The Best Travel-Themed Activities for Children
How do we make travel with kids a part of our life, when we actually can't travel with our kids? Hmm. Good question! And the answer is that we do some armchair travel with kids, aka we keep travel as a theme in the play, learning and conversations our kids have. While it feels like a good way to keep travel in our children's mind - and hey, could double up as a homeschool geography lesson - doing some of these home travel activities for children will overlap with them learning about other things like history, culture, art and food. Win-win!
But before we go any further, be sure of knowing that this list of armchair travel acitivities for children are not complicated, expensive or time-consuming to set-up. For the most part they will call on you to hunt through your existing toys, household objects and recycling bin, and there is a good balance of travel-themed activities for kids that require you to be involved and others that will work better if you leave them to it. I am all about the balance!
I knew it was a long time that we hadn't been away when my now five-year-old son started asking why we hadn't been on holiday for a while. Granted this was approximately about 2 days after we returned from our last trip (because he is his mother's son!). While I have got used to this new 'not travelling status" and indeed have been creative about finding ways to travel from home myself - like this ultimate guide to armchair travel and this round-up of Amsterdam virtual tours - my youngest boy is still often confused and upset about why he can't travel over the North Sea to see his grandparents in the UK or why we didn't go on a beach holiday this summer (that didn't feature the bracing cold winds and freezing water of the Dutch coast), so I'm trying to indulge him with some child-friendly armchair travel at home.
DISCLOSURE: There are affiliate links in this post so I can save some pennies to buy more travel-themed puzzles for our family - see below!
10+ Fun Ways to Travel with Kids at Home
At the time of putting this list together, my children are one and five. Many of these travel activities for kids are aimed more for my five-year-old than my youngest, but he is often happiest when we are engaged in a game and he can get involved by jumping on my lap with a toy or two of his own, and/or I involve him by demonstrating more physically what we are doing. The activities listed below are suitable for one kid on their own or for many kids all together.
The other thing I feel important to say is that most games and toys that kids play with regularly have an element of travel or journey to them. Think about what they do with Lego, train sets, cars, dolls and figurines; they are often taking their toys on journeys or creating new places and spaces, so I am all for simply letting kids decide what they want to do, but if your kid/s are asking questions about why travel isn't happening (please tell me it's not just my son!) and you just want to do a travel-themed activity or two, this is the post for you!
For the most part, I would say these travel-themed games and activities are more for age 2+ up until around six or seven, but there are certainly many that would keep older kids happy too. Not all of these travel activities for kids will work every single day. Some of them require more attention and effort from a carer and some days we just don't have that to give, so I have included some fun kid-friendly armchair travel ideas that involve screens, toys and other games where you can let your imagination and creativity have a day off!
Enjoy these ten (or more!) ways to travel at home with children!
Re-create Places You've Travelled to (or Want to Travel to) at Home
Have you and your kids travelled to a place you all loved? Do you have some souvenirs or memories from this place you could all dig out? Use this as inspiration to re-create the places you've travelled to and re-live some happy travel memories.
Put your kids in their swimmers, or maybe in their snow gear, use bedsheets and towels to recreate a beach or a snowy mountain, and maybe make a few snacks or a meal that is similar to what you ate on holiday in this place your children loved travelling to. If you can't get too hands on yourself, and/or your kids are old enough to play by themselves with a little prompting and encouragement, then task them with creating destinations with and for their toys.
This summer we did a lot of "beach days" on our terrace with the paddling pool, and now my 5-year-old likes to make dinosaur islands out of sand or mud (if I'm feeling very brave!). I also invested in some kinetic sand for this very purpose and it has been one of the better things I bought in a mad panic to keep him occupied this year.
Re-create a Plane or Train Journey
Yes, this may take a bit more effort than just putting out a few beach towels, but it may pay off and will almost certainly be a memorable travel-themed activity your kid/s will love. Arrange some chairs near a window like they're on a train or a plane and get your kid/s to play certain roles - the driver/pilot, the conductor/cabin crew, passengers - and you can easily fill many minutes going on imaginary journeys.
