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Nothing fills a parent’s mind with more dread than the unexpected tantrums and embarrassing outbursts of a young child on vacation. What if they scream through our fancy dinner? What if they refuse to sit still? It’s the stuff of nightmares!
Being prepared is the best antidote for parent travel anxiety. Our well-traveled family learned a thing or two about vacationing with kids ages one to three, and we’re willing to spill the tea on how we incorporate our family’s Montessori philosophy into every trip.
Today, we’ll discuss what it’s like to travel as a Montessori family, what our Montessori routines look like in vacation mode, and most importantly, the toys and activities we use to keep our little one happy on airplanes, trains, and automobiles. Let’s get into it!
How Do You Travel With A Montessori Toddler or Preschooler?
While there’s certainly no consensus among parents on the best age to travel, most parents agree traveling with children 1-3 years old presents some BIG challenges.
Young children are creatures of habit, but they’re also surprisingly adaptable if given enough time to familiarize themselves with their new environment.
When you travel as a Montessori family, giving your child the time and space they need to process their experience is critical.
Offer your child plenty of time to get ready and get through the airport. Play “airport security” with some toys at home. Build a visual travel timeline for your child so they know what’s coming next. (So creative!).
Additionally, maintaining your child’s rhythm of the day while traveling helps your toddler or preschooler stay “Montessori” on the go.
Keeping A Montessori Routine In A New Place
In Montessori homes and classrooms, a rhythm of the day establishes alternating periods of play and periods of rest.
Especially on travel days, it’s so tough to keep a child’s schedule exactly the same. Instead of seeking perfection, we use a couple of the steadfast guidelines described below.
We keep about the same wake-up time (factoring in jet lag) and schedule big sightseeing plans for mid-morning with a rest break afterward. We also never ever plan for dinner later than 5:30 pm.
I realize this is not how every family travels, and that’s ok! We prefer to sacrifice a little flexibility in exchange for a calm, well-rested kid. It’s what works for us in this particular season.
What Are Montessori Toys?
We’ve discussed planning and routines, but I know what you’re really here for – the toys! Montessori-friendly toys and activities play a major role in maintaining our routines (and our sanity) on vacation.
Montessori toys appeal to a specific age or interest; often target a single skill or developmental milestone; and have some foundation in practical life. No flashing lights, no noises, no screen time, and no batteries!
They’re also ideal for flights, long car rides, or public spaces where loud toys disturb others!
(If you’re not already familiar with Montessori toys, we cover them in detail in our article What are Montessori Toys?).
Why Busy Boards/Busy Books Are NOT Montessori Toys
There’s a misconception among parents new to Montessori that busy boards or books fall in line with the Montessori philosophy.
In fact, many of the tasks found on busy boards like buttons, buckles, zippers, or snaps are also found on traditional Montessori dressing frames. I see the confusion.
In truth, the amount of options (and sometimes the variety of colors) available on busy boards creates a lack of focus and discourages the repetitive movements little fingers require to truly learn how to complete fine motor tasks.
That said, plenty of families love busy boards for travel. They are compact, quiet, and offer a lot of interesting activities in one small package. It makes sense.
You won’t find any on this Montessori-inspired list, but if your child loves them, bring them on your trip! Do what works for you.
Are Montessori Toys Better For Travel?
Absolutely! Most Montessori toys fit in compact storage trays and work best when a child is sitting down. Perfect for car seats, strollers, airplane trays, or small hotel rooms!
If you’re looking at your heavy wooden blocks or puzzles thinking, “This woman is insane,” stay with me.
To make Montessori travel-friendly, we must bend a few rules about Montessori toys, including the use of natural materials. For travel purposes, plastic is a-okay. (Honestly, it’s impossible to avoid even at home!).
Ok, I know you’ve got some packing to do, so let’s dive into the toys list!
The Perfect Montessori Travel Toys For All Your Family Adventures
Just like a suitcase bursting with clothes, we’ve crammed our toy list with tons of road-tested Montessori toys and activities.
From a 3-day train trip across the U.S. to a bumpy flight on a tiny puddle-jumping Cessna, these toys helped us survive and thrive through all our trips!
1. Janod Magnetibooks
Magneti’books by French toy maker Janod encourages children to build and create just about anything from vehicles to people to abstract art. The durable magnetic pieces store safely inside the book for an all-in-one activity.
Children open the book independently with ease, but the magnetic clasp stays closed and secured when not in use. My son loves the suggestion cards, which allow him to add his own little flair to the final creation.
Our Janod Magnetibook lives permanently in our car, ready for an impromptu dinner out or a surprise trip to the beach.
2. Melissa & Doug What Should I Wear? Activity Book
Melissa and Doug make my favorite soft cloth activity books. Say goodbye to ripped pages! The book follows a little doll trying to figure out what to wear for different occasions in her day.
