The Ultimate Guide to Busy Toys: Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers

No matter your method of travel, you’ll need plenty of activities to entertain the kids along the journey.

For me, the perfect busy activity is something that:

  1. Inspires creativity or has an educational aspect
  2. Can be reused multiple times
  3. Doesn’t make a big mess
  4. Can be done quietly

Here I’ll go over some of my favorite activities for young of all ages.  But before I do I want to give you a few strategies for occupying children during travel. 

Related Post:  5 Easy Strategies to Plan the Perfect Trips with Your Kids
Related Post:  How to Make Your Vacation with Kids FUN and EASY

toddler travel airplane packing road trip

Don’t immediately pull out the busy toys!  Wait a while to let your children adjust to the new setting and give them a chance to entertain themselves. 

Learning to entertain themselves and mediate their own behavior is an important skill.  It encourages creativity, free-thinking, and you’d be amazed at the games and thoughts they come up with.

On a similar note, be sure they are completely done with an activity before moving on to the next. 

I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve seen who interrupt a happily playing child on an airplane to ask them if they need a snack!  You need to drag out everythingggg when you travel to get the most out of each activity.

Finally, when you are done with travel be sure to pack the busy toys up and hide them for the next trip.  That way it decreases the chance of them getting bored and tired of the activities.

Being prepared with plenty of busy activities is an absolute must.  If you want the free printable I made that highlights all the necessary steps for planning travel with kids, click here

I’m going to go in order of age (youngest to oldest).  If you want to jump to a specific age group click below!

Babies – Under 2 years
Toddlers – 2 to 4 years old
Preschoolers – Over 4 years

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In This Guide:

Children Under 2

Buckle Toy
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  12 months – 3 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  12 months – 4 years)

I have no idea what makes this toy so fascinating, but kids LOVE It.  Babies as young as 1 can already start to figure it out and it will hold their attention forever.

It’s wonderful to exercise fine motor skills as well as encourage color matching.  When kids get a little older it continues to be a hit – then you’ll find them trying connect the straps in different combinations.  

Added bonus – it doubles as a small pillow for naps on the road! 

Water Wow! Reusable Water-Reveal Activity Pads
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  18 months – 7 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  36 mos – 7 years)

Attention: If I could only bring one activity for my kids on a trip, this would be it.  These books are magical.  Simply fill up that little plastic pen with a small amount of water and the kids can go to town “painting” the colorful scenes. 

Children are amazed as the brush reveals trucks, animals, and more!  You’ll love it because there is absolutely no mess and it’s reusable.  Once the pictures dries they can “paint” it over and over again.  Get the 3-pack for sure, you’ll be so happy you did.

DIY Color Sorting Sensory Bag
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  18 months – 8 years

I got this idea from Hands On As We Grow.  The idea is simple – hair products in a ziploc bag with different items inside. It’s a great sensory activity that also works fine motor skills.

For younger children simply a few buttons with glitter is probably sufficient.  For older children, consider having them sort or align the items to add an extra challenge.  Just make sure that bag is sealed!!

Wooden Shaping Robot Toy
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  18 months+
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  3 years and up)

We actually first encountered these toys at the most adorable and kid-friendly coffee shop in New Orleans.  My kids (then 19 months and 3 years) instantly fell in love with the little robots. 

It’s a simple wooden toy where the parts are held together with elastic so you can move the head/arms/legs in different positions.  I love the simplicity and the creativity that it inspires. 

My kids love to laugh hysterically when they make them stand on their head or find a new “dancing position”.  I bought the 2 Pack because I didn’t want to start World War 3 by making them fight over a single toy.

Zipper Purse
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  12 months+
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  2 months and up)

What kid doesn’t love zippers? I love bringing little purses to allow my kids to collect different items.  They spend forever putting things inside, zipping the purse up, unzipping it, taking everything out again, and repeat. So simple, yet so mesmerizing.

Important Notedon’t bring tiny toys for the kids to put in their purses – that goes against one of the busy toy rules!  And they are for sure getting lost.  Use items they find for play (things like ticket stubs, receipts, plastic spoons, pretzels, etc.).  Then no one is upset when something gets dropped and/or lost. 

Lift-a-Flap Books
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  12 months – 2 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  Baby to 5 years)

Of course books are wonderful ways to entertain children.  Problem is, when traveling not everyone wants to listen to you read “Goodnight Moon” a hundred times.

Lift-the-Flap books allow children to interact with the book and explore the story by themselves (and quietly).  Well, mostly quietly… my daughter loves to yell at the raccoon on the last page of the Little Green Frog and tell him to go to sleep.

For kids 3 and older, there are plenty of more advanced flap books to entertain them (more text, pictures, etc).  One of my favorites is the Playtown Life-the-Flap Book.

For the Toddlers

Kids Headphones (Size Adjustable)
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  2 – 8 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  3 – 8 years)

We’re not a big screen-time household so we don’t generally bring a tablet for entertainment.  If you are planning on having your kids watch some shows or movies, you’ll definitely want to get some headphones so the whole plane doesn’t have to listen to Peppa Pig’s voice.

We use these headphones for listening to music and stories (predownloaded on Spotify) and they are amazing

For starters, they are cheap yet durable and come in lots of cute colors.  They have volume control so you don’t have to worry about your kid’s ear drums.  They also have a little connector that’s built in so another headphone can be attached – no splitter required. 

Fisher-Price Clip-On Doodle Pro
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  2 – 7 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  36 mos – 7 years)

I’m not sure who likes this more, my 3 1/2 year old or my husband… haha!

This is the travel version so it’s a nice, compact size.  The possibilities for creativity are endless with this one.  My son draws, plays tic-tac-toe, and practices his letters.  We also play pictionary! Available in blue, green, or pink.

