books rip-proof and chew-proof but they’re also washable so you don’t have to worry about them getting wet. My favorite part is that they’re very slim, so it was easy to pack several of them at once without adding a lot of bulk.

Buy Kindle Kids Edition at Amazon - $110 Buy Grumpy Monkey book at Amazon - $7 Shop Indestructible books at Amazon

Baby's Brew Portable Bottle Warmer Pro
Baby's Brew

Of course, there are a few gadgets that will help make your life easier as a traveling parent. I’m thinking specifically of the Baby’s Brew portable bottle warmer I recently invested in, which made our trip significantly easier since my daughter refuses to have a cold bottle. It did take me a few tries to get the hang of the controls, which is embarrassing to admit since there is a single button on it, but it did the job well and solved my cold bottle problem.

I also brought along the Munchkin 59s portable sterilizer which uses UV to clean a pacifier in under a minute; that’s helpful since every pacifier winds up on the floor in under a minute. Lastly, if your kiddo has a prized blanket, pacifier or toy that is essential for soothing or sleeping, consider tagging it with a Tile or Chipolo tracker. If I had thought about it in time, I would have thrown one on my daughter’s fox lovey to save myself from constantly worrying that she’d left it in Nebraska.

Buy Baby's Brew bottle warmer at Amazon - $85 Buy Munchkin sterilizer at Amazon - $20 Buy Tile tracker at Amazon - $35 Buy Chipolo tracker at Amazon - $25