Children grip the little doll and wiggle her into a party dress or jammies. The book is also short enough to memorize–very helpful when you’re little one begs you to read it while you’re operating a motor vehicle!
I imagine a 1 or 2-year-old playing with this adorable quiet book, but it’s also perfectly safe for baby siblings.
3. Stabilo 3-in-1 Watercolor Pencils
How did I neglect to add these incredible art supplies to our numerous Undefining Motherhood toy lists? These pencils receive daily (sometimes hourly) use in our home, and quickly become the favorite of any child that visits.
The Stabilo 3-in-1 Watercolor Pencils create deep, saturated colors for use on paper or as solid watercolor paint. The best part – they write on glass and wipe off cleanly with a little water! Forget paper, your kid can create art on the window of your hotel room or train car. They’re so stinking cool!
Parents balk at the price but trust me. They’re beyond worth the investment, AND they last forever.
I can’t overstate how much we love them.
4. Tegu Magnetic Wooden Block Set
Tegu makes open-ended magnetic wooden blocks with smooth edges and eye-catching colors. They use water-based and non-toxic finishes on all their wood pieces.
We received our first set of Tegu magnetic blocks when our son was just 2 months old. The magnetic pieces are so large and the connection so gentle, we never worried he would choke or pinch his fingers.
The appeal of these blocks lasted through every age and stage, and they’re still a go-to travel toy.
Lightweight and stackable, Tegu blocks pack easily in small bags or carrying cases.
5. Liquid Motion Bubble Tubes
Occupational therapists and preschool teachers swear by these liquid motion tubes, especially when children need to quiet their minds and their bodies.
The bubbling mix of colorful oil and clear water reminds me of water flowing down a stream. So relaxing. I bring this toy out right around nap time on long car rides, and it always brings the energy levels down.
We all need a little stress relief while traveling.
Super portable and mess-free, these liquid motion bubble tubes are a fabulous on-the-go calming tool.
6. Plus Plus Building Puzzle with Travel Case
Plus Plus, a company based in Denmark, manufactures unique plastic building blocks that snap together to form all sorts of abstract creations.
With Plus Plus, children improve dexterity, develop spatial reasoning, and enjoy hours of imaginative play. Open-ended toys rarely pack as tightly as this set with its handy carrying case/play mat. Plus (no pun intended), it’s fun for adults and kids!
Keep in mind Plus Plus designed the smaller blocks for ages 5 and up. Our 3.5-year-old has no problem keeping them out of his mouth, but you know your little one best.
The BIG Plus Plus sets are a fantastic alternative for younger children!
7. I Spy Little Book (Board Book)
According to Dr. Maria Montessori, children enter a sensitive period (a period of intense curiosity) for small objects between 1 and 3 years old.
You know you’re in it when your toddler full-stops from their normal frantic pace to look at a piece of fuzz stuck to your shoe.
Naturally, a book filled with tiny, colorful objects (in board book form for durability) equals plenty of quiet time on road trips or flights with your toddler.
For preschool children or expert “finders”, we also love I-Spy School Days and I-Spy Spooky Night.
8. Dot To Dot For Tiny Tots Tracing Book
Educational, portable, reusable, and easy to follow, this book checks every box for the ideal travel toy. We love it! Roger Priddy’s Dot to Dot tracing book comes on every family vacation.
Through a series of simple exercises, children develop finger strength, hand-eye coordination, and of course, pre-writing skills. Young children need guidance upfront on how to use this workbook, so take some time to model the tracing activities for them before you leave.
Don’t forget to purchase some additional fine-tipped dry-erase markers. If your children love this book as much as mine does, you won’t want to run out!
9. Usborne Wipe Clean Activity Book
Usborne, known for its beautiful true-to-life illustrations, packs a ton of activities in one thin but durable activity book. It’s dry-erase, so siblings and friends also get a turn!
The book covers a wide range of vacation scenarios from camping to air travel to relaxing on the beach. Based on the variety of activities and focus on number learning, this book works best when an older passenger sits nearby to answer questions and read directions.
We’ll be taking the Usborne Wipe Clean Activity Book on our upcoming flight to the Bahamas, and I can’t wait to see what our son has learned since the last time he explored it!
10. Wooden Broom and Dust Pan Combo
Did you really just put a broom and dustpan on this toy list? Yes!
Believe it or not, many young children delight in tidying up (and doing other “adult” activities they observe in their everyday life). Plus, when your kiddos spill breakfast cereal all over your hotel room at 5 am, you have a broom at the ready.
Truthfully, the amount of actual cleaning your child does will depend on their interest and skill level. Regardless of the outcome, children feel helpful, empowered, and capable when they perform important work.
I’m personally not above inviting our son to clean the dirt off the patio of our Airbnb while I sip a hot cup of coffee. Everyone gets to do something they love!