You don't need to dress up (unless you want to!) but pulling out the suitcases and getting your kiddo/s to also pack a bag and maybe unpack in a different room, could be a fun way to extend the game. You can easily also get additional props to make the experience more real, like trays, plates and cutlery for meal service, a makeshift joystick, an unplugged computer keyboard and a map pinned on a wall when they're being the pilot, and maybe a few of your real travel things like neck pillows, some old plane tickets, some foreign currency, and even passports if you are confident they won't end up lost!
Or you could use some homemade ones...
Travel-themed Arts & Crafts!
This brings me nicely to travel-themed arts and crafts with kids. There are SO many you can do and there's a real variety depending on age and ability, and how much mess you're willing to tolerate! My boys have always enjoyed making a mess painting and drawing, and every now and again I encourage them to do something travel related, whether it's colouring pictures of different countries (we have some cool travel themed activity and colouring books) or painting from a photo of a place we've been.
I try to keep my travel-themed crafting super simple with as little mess as possible by just giving them one material to work with (i.e. not paints AND stickers AND glitter - actually we NEVER have glitter in the house so that solves that problem!).
Other cool ideas are making a globe from paper mache, painting flags (and coming up with their own), and making (and sending!) postcards.
Writing/Creating a Travel Journal (True or Fiction!)
When my kids are older I will see if they want to do a travel journal or scrapbook to have a collection of keep-sakes from trips we make together, but I won't be heart-broken if they aren't interested or lose interest. While I think travel journals are super fun, and the travel diary I wrote on my big RTW trip is something I'll treasure forever, I'm much more interested in them enjoying the experience rather than documenting it.
However, when they can't travel you could think about asking them to write a travel journal about a trip they did semi-recently, just as a way of squeezing out the good memories of that trip. Maybe you have some old tickets, receipts or other mementos from the trip they can scrapbook to create a travel journal from it all. You could also draw pictures of where you stayed, what you saw and what you did, or cut some out of old magazines or newspapers. This is an excellent way to also encourage your kids to practise reading and writing if they're at that stage.
Alternatively, you could think about doing an imaginary travel journal with your kids. You could even create a whole RTW trip or an exploration of a certain region or continent and each day or week get them to research and find out more information about destinations and the journeys between them. Writing this up could be a really great way to exercise their research and storytelling skills.
Making and Eating Food From Around the World
Food, glorious, food! Isn't it brilliant? And isn't it amazing that we have access to so many different types of cuisine from all over the world. It's definitely something I think our kids should be aware of in the right way.
We have been quite slow to talk about the origins of certain foods with our kids because we have done that silly thing where you under-estimate what information your child can take on board (pun intended!) but we have always talked about what kind of foods we can eat once we are in a place (not that it has made much difference with our eldest who is the fussiest of the fussiest eaters!). I'm also not brave enough (nor are my kids old enough really) to be let loose in the kitchen alone, but once they are able to do more cooking, I do hope to show them lots of recipes for lots of dishes from around the world.
Already, I'm trying to increase their awareness of world cuisine at home. When I make a risotto or pasta dish or we get take-away pizza, I tell my boys this is Italian food and that Italy is one of my favourite countries (and how I lived there for a summer a looooong time ago by which time they are already yawning and ignoring me....), when I make a big Greek salad for lunch, I ask my son if he remembers that this is what I ate every day on our holidays to Greece, and when we have a BBQ we talk about how this is a really Australian thing to do and we all talk in terrible Australian accents, apart from my partner who actually is Australian so his isn't that bad.
Even at their young ages, our kids have also been introduced to Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai food since we started to be a bit more mindful of what we were making and how we explain where it comes from. One of them (who doesn't even always understand what we're talking about!) laps it all up hungrily; the other one often turns his nose up at it before we've even set the table and begs for a cheese sandwich instead. This is sooo frustrating, but I still think it's all worth doing because they are still being exposed to other countries and cultures even if they're not actually eating the food.
