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The Best Games to Keep Kids Entertained on an Airplane

Because even a well-stocked iPad won't hold their attention for the entire flight.

Flickr / Lars Plougmann

Sometimes the thought of flying with kids is enough to keep all trips within driving distance. Long gone are the days of reclining with a good book or a bad movie. And even if you hand a kid an iPad and 10 episodes of Paw Patrol, you’re still likely to spend a solid amount of the flight keeping them entertained, especially if they’re younger. Who hasn’t assumed that the screen would have your back, only to find (too late) that you’ve forgotten to charge the thing, or the movie you thought you’d downloaded, never fully did.

What’s a parent to do when they’ve left the Water Wow! or sticker book at home, or the in-flight movie isn’t working? Good news: The airplane is a treasure trove of unexplored fun, if you just know where to look for it. (Answer: not in the restrooms. Or the back of the seat pockets.) Here are five games for your in-flight entertainment that require no pre-flight prep and will help pass a whole lot of time in the air with kids.

Freezing Temperatures

Entertainment Time: 10 minutes
What You’ll Need: A cup of ice cubes
When the beverage cart comes around, be sure to ask for an extra cup of ice cubes so you can have an ice cube melting competition. When you say go, each player puts an ice cube in their mouth and the person who melts the ice cube first (without chewing!) wins the round. Or, if you want to stretch the game out, set a timer and let one player at a time compete against the clock. Either way, ice cubes must be melted by the heat inside your mouth; not by using your teeth. You can move it around and/or suck on the ice cube, but that’s it. Play as many rounds as there is ice in the cup, but obviously, don’t play with young kids for whom cubes of ice may be a choking hazard.

Snacks On A Plane Tic-Tac-Toe

Entertainment Time: 10-15 minutes
What You’ll Need: Two bags of mixed nuts, pretzels, or other airline snack, cocktail stirrers, and a napkin
The cocktail napkin serves as the game board (the cocktail stirrers create the lines), and the snacks are stand-ins for X’s and O’s. If you have mixed nuts, give each player six of a single kind of nut (i.e. six cashews to one player and six almonds to another). If not, use whatever small snacks you have. For example, cheese crackers can be your X’s and mini pretzels your O’s. The game is played just as any other version of Tic Tac Toe, except you can eat the X’s and O’s when you’re finished.

On-Board Memory Game

Entertainment Time: 5-10 minutes
What You’ll Need: Nothing
This is a memory game where you build on a list of objects, trying to remember the whole list after the other player has added their selection. In this version, you can only use things that people would bring on a trip. Every player starts sentence saying, “I went on a plane, and I packed . . . ” For example, Player 1 would say, “I went on a plane, and I packed a pillow.” Then, Player 2 would say, “I went on a plane, and I packed a pillow and a book.” Player 1 would build on that,and say, “I went on a plane, and I packed a pillow, a book, and a Hello Kitty doll.” You can play with as many players as you like ⏤ assuming everybody is sitting in adjacent rows ⏤ and the game goes until one player is stumped and can’t remember the whole list of items. Another fun version is to only list items you see other passengers bringing on the plane.

No Vacancy

Entertainment Time: 10-15 minutes
What You’ll Need: Two airplane bathrooms within view.
Players keep their eyes on two airplane bathrooms and when both stalls are occupied the game begins. Each player places a bet on which of the two will be vacant first (you can never be sure that the last passenger to enter the bathroom will be the fastest one to use it.) If players don’t want to place bets (such as X number of chips from a snack bag or a trade for the “good” set of headphones), mom or dad can keep score on a napkin.

I Spy When I Fly

Entertainment Time: 5-10 minutes
What You’ll Need: Nothing
A great game for younger kids, simply look for (and choose) objects on the airplane that are easy for a preschooler to identify, and use clues and descriptors to help guide them. It’s as simple as that — the same game but with a name that rhymes.

What Are We Flying Over?

Entertainment Time: 10 minutes
What You’ll Need: Access to the window or a very long neck.
This is a guessing game that requires knowledge of topography ⏤ so it’s better played with older kids. The child sitting next to the window should look out and identify something ⏤ be it snow-capped mountains, a river, fields of wheat ⏤ that the airplane is currently flying over before putting the window shade down. The object can be a natural or man-made, so a baseball stadium or airport are totally acceptable. That person then tells the other players, “We are flying over . . .” and then fills in details that offer clues, without giving away the answer. For example, “We are flying over a place where… you can catch fish.” The other players then try to guess if it’s a lake, a pond, a river, a creek, etc. When a player guesses correctly (after a certain number of tries), then the kid in the window seat lifts up the blind and says, “That’s right! We’re flying over a fish hatchery!” Players then swap seats and go another round.