11. A Selection of Favorite Books
In preparation for our trip and for new experiences, we read a ton of travel-related books weeks ahead of time. We love The Airport Book, How Trains Work, The Travel Book by Lonely Planet, and This Is How We Do It.
For road trips, I recommend pulling together a playlist of you and other family members reading your children’s favorite books aloud. If you’re on your way to grandma’s house, a recording from grandma adds excitement, anticipation, and a little bit of magic!
In addition, if reading at bedtime is part of your child’s routine, consider packing a few familiar sleepy stories. Sleep Train, Ox-Cart Man, or The Very Quiet Cricket make an appearance in our suitcase just for this purpose.
12. HAPE Beach Sand Play Set
Do your future self a favor and buy this play set NOW! It boggles my mind to think of the money I sunk into flimsy, cheap beach toys when this set was available the whole time. It’s the ideal beach travel toy.
Made with thick durable plastic and designed for little fingers, I dare you to find a better summer toy for your child. The breathable mesh carrying backpack dries out wet toys and sand. Simply shake it out to clean it!
I brought this set to a local beach this past summer. All the kids, from toddlers to teens, flocked over to borrow our sand tools.
The kids played for hours, and the moms all wondered where I got this awesome beach set!
13. Nature Treasures Carrying Pouch
Speaking of the beach, what childhood trip to the seashore was ever complete without a heaping collection of seashells, driftwood, bottlecaps, dried coral, or sand dollars? It’s practically a right of passage!
Arrive at your destination prepared with some pint-sized carrying pouches. These mesh-lined bags in bright colors provide plenty of room for “treasures” of all shapes and sizes. They work for any kind of vacation outdoors.
Breathable and lightweight, the pouches pack flat inside luggage or a packing cube.
Kids feel like real adventurers, exploring the natural world and maybe learning a thing or two on the way. (Don’t forget to teach them how to collect shells responsibly!).
14. Mini Play-Doh Containers in Rainbow Colors
Vacations put kids in some tough adult situations, and they don’t always know how to keep themselves emotionally regulated. Playing with sensory toys like Play-doh calms a child’s nervous system and encourages focus.
(Fidget toys and pop-it boards are also popular, but I find them too distracting!).
These mini containers practically beg to be shared with new friends you meet on your trip. Several times I’ve slipped some to a frazzled parent in a restaurant or on an airplane. They make great impromptu gifts!
We enjoy the frou-frou organic play dough options available, but when it comes to affordability and portability, Play-doh always wins!
15. Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker Pads
Create giant, real-life scenes with the Melissa and Doug reusable sticker pads. Our favorite feature of these stickers is how they cling to car windows and hotel room sliding glass doors.
Stickers invite plenty of opportunities for fine motor skills practice. To make stickers easier to remove independently, peel away the “white” space or filler paper in between the stickers before giving them to your child.
While the stickers are reusable, we find they don’t hold up more than a couple of weeks of rough play with a toddler or preschooler.
Don’t worry! You get more than enough playtime with these sticker pads despite their short shelf life.
Finding Montessori Toys And Other Montessori Equipment on BabyQuip
If you’re a fan of Undefining Motherhood, you already know our founder Katy swears by the baby gear rental company BabyQuip.
Through BabyQuip, toys and other handy Montessori equipment are delivered right to your accommodations. After all, some of the best travel toys are the ones you never even pack!
To find Montessori-friendly toys on BabyQuip, look for outdoor play activities, building block sets like Magna-Tiles, pretend play kitchen sets, dress-up kits, or toy vehicles. Some representatives even offer customized toy packages, but what’s available varies by geography.
If your child operates with a certain amount of independence at home, give them the same freedom on vacation. Rent items that make grown-up spaces accessible to kids such as step stools, potty training gear, a small table and chairs, booster seats, and more.
Add Montessori Toys to Your Packing List For More Fun (And More Quiet Play)
Fellow passengers on the plane or in the car will breathe a sigh of relief when you pull out travel toys without annoying sounds or bright lights. Perhaps you even receive a few compliments on how grown-up they’re acting. (Here’s hoping!).
Considering bringing a little bit of the Montessori travel philosophy to your next trip – patience, routine, and plenty of toys!
Ok. You already packed the snacks, the wipes, and the eighteen outfit changes. Now it’s time to pack a few Montessori-friendly toys to keep your children engaged and happy through the stress of travel. Bon voyage!
Are you a family travel newbie or a jet-setting parent? Tell us what Montessori travel toys will make the packing list on your next trip!
Brittany Cantrell is an Epidemiologist at her local health department who oversees a team of beautiful, talented women. Though she specializes in infectious disease prevention, she is a strong advocate for all public health professionals. She is the owner and author of the mindful travel blog, The World Enough, where readers are empowered to live with presence and without fear. She was born and raised in the rolling foothills of the north Georgia mountains. In her spare time, you can find her helplessly pinned to the couch by one of her two cats, heading to a yoga class, or planning her next adventure.