Liz Henry is nervous about her upcoming flight to San Francisco. It’s not TSA regulations or long lines that are causing her anxiety, however. It is traveling alone with her three children — all of whom are under the age of 6.
"My kids are 5, 3 and 1," said Henry, who lives in Vienna. "I’m taking them to visit my family for Christmas, but they’ve never flown before. I have a lot of DVDs packed, but I don’t know how far those will get me. I don’t like pacifying my kids with videos, but I don’t think I have a choice."
Going home for the holidays often means boarding an airplane with high-energy children and settling in for a long ride. Parents such as Henry scramble to find ways to fill the time in a way that keeps their child entertained without disturbing other passengers. Local education experts say there are options that don’t involve the last resort of videos and electronic games, however.
"Reading is always a good choice, but for many children, it cannot hold their attention for long plane rides," said Len Annetta, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. "Games like Scrabble challenge players’ literacy skills in a fun way. Crossword puzzles are also fun and engaging."
Annetta, who recently returned from a family trip to Italy, has first-hand experience with surviving lengthy plane rides with children in tow. "I took the whole family, including my 13- and 11-year-old children," he said. "My children are older, but we played a name the cloud game. Of course, we were above the clouds, so it made it a bit more difficult."
When traveling abroad, a long flight is an ideal time to learn more about the culture or language of your final destination. "My children tried a crash course on Italian," said Annetta. "They learned a few words they used during the week we were there. This was a free app on the iPod that we downloaded before we left."
Bethesda-based psychotherapist Katie Cogan, Ph.D., recommends activities that engage a child’s imagination, particularly for younger children. "You always have your imagination with you no matter what," she said. "You can say to a child, ‘Tell me a story,’ or you can take turns telling stories with your child. When you’re on the plane, you can help your child imagine what it will look like when we get there."
For young children, Cogan said, "Using what’s inside you to create a world that already exists. It is called active imagination. Use your creativity to do anything. If you’re with a young child, you can ask ‘How many things can you think of that are red?’"
Cogan also advises helping children make up a story, particularly about their final destination. "If it is a small kid, give them the first part of the story or the first word and let them take if from there," she said. "Have paper with you, and you can have your child tell you the story and either write it down or have your child write the story down and color it."
Annetta said, "Journaling your experience is a fun way to practice writing while telling the story of where you are going or where you’ve been."