No batteries required

Little Miss O's suitcase packed and ready.

Long before the iPad was invented, I was in the Louvre getting a serious art fix. A stroller passed by, and I thought how wonderful to bring a child here to see so many great masterpieces. And then I looked down and realised the child had her eyes glued to the screen of a portable DVD player (see what I mean about pre-iPad – how retro!). I was shocked. The Louvre is one of the most amazing art museums in the world, and there is so much there to stimulate a child's imagination. In my best crotchety inner voice, I thought, “Hmmmph! My parents took us to Singapore, all around the UK, Europe and the US all by the time I was eight with nary a battery in sight. And we all survived.” I swore then and there that if I ever became a mother, my child would never be THAT child.

Cut to many years later and a few months previous to the present time. Now the mother of a three year old, I was sitting at a party near another mother who had brought her kids too. Pulling out the iPad with its special child-friendly chunky and robust stand, she set it up for her almost three year old to watch explaining to me what a marvel it was. She told me how she and her husband hadn't taken their kids (a baby of eight months and the aforementioned three year old) to a restaurant until they realised that they could stick them in front of the iPad and all would be fine. I bit my tongue.

Kids can be exhausting – I resist the urge to give my daughter away every single day, and I know for tired, burnt out parents an iPad or gaming console can seem like a lifesaver, giving them some peace and quiet for a while, especially in a travel situation. Yet, surely, that defies the point of taking your children with you? In addition, once they hit three, it is not cheap to take them. It seems a pity and a waste of money if they spend their holiday with their head down all the time. With a little preparation, kids can travel electronic gadget free and potentially everyone can get a lot more enjoyment from the journey.

Little Miss O – my three year old – has taken a round trip from Japan to Australia return at least five or six times in her short life. She has also been to China, Austria, Italy, the UK and travelled within Australia, Japan, the UK and Italy by plane, train, bus and car...all iPad free. I don't even own one. In fact, we didn't even use the inflight TV. In all that time, there was only one incident that has scarred me (and probably every other passenger on the flight) for life. As we were landing on a flight from Vienna to Milan, Little Miss O decided that she didn't want to be in her seatbelt for the descent and actually wanted to sit in my lap, which of course was impossible. She screamed. And screamed. And screamed. It was pretty bad.

Thus I say to you all – it's possible to go unplugged but come prepared. Here are some of my tools of the trade;

  1. Pre-planning. I like to talk to Little Miss O about where we are going and what we will do and see, so she gets excited about it. We look at pictures in books or online and now she is old enough, I let her help me plan what we are going to do and see. She gets to look at the apartments on airbnb or the hotels and helps me to pick them out. For our upcoming trip to Paris, for example, she has been studying a pop-up book of the city and looking at all the different landmarks we will visit and learning their names. This ensures that she feels like she is part of the process and is not being dragged to nameless locations to see things she has no idea about. Try to find books in the library set in the countries that you are going to and read them together with smaller kids, or find novels for older ones. Again, for Paris, we have been reading the Paris pop-up book mentioned as well as This is Paris by Miroslav Sasek and Ruby Red Shoes goes to Paris by Kate Knapp.  We have also been looking at the globe to see where we are going.  An atlas would work well too.
  1. Packing. When we took a short trip to Mount Fuji, Little Miss O packed her little suitcase with a few toys and books. It was an empowering experience for her. She got to choose what she was going to take, she got to wheel her little suitcase around everywhere, and she was totally content with the things she had brought.
  1. Snacks. Little Miss O is a big eater and loves snacks. Whenever I travel, I have a battery of yummy treats – mini tomatoes, sultanas, dried apricots, chopped apple, strawberries – lots of healthy but favourite things. It's amazing how food can quiet the beast. And how hunger can awaken it! As she is also allergic to nuts, eggs and sesame, it's important that I don't just rely on what is on hand, but come with my own. Unless desperate, see point number eight, I advise keeping well away from sugar.
  1. Sticker and activity books. We Britrailed a bit around parts of the UK when she was two with a fantastic sticker book called All Around the World by Geraldine Cosneau. As we travelled, we could unfold each scene and stick in the animals, talking about how they moved, what sounds they might make, where to put them in proximity to other animals (predators, for example) and so on. For Paris, I have got a great one called My Walk in Paris which has colouring, sticking, spotting etc. activities based on various locations in the city, which I am really looking forward to doing with her. Museums often have free kids' guides that they can follow or activity books in the museum shop based on what is on display. When we saw a Lichenstein exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, I picked up the colouring book for around five pounds at the museum shop. Little Miss O is still talking about the “lady who is crying on the phone” (Lichenstein's Oh Jeff).
  1. Drawing. Little Miss O is an avid artist. I made her a little backpack that carries a dozen pencils and a sketchbook, and she loves to sit in an art gallery or at a cafe or restaurant and sketch what she sees. We have only been stopped once, in an art gallery in Tokyo, where they told us coloured pencil use was not allowed. It's great fun to sit and discuss what is in the picture, what colours she can see etc.
  1. Postcards. Sending and receiving mail is fun for kids, and so picking out and writing postcards is fun for them too. Writing them gets them involved in thinking about what they have seen and done. They can send them to friends, relatives or even to themselves so they have a record of their journey when they return.
  1. Night flights. As much as possible, try to get on a night flight if you are going long haul. On our last flight, nine and a half hours from Sydney to Tokyo, the plane took off at 10.20pm, so I had Little Miss O all in her pjs and ready for sleep. We read a story and tried to keep it as much like her usual bed time as possible. In less than an hour after take off, she was out like a light. She stirred once in the night and needed some cuddling for a little while and then slept until about an hour before landing when I woke her to eat some food and get dressed.
  1. Sing. On what was supposed to be a three hour drive home from Yatsugatake when Little Miss O was 20 months or so, we got stuck in traffic and it took us around seven hours to get back. I sang. And sang. And sang.
  1. Record the trip. Digital cameras mean that endless photos can be taken without the fear of wasting film, thus making them perfect for kids. Although she is a little young to take great pictures – or even passable ones, Little Miss O has a kids' digital camera – sturdy, inexpensive and easy to use – and she already loves the attempt. Collecting ticket stubs and other memorabilia and putting them in a journal with drawings, photos and for older kids, a written account, is also a great way to get kids involved in their trip and makes a great record for them to keep.
  1. Last resort. OK. I am a parent. I am not beyond bribes if the situation becomes desperate, as on the plane to Milan. Have something prepared that is really a treat for your child. Little Miss O rarely eats lollies, so a chup-a-chup is usually enough to turn the tide in an extreme emergency. Keep a favourite small toy in your bag as a surprise tactic if lollies aren't your thing. Hell – stand on your head and wiggle your feet in the air if that's what it takes.

Travelling is an amazing learning and life experience for children. Don't let it pass them by.


  1. Hello, great tips! Wishing you a nice trip to Paris and look forward to read about it - although I rarely comment, I really enjoy your blog! all the best Karin

    1. Karin - thank you so much! It's really nice of you to comment and let me know. I hope I can bring you some interesting stories from Europe. Elyse.


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