Toddler Busy Toy Airplane Flight Road Trip

DIY Discovery Bags
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  2 – 7 years

I’ve seen these for purchase before, but Aussie Pumpkin Patch gives you instructions on how to make one yourself!  Toddlers can spend countless minutes starting into these bags searching for hidden treasures. 

Pro tip – keep a list on the back with all the items inside.  Then once your child is done exploring it themselves you can challenge them to find something.  That will increase the amount of time you get out of this activity, score! You can even add another element and time their search. 

For those of us that aren’t up to the challenge of making that one, check out this idea for an I Spy Sensory Bag for Sight Words & Letters from Hands On As We Grow.  Same idea but you can put pictures/stickers, numbers, letters, or words on the paper depending on your child’s interests. 

Reusable Sticker Books
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  3 – 9 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  4 – 8 years)

Kids love stickers, but buying books over and over is expensive and wasteful.  I love these reusable sticker books because you can move the stickers from page to page. 

They are a little trickier to handle, however, than traditional paper stickers.  That is why I don’t  recommend them until age 3.

Lacing Cards Activity Set
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  3 – 7 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  36 mos – 5 years)

These lacing cards were a HIT on the last cruise we were on.  Not only do they capture the attention of my toddler, but hey actually amused a teenager and several adults during dinner one night. 

Lacing cards is great for fine motor control and visual motor integration.  There are lots of different patterns the cards can be laced so it can be completed over and over again. 

Eye Spy While I Fly
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages: 3 – 8 years

Printables are a great (and freeee) idea for travel activities – especially ones that are travel-themed like this Eye Spy from Extremely Good Parenting.  Not only is it keeping your child interested in travel, but it also helps early readers with the picture/word associations. 

When I find a printable I like I laminate it using our laminator. When my husband originally suggested we get a laminator, I thought he was crazy!  It’s like $20 though, so I figured we’d give it a try.  Well, I love it and I use it more than he does!  It makes printables sturdy so they can be used over and over.  Plus then we can write on things with dry erase markers and clean them. 

Search and Find Book
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  3 – 8 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  3 – 6 years)

Similar to the lift-the-flap books I was discussing earlier, these search and find books are designed for children to work independently.  The goal is to search for specific pictures in complex scenes.  However, one of the  beauties of these books is that two children could also work together or compete to find images. 

You can also pat yourself on the back for getting your children a gift that will improve their visual memory and tracking.  Both are very important skills critical for academic success. 

ABC Match with Stickers and a Roll
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  3 – 5 years

I originally saw this idea on How Wee Learn but I believe it’s originally from Happy Kids Ideas.  It combines something kids love (stickers!) with even more things that you love (cheap, educational, and amusing busy activity). 

Matching letters, numbers, shapes, colors, etc. works great for older kids.  The three-dimensional aspect makes it more interesting than just putting stickers on a flat piece of paper.  Younger children could even simply decorate the roll with stickers. 

Wipe Clean Learning Book
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  3 – 6 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  3 – 6 years)

My son LOVES these books.  So much so he once demanded to practice his letters in bed and fell asleep while tracing.  Unfortunately, the cap was off and marker got all over his bed sheets, ugh. 

The book is sturdy and the pages are fun, colorful and exciting.  There are other versions with puzzles, numbers, and activities.  Another great busy toy that’s educational – you go sneaky mama! 

For Preschoolers


Magnetic Tangram Game
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages:  4 years and up
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages:  3 years and up)

I am the Tangrams queen!  I have enjoyed playing Tangrams since I was a kid and I continue to play them today through apps on my phone. 

For kids, however, there’s a lot ot be said about having a physical book with pieces.  Kids learn best through the physical manipulation of the blocks and it strengthens directional relationships in the brain. 

This is a small book (about 6 inches square) so it’s ideal for travel – especially since the blocks are magnetic.  In Tangrams you use the same blocks and construct them into hundreds of different patterns (animals, people, objects, etc.).  It’s a brain teaser that I guarantee you’ll want to borrow from your kids! 

Maps & Globes Learning Activities
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages: 4 – 10 years

Planning map activities is especially a fun idea for international travel!  3 Dinosaurs has some great ideas and printables on their website. 

Travel Memory Games
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages: 4 – 10 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages: 5 – 8 years)

This is a wonderful travel version of concentration and a great way to exercise visual attention, memory, and fine motor skills. 

There are different cards that slide into the memory flipper portion so you can play over and over.  Kids can play alone and challenge themselves but if they want to play against another player there is even a built-in scoreboard!  All without any loose pieces – win!


DIY Would You Rather?
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages: 5 – 10 years

After the excitement of being on an airplane or in the car wears off, sometimes finding things to talk about can become difficult. 

Coming prepared with talking points is a great idea to spark conversation and debate!  I love these printables from Skip to my Lou.  Allowing them to draw out an idea makes it more like a game – and then they’ll have fun expressing their opinions. 

Magnetic Animal Bingo
The Moms at Odds Recommended Ages: 4 – 7 years
(Manufacturer Recommended Ages: 4 – 8 years)



About Author


Hi, I’m Jo!

I have two small children, Ry and Lily, only 19 months apart. It’s usually crazy around my house, but thankfully my wonderful husband is around a ton and helps keep the peace.

I also own my own business and work full-time. I’d love to list all these amazing hobbies I have, but honestly I can barely handle keeping the kids entertained, the house clean, and food on the table. Although on days I’m too tired to do housework, I love to pour a glass of wine and watch Supernatural or Murdoch Mysteries on Netflix.

My husband and I like to stay very busy and drag our kids everywhere with us. Weekends often include relaxing at wineries, festivals, exploring Washington D.C. and other short getaway trips.


  1. I am glad to know good information. I will visit you often.

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