I also tell my kids how some foods we eat here in Amsterdam are traditional Dutch foods, so they have an understanding of what comes from where we live and what is or isn't just mum's terrible cooking!
And now we move to technology because parents have limited crafting skills and VERY limited time or energy for being creative all the time so let a screen and the internet do some of the hard work. Google Earth is the easiest and cheapest way to do this!
We have been showing our eldest son Google Earth and playing around with it since he was maybe two, or possibly younger. We have mostly used it to show where we live and also where members of our family live (as they're scattered all over the world), and to also show him where he's been or where he's going when we have travelled.
He seems mesmerised by seeing a "real-life map" come to life and as he's grown older he has spent more time on it and just gone exploring looking for islands, mountains and cities. Sometimes he just likes to zoom in on Amsterdam and look around, or on my parents' house back in the UK, to see if he can see things he recognises. He will then invariably ask me lots of questions about what he's looking at so it's actually a really cool way to start a different kind of discussion about travel.
VR Travel Experiences
In the last few years, we've also set our oldest boy up with the VR headset to explore Google Earth and other games that show you different parts of the world. Don't ask me what they are because when I said "we" I actually meant my partner - sorry!
Needless to say there's lots to do with VR to explore the world - most tourist boards and many travel companies are really investing in it and pushing it to try keep travel and destinations in people's minds and heart. AND you don't need all the expensive kit, either - you can actually convert your phone using a carboard headset.
Travel Books for Kids
If you know me you'll probably be surprised about this not being at the top of the list because BOOKS ARE EVERYTHING in our household, but truth be told, my kids aren't at ages where they can get lost in books by themselves yet. But they're still a huge part of my boys' lives and they each have an overflowing book shelf in their rooms and another one downstairs full of kids books. Many of the books have a travel theme too, and we're slowly growing a great collection of maps and atlas' for children as well.
You can find our favourite travel books for babies here, and our best travel books for kids (aged 2 - 6ish) here. Alternatively, you can go straight to shop these lists here and here (and also find some other travel themed toys and activity books here). As and when they grow older I will update these lists for sure.
TV Shows & YouTube
Kids love TV (don't @ me!) and I love that my kids love TV (and I have written about the benefits of screentime here) as it gets me time to myself to cook, clean, work and sometimes - make a cup of tea and sit down in peace. That all being said, we do closely monitor what our kids watch on TV - we don't even half terrestrial or cable TV, only Netflix, to avoid ads - and I have tried to choose kids TV shows about travel that are educational, fun and most importantly, not skewed politically or culturally.
I want my kids to learn about other countries and cultures from other countries and cultures, not necessarily through a white/Western lens. Some of the following TV shows have a loose travel theme, but they do educate and inform, rather than just frivolously entertain.
Our favourite TV shows for kids that have travel as a main theme are Dora the Explorer, Octonauts, GoJetters, Thomas & Friends, Airport, Magic School Bus Rides Again, Dinosaur Train (more time travel than travel but it's there) and just recently my eldest has started watching Wild Kratts. Other kids TV shows about travel that we have tried with our boys but they just don't seem to love are Mouk, Justin Time, and Ollie & Moon.
Another thing I have done recently is introduce my eldest to shows and YouTube videos in different languages as he has shown an interest in hearing other languages, which is not unsurprising as he is bilingual and has friends in his school and social circles from all over the world.
There aren't a ton of channels for kids that are solely about travel (and that are done well) but National Geographic Kids is one of the best and this one is also quite fun and very representative, and if you know any more let me know!
Maps & Atlas' For Children
As mentioned above we have a growing collection of different books of maps and atlas' for kids, and I am not unwilling to add to this as the years go on because I think the way our kids see the world changes as they grow older so age-appropriate atlas' for kids are great. That said, at his current age (5) I find my eldest has to be in the right mood to spend a long time studying a map, but when he does, he really gets stuck into it.
