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Stress-free family travel: seven ways to keep under-10s entertained at an airport

We rush to get there and we can’t wait to leave: welcome to the airport. And if you’re travelling with children, you’ll know how slowly time passes there.

You’ve done your best to reach the airport without leaving behind the tickets, passports, baggage and children. You’ve managed to remove your belt and shoes while simultaneously emptying your pockets and getting through security without letting your little ones run off on an adventure of their own.

Now you’ve got nothing to do but wait. And, as any parent knows, children’s patience has a habit of evaporating at precisely the moment it’s needed most. So, you need a plan and depending on your child’s temperament, they need to be entertained, distracted or calmed down.

Tip 1: Before you leave home
Be prepared — don’t pack favourite toys, books or games in hold luggage. The mini-rucksack they can carry or even a Trunki-style ride-on suitcase is your new best friend. Just check with your carrier first about hand luggage restrictions.

Involve your child in what is being packed so they know what they can play with when they are bored. Ask older children what they want to take for the journey, but make sure nothing gets packed that is going set alarms ringing at security.

And it never does any harm to throw in an unexpected little surprise when they are not looking. New pack of Pokemon cards hidden in the front pocket? New Tsum Tsum? It will be a winner. A surprise goes a long way to creating a good mood. And good moods are priceless.

Tip 2: In the departure lounge
You’ve got through security so where are you going to sit? There are three good places. First, within sight of the toilet. Unglamorous, yes, but it saves you that last-minute dash across the departure lounge when nature calls, for you or your little ones. Second, next to a power point. Found a free power point in a departure lounge? Perfect for their hand-held entertainment. Third, sit within sight of the departures board – it can be an unexpected source of entertainment.

What to play

  1. Let imagination take flight

    The departures board is an opportunity to broaden your kids understanding of geography and the world around them. Where in the world are people going? And why are they going there? How about dreaming up some fantastical stories about where people might be travelling? Astronauts travelling home to see their family? A travelling circus on a round-the-world tour? A world-famous chef off to cook dinner for a favourite sports team? A positive story, with a hint of mystery, can make little eyes widen and stir imaginations.

    Need: Sight of the departures board
    Ideal for: Children aged 6-10
    Downside: You’ll need to be engaged
    Best bit: It can take as much or as little time as you want
    Cost: Free

  2. Quizzes

    Again, the departures board can be a prompt for a quiz for slightly older children. How many countries or cities can they identify? How many different languages in those destinations? In how many languages do they know how to say “yes”, “no” or “thank you”?

    A variation is “language bingo” – how many languages can they see or hear in an airport? Want to win? Head to the nearest newspaper stand.

    Need: Sight of the departures board
    Ideal for: Children aged 8-10
    Downside: You’ll need to brush up your knowledge of languages
    Best bit: It’s educational
    Cost: Free

  3. Design, build and fly

    One piece of paper, a few simple folds, and you’ve got an easy temporary distraction: a paper aeroplane. Look out of the windows of the departure lounge and you’ll likely see a range of carriers. A few minutes with some crayons and your child can match the colours you will be flying under or make up their own.

    For more ambitious and older children, why not challenge them to build the Condor, Merlin or Piranha? You’ll find free designs and instructions at paperaeroplanes.com.

    Need: Paper and crayons
    Ideal for: Children aged 5-10
    Downside: Once the planes are built, they will be flown … cue running around
    Best bit: Easy, absorbing and creative
    Cost: Almost nothing

  4. Pen and paper games

    Draw a couple of eight by eight grids on a piece of paper. Label the vertical axis with the numbers one to eight, the horizontal axis with letters from A to H. Now colour in a handful of squares on the grid: one that spans two squares, one that spans three squares, one four, and a final line that spans six squares. You’ve just created a pen and paper version of the guessing game battleships. No fiddly counters or board to carry, just fun. You’ll find more ideas at pencil and paper games.

    Need: Paper and pens
    Ideal for: Children aged 7-10
    Downside: Needs a little preparation time
    Best bit: A low-cost way to play without having to carry boards, boxes or kit
    Cost: Almost nothing

  5. Portable DVD player

    Some parents upload movies to a tablet but a portable DVD player with headphones is a more robust and thrifty option. You’ll be able to use it for many more trips in the future, whether by plane, train or car. Pick their favourite film — or a new release they haven’t seen yet — and you can pretty much guarantee they will be happy.

    Need: Portable DVD player, headphones, DVD
    Ideal for: Children aged 5-10
    Downside: It’s screen time and you’re adding to baggage weight
    Best bit: They’ll be entertained for a couple of hours
    Cost: £40-80 depending on screen size and specification

  6. Free mobile games

    The chances are your child already knows the pleasures of mobile gaming either on your phone or tablet. And while it is sensible to limit screen time each day, a game that makes your child think is no bad thing. Try quiz apps or puzzle apps. You will find a good list of up-to-date options here.

    Need: A mobile or tablet
    Ideal for: Children aged 6-10
    Downside: It’s screen time (again) and it will run down your battery, unless you are sitting by a power point!
    Best bit: They’ll be engrossed … and stationary
    Cost: Many games — even if they’re free to download – need in-app purchases or an Internet connection. So, watch those mobile data roaming charges!

  7. Books, magazines, comics

    Remember them? The ultimate portable media, and no charging or batteries needed. If your child is still learning, seize the chance to read them a new story. If your child can read but doesn’t often pick up a book, the chances are they haven’t found the right reading material yet. Check out lists of the latest children’s bestsellers (or even just search on Amazon and see what other parents say). It’s worth investing a little time on this — get them hooked on reading and you’ll have stress-free travel in future.

    Need: Books, magazines, comics
    Ideal for: All ages
    Downside: Carrying weight: the more children you have, the more books you’ll need
    Best bit: They’ll be engrossed, stationary and not looking at a screen
    Cost: Join a library!

The key is to be prepared. Think ahead about amenities, logistics and entertainment options. If you get that mix of timing and planning right, you’ll be one of those parents relaxing in the departure lounge with their offspring, receiving envious glances from their stressed-out counterparts. Bon voyage!

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