When they were small, before they could talk or read, our children were easy to entertain. Give them a piece of paper and they would be working for hours figuring out how to use it. Unless they started eating it, got hungry, sleepy, or pooped. Usually that happened first, either of those.
When children are a little older, they tend to be more communicative and inquisitive. It is much more fun for you as a parent, but also more work, because they demand to be entertained. Actually what they crave is stimulation, preferably in close body contact with a parent. Small children demand body contact, and they are hardly very independent. They still want mommy or daddy to hold them and help them. As they get a little older, they start becoming more independent, stressing start. Some days you are not even allowed to change their diapers, other days your preschooler will demand to be carried and will not let go when they hug you.
But as a quirk of the international travel system, your children can get free tickets until age of two. The assumption is that they will sit in your lap, of course. So you really want to leverage that, if you can get the vacation. But it means you have to entertain your child during the flight.
While a six month old will be endlessly fascinated by a piece of wrapping paper, her one year old self will have grown up to realize that the gift is more important than the wrapping. And at 1.5 years old, she is able to distinguish between different kinds of presents.
Eating The Wrapping
But all children are different. Some will still be fascinated by the wrapping paper. Others will want to draw on it. Occasionally, there are children who will eat it (so use a paper printed with non-poisonous ink). They grow up at different rates and as they develop a relationship with the outside world, those relationships are different between all individuals.
Since you probably did not get a ticket for your child, they will be sitting in your lap. Rather, he or she will be sitting in your lap, since the airlines only allow one child per adult. If you are like me (or even if you only have two children), you often end up with one on each knee. That will work when the fasten seatbelt sign is off, but when it comes on you have to hand one child off to another adult. Minimizing the amount of screaming and kicking while you do this is a bigger challenge than you might have expected before you became a parent.
Curiosity Comes With Age
How to entertain infants varies infinitely with their personality and age. Up to 6 months or so, their favorite entertainment will still be cuddling up on your stomach and listen to your heartbeat. When they are not asleep.
As they get older, the children get more curious, active and demanding. When they are 24 months old you probably have already considered getting their own seat. They will kick the seat in front (because they are too big to sleep in your lap, even if they will try). They will obscure the view of the entertainment system, spill the coffee all over your lunch, sing at the top of their lungs, and have running competitions in the aisles. Until they fall asleep in the space allocated to them - your lap.
Discoverable Shapes And Colors
In the time between the cuddling up on your stomach and the running competitions down the aisles, they are discovering the world. And that is the key to entertaining them as well as keeping them entertained. You will quickly note that those two things are not actually related, by the way.
As children discover the world, things which exercise their sense of shape, texture and color will help keeping them entertained. The more they are like real objects that you are using yourself, the better it is. At this point, your children are both bonding with you and want to imitate you, so the more real an object is and the more you actually use it, the more attractive it will be. A clip of plastic keys will be much more entertaining than a bunch of paper note cards, regardless of how many zeroes are printed on them.
Bring Something Familiar
At that age, it is probably better to bring something that is familiar, at least that they have seen a few times. That serves two purposes: They will not be scared by it (or the circumstances where they got it), and you know that they have tried it and will like it. Or at least liked it the first time. This is why you want to bring more than one toy. But only give them one at the time, otherwise they will be confused.
Or they may play for two hours with the paper cup the flight attendant brought. You just never know at that age. Only be careful that they do not eat it. Take the same precautiotions as with other toys that age - nothing with small pieces that can come off, only non-poisonous colors, that sort of thing. You probably know very well what I talk about.
Toys That Destroy Planes
You may want to be careful with certain toys for another reason as well: They might destroy the airplane.
Yes seriously. Well maybe not poke holes in it, stop the engines, or blow it up. But if you bring something with colors or stickers, which my children enjoyed before they stopped being lap children, you have to be careful. Crayons and coloring pens can stick to the plastic of the airplane interior, and even if it is designed to be an especially ugly color, you do not want to pay for changing the plastic panels. Especially since you do not get to take them home. Or maybe threatening to make you take them home would make you extra careful. Always use pens or crayons which are washable with water.
Careful With Stickies And Suits
Also be careful with anything sticky, especially if you are sharing the seat row with other people. There are those who think that you should dress up to travel (or maybe they did not have a choice), and if your child sticks their DrMcStuffin hippo onto someones Dior dress and it does not come off, the trip may end up costing you more than you bargained for. Much more.
Remember to bring plenty of paper, but in notebooks or sketchpads. You do not want loose leaves flying around the airplane, no matter how many zeroes your children have written on them.
At that age, electronics are not a good idea. Especially not on board an airplane. Their eyes are sensitive to the blue light that screens give off, and their ears are too sensitive to handle the sound from earphones. It is very easy to turn up the volume too much, and at that age, causing lasting damage by exposing them to loud sounds is way too easy. Just avoid the potential issues by avoiding electronics in-flight until they around three, and you do not have to worry that you destroyed their eyesight and hearing so they would be quiet onboard.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.