Many maps books for kids already have some activities included in them, or you'll find other types of atlas that are just so rich in illustrative and text detail that the kiddo can just take their time taking it all in, but either way, I will always my kid to look at maps and atlas' and it really one of the best ways to help your children do some travel at home.
Travel-themed Puzzles & Games
And finally, let's ditch the screens and books and play a board game or do a puzzle! The good news about travel-themed board games is that they are very much for ALL the family and will be super fun for parents and children to play together... or maybe that's not good news, haha! But either way these travel-themed games are great ways to "travel at home" with kids. Here's where you can find a good round-up of the best travel-themed games (that are mostly board games) and here's where you can easily and quickly buy one or two for the family.
Our kids aren't quite at the age of playing long board games yet, but my eldest already enjoys playing snakes and ladders, dominoes and some card games like Memory or Snap!, so you could have a look round for games like that which are travel-themed, or you could just make it about travel in terms of you starting in one destination and ending up in another, which snakes and ladders is perfect for. I found some fun travel card games (like this one, this one and this one) but they mostly look for much older kids, as do these "Mapinoes" as an interesting take on dominoes!
We have an Arctic-themed version of snakes and ladders and our son loves that it's with penguins "in the North Pole" so we talk a lot about Arctic animals and it being cold etc, and this Thomas & Friends version of the game looks super fun. We also have the Planes Memory game which he loves, and how adorable is this wooden travel-themed memory game that would also be perfect for taking on a journey (when we can!!).
He also enjoys a good puzzle, and to be honest so do I! Now he's five he's at the stage of doing ones that I also find a little bit (or sometimes A LOT) challenging so that means we are more likely to both stay interested. One of our favourite puzzles to do together is this wooden one of the world which has lots of animals to keep him interested, and lots of hints at the world I'm missing right now! I also love this wooden Europe puzzle and you can even get a world map puzzle for in the bath. (And don't worry, nobody will know if you do it yourself while in a nice hot bubble bath with a glass of wine!)
You can find a full list of some great travel-themed board games and travel-themed card games here, but for now let me recommend this travel challenge game created by fellow Netherlands based travel bloggers!
Other Bonus Ideas for Travel-Themed Kids Activities!
One of the things I like most about writing these lists is that it gets my creative juices going so just as I was putting together these travel activities for kids, I also thought of a few more that I'll just brain dump for you now:
- Get a globe (or make one) to keep the world literally at your kid's fingertips. There are some great ones for kids or you can get decorative globes too like lamps.
- Have destination-themed days / weeks. I love this series of destination-themed days that Chelsea has done. I probably would aim to stretch it out over a week or month as I'm not so great at keeping up energy all day for these things, but I think it's a great way to structure travel-themed activities for kids.
- Scavenger hunts are one of my son's favourite things to do and when we first started having daily walks earlier this year, I would often take a piece of paper out with us and write (and draw) four or five things he would have to look out for and tick off. There are also lots of free downloadable ones made by other people.
- Collecting souvenirs, and making a museum out of them is another thing we would do on our walks just around our local area. He would take a plastic re-usable tub and fill it up with things he found. Often it was just small pebbles and feathers on the floor (and one day he collected A LOT of beer bottle tops!) but to him they're fossils and dinosaur tooths and signs of feathered monsters.
- Re-decorating a kid's bedroom to be more travel-themed is one of the most obvious, effective and high impact ways to keep travel always close to them. There are lots of different kind of map murals and wallpaper you can get to have a world map on a wall or to give a room a travel theme. Pinterest is the place to start this hunt, and I also recommend checking out the way my friends Victoria and Steve's decorated a room for their eldest son - gorgeous!
- Sending postcards from where you live. I know not everywhere will have postcards but when you see them, grab 'em and make it an activity to write and send them to friends and family... Who knows? Maybe they'll do the same in return which could be equally as exciting.
That's it for now but I will be certain to come back with other travel-themed activity ideas for children, and like i said, please do leave your own suggestions in the comments.
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Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
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Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.