August is right around the corner and many of you will be headed to the beach, the mountains, or some other grand location. Children also enjoy vacations, but not the long waits that often accompany them. Plane flights and car rides are less than engaging for children, and the adults around them suffer their displeasure. Even at the destination, adults often need some downtime, without watching their kids bounce off the wall. Television and iPads help, but for parents wanting to limit screen time, there is another solution – activity books. The best activity books are portable, entertaining and if chosen properly, can be completed without constant adult assistance. I am only including books that are fun, after all kids need a vacation as well, allow for imagination and creativity, and do not require tons of craft supplies. All of these books have been vetted by my testers (7 and 5) and met with their approval.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Finish This Activity Book! by Mo Willems was given to my children as a joint present at Christmas last year. I gave it to both of them, because I figured parts of it would be too complicated for my then four-year-old son and they could divide it up. Instead, they did every single activity together and I had to hide it during much of the day, so that they wouldn’t complete the book too fast. Every morning during winter break, they woke up screaming “Pigeon time!” and I would hand over the book so they could complete their allotted pages.
Not that the pages stayed in the book – many of the pages tear out and become 1) a bus stop, 2) coin toss games, 3) a picture book, 4) a puppet show, and of course, 5) a bus. The airport, which was colored in by both kids, is featured above. I really can’t recommend this book enough. Be sure to bring along scissors and crayons. Ages 4+
We have owned Scribbles: A Really Giant Drawing and Coloring Book by Taro Gomi for years and my daughter is still not done with it. It is a huge book containing hundreds of pictures for kids to complete. I love how open-ended this book is – there is no one right way to complete any picture – while at the same time, it provides children with a general direction. Here is page that my daughter completed when she was younger:
On the top left, it reads, “This is a tiger.” Another page with the same image says, “This is a leopard,” and another one says, “This is a panther.” It is up to the kids to interpret what to do next. Ages 4+
Little girls love paper dolls, but who really wants a bunch of those floating around a suitcase? Usborne Activities has the solution: Sticker Dolly Dressing Dolls. There are a bunch of these for sale, but for trips I would personally recommend Sticker Dolly Dressing on Vacation. Each book contains a bunch of scenes and the child’s job is to dress the characters. The stories are sometimes a bit vapid, but who cares? It also doesn’t matter if the characters are dressed the way the book says they should be dressed, as long as the kids are occupied and enjoying themselves. Great for plane rides, if your child is not prone to motion sicknesses, and times when everyone needs to relax. Ages 4+
Usborne Activities also offers sticker dressing books for boys. Our favorites are Sticker Dressing Pirates and Sticker Dressing Action Heroes. Here is a scene that my son completed last year when we were at the beach:
Four-year-olds might need a little help with the larger stickers. No extra supplies are needed. Ages 4+
The idea behind these little books is simple. Color, cut out and wear masks. String is provided. These are easy to pack, beautiful and encourage creative play. We own Superheroes Make-a-Mask and Butterflies Make-a-Mask. I have also brought these out during parties. Apparently even adults like coloring masks! Ages 3+
Younger children love covering a scene with stickers and Melissa & Doug Play House! Reusable Sticker Pad and Melissa & Doug Vehicles Reusable Sticker Pad, let them sticker to their hearts content. Just make sure the stickers stay on the scene and not the hotel walls! Ages 3+
Fashion Design Portfolio includes line drawings of tween girls and stencils to help outfit them. These are a good choice for artistically-inclined girls. Below is a character my daughter designed:
Be sure to bring plenty of sharp colored pencils. Ages 7+
I have no artistic ability, but my kids luckily inherited my husband’s love of drawing. I try to bring at least one drawing book with me while we travel. During our next vacation, I will be bringing Ralph Masiello’s Ocean Drawing Book and Bug Drawing Book. The latter inspired this picture by my daughter:
Bring a sketch pad with you to avoid traveling with crumpled paper. Ages 5+
Math lovers will enjoy dot to dot books. Balloon Books has a very nice series that are good for varying levels. My son is currently working on Dot-to-Dot Count to 20.
The only supply this book requires is a pencil, but crayons are also a plus. Ages 4+
The Book of Cards for Kids is a tiny little book full of instructions for playing cards. It contained many of my childhood favorites, including “War,” “Spit,” and “Blackjack.” I would recommend buying a standard-sized deck, however. The one that comes with the set is strangely large. Ages 6+
Update for 2014:
This year we brought four Star Paws Animal Dress-up sticker books to the beach with us. What could be better than dressing up animals without actually dressing up animals? This series is tons of fun and includes enough extra stickers to dress up pictures of your family pets. Series includes Party Time Sticker Book, Pirates Sticker Book, Princesses Sticker Book, and Super Heroes Sticker Book. Ages 4+.
Update for 2016:
The Superhero Comic Kit
This oversized book is perfect for rainy days at the beach. Since the pages detach (each one is its own mini comic strip), siblings can share the same book. For tighter luggage situations consider this related title also by Jason Ford:
The Super Book for Super Heroes
Enjoy your vacation! Here are some other reviews of activity books: