Life Without Toys – Minimalist Family Travel

Is our travel life truly toy free? Nope. We’re not purists. But we are traveling with 99.9% fewer toys than we had at home, and our choice of toys has changed significantly. So, we’ve got stuff. It’s just different stuff than you might expect.

At first, our paring down of child paraphernalia was an act of necessity – we simply could not carry a bundle of toys around the globe.

That meant parting with many beloved staples- the ukulele that Bird got for his second birthday, Spider Monkey’s “fast” push bike, the indoor trampoline we had just moved into our basement, and more boxes of puzzles, play food, and toy cars than I’d like to admit to.

While traveling, I wanted to have just the playthings we really needed. But I also could not imagine surviving the 21-day driving adventure to California without screens, even though we had pledged to try it. So, I did my research, ordered the “hottest items for travel toddlers,” and hoped for the best.

Multiple dry erase activity cards, Magnatiles, two sets of finger puppets and three sizes of Magnadoodles later, we headed off into the great unknown. It was a challenge and a half at times, but we did what we set out to do. We made the trip happen without screens.

What we learned is that the best toys are only the best because they are gateways to interaction and imagination.

Storytelling, rhyming games, name that tune, “guessy lessy” (Bird’s name for 20 questions), whiteboard car Pictionary… the kids loved anything that kept us all engaged together as a family and allowed us to “make things up.” We had to put down the gadgets and decide to be with our kids. In the end, I spent way more money on trinkets than I should have. I won’t make that same mistake the next time around.

Driving for three weeks is, however, a totally different challenge than journeying around the world for a year. How could I translate our experience into one that would work for plane and train travel, as well as in hotels, hostels, and long-term homes away from home?

I had to jettison at least half the stuff we had brought along in the car, like that super cool secondhand space helmet that a lovely friend had gifted Spider Monkey at Burning Man. It was an awesome imagination inspiring toy, but it wasn’t practical for the kind of travel we would be doing. So, when no one was looking, it found a new home in a donations bin.

We travel with surprisingly little in the way of what might officially be called toys. But that does not mean we do not have a kiddo kit to support their need to play.

Here is the roundup of what is in our play kit. We hope it inspires you to simplify your own life with a bit of creative thinking.


My husband and I have always traveled with tape. If a bag breaks, if you need to jerry-rig something, if you want to hang something on the wall, tape is your friend. We’ve found infinitely more uses for tape with kids.

When we arrived at our first home in Bali without a car or any sense of how or where to explore, I pulled out the tape to create a maze on the floor. Once they exhausted that game, we wrote our names on the floor with tape letters and taped the shape of a house on the wall. We added a line across the center of the living room floor and played “jump across that line.” Once we were done, we peeled it up and made a tape ball that we batted around the property.

It might sound silly, but don’t underestimate tape. Our supply has provided days of fun every time I need it most.

Lately, we’ve added a wider variety of tape to our supplies. Some tape you can write on, which means you can label things and use those labels to get the whole family learning some new vocabulary in the local language. Tape also comes in pretty handy when we have reusable empty containers around, like cardboard boxes or plastic water bottles, turning them into musical instruments, space ships, and playhouses. Our boys have learned the importance of refusing and reusing on this trip, and our ability to support them with projects has proved an fimportant part of their learning and growth.

There really is no end to the uses of tape. It’s light and easy to pack, so just grab just a few rolls and you are set!

A set of colored pencils (and a sharpener)

When we started, we had all kinds of art supplies with us. Crayons, markers, pencils, erasers, chalk – you name it, we had it. I wish I had left it all at home. All but the colored pencils. They simply last the longest. Not to mention, they pose the smallest threat to the walls of your rental.

To be honest, our kids were not really that into coloring until we were in Tokyo and a friend gifted us a coloring book of Japan. Both boys were intrigued by the images, which reflected places they had just seen and experienced. So now we make the stationary store one of our first stops in any new destination. There, the boys can pick out a few coloring books.

What better way to support the ethos of family travel than with coloring books in the local language or with images of local culture?

What else can you do with colored pencils?

We’ve picked up some stencils along the way and used them as a model to make our own. The kids make cards for friends when it’s time to say goodbye, and signs and posters to signify important days or messages (“Help keep our island clean” in Bali was my favorite). Our kids love to do rubbings of leaves and flowers. A simple colored pencil can help them collect and remember the shapes of local flora and fauna. Finally, when our boys are in that mood when they need a task to make them feel useful, we give them colored pencils to sharpen. It’s a great kid activity.

Colored pencils have a much longer life than crayons or markers that break and dry out. All in all, we’ve only replenished our supply 3 or 4 times. We are almost nine months in, and the boys still go right for colored pencils whenever we get downtime at home or on the move.

A stuffed toy

Bird and his stuffed bun have been inseparable for most of his life. Bun’s existence in our family makes everything better. When we can’t get through to our kids, we discuss things with Bun and suddenly everyone listens. When we are trying to get our kids to talk about their feelings, we invite Bun into the conversation and it helps everyone express themselves. So, when Bird lost Bun in Australia, we knew it was a major loss. We ended up replacing Bun as soon as we could because all our lives were made so much better by the presence of one small stuffed toy.

Now, your kid may not be into stuffed toys. They may not be into puppets. But here’s the thing:

If you are going to be away from home for an extended period, your kid will want a friend with them.

It doesn’t have to be a teddy bear or doll. Honestly, it can be a sock, as long as it can be anthropomorphized as a friend. Stuffed toys are great because they can double as a pillow on a plane or car ride, but go with whatever works for your kid.

We’ve learned that our boys both need a buddy to hold onto. That buddy can get homesick, or ask a question that a child might be afraid to ask in his own voice.

In addition to Bun, we added a stuffed Lion to our family along the way. Bun and Lion come everywhere with us. They play with us, they sleep with us, they ride the plane and bus and train with us. They help us solve sibling quarrels and remind us about compassion and empathy. They matter more than perhaps any other plaything we have. There are days I wish I had brought along one for myself.


Full disclosure, we did not pack any costumes for the kids when we left for our trip. We have many at home, but with all we had to pack, we just didn’t consider it a priority.

But midway through December, we decided to give our boys each a special costume for playtime as their holiday surprise. They were already playing dress up every chance they got. Since I no longer wanted to find my favorite dress and expensive sunglasses thrown in a heap after their play time was done, we decided we would make a small purchase to support their creative play needs.

We bought Bird a magician costume and Spider Monkey a batman get-up with mask and cape. That was four months ago and just this morning Spider Monkey chose his costume as his apparel for the day, just in case people don’t already know he’s Batman.

You can also make your own costumes.

We’ve made capes out of t-shirts and masks out of paper plates and shoes out of wooden blocks. If you can conjure a mask, a clown nose, and a pair of gloves, you give your kid license to make up all kinds of stories. Playtime with costumes can last all day in our house. We put on music and come up with stories and parades. Our best rainy days on this trip have been saved by the delight of two simple costumes.

A card-matching game

Right before we left our home in July, Bird started showing enthusiasm and a gift for the matching game. We had two sets of cards of different sizes and we brought both with us. We are now down to one because it’s all we need.

Matching is a great game to have for international travel because it requires no language to play. It’s my go-to game for first-time play dates with new friends.

When I want to sit on the floor and have Bird’s undivided attention, this is the way to do it. Kids of any age enjoy it (I swear I like it just as much as the boys) and it can be easily introduced into any culture. Honestly, the game is just fun. I’ve never sat down to a game of matching with Bird and not had us both walk away in giddier moods than when we started.

Activity books

Who knew this would be the jackpot of kid toys? Right now, Bird is addicted to the Highlights “Hidden Picture” book I bought him before we left Bali. He loves brain puzzles and can spend hours working on them. Whenever we are running out of pages in our current book, I try to find a new one for him to begin.

Airports are the best place to find these kinds of books. We’ve been through five on this trip and all of them have been more than useful. Often, I will spend my one-on-one time with Bird working through an activity book together. But he will also work solo and be happy as a clam.

That’s just about it.

At the bottom of our bag, we also have scissors and glue sticks, a deck of kids meditation cards, a small collection of photocopied books, some popsicle sticks and balloons, a small glue gun and yes, a ziplock bag of legos. We rely on our kindle to read bedtime stories and to play audiobooks and podcasts.

Provide toys that are tools for creativity. Without exception, that creativity will result in hours of residual play. We know our kids want to be imaginative, inventive and connected to others. Our choices around toys are guided by that organizing principle.

I wonder what this will mean when we return to all those toy bins in a few months. I expect we will see everything with new eyes, but I am not sure what that means moving forward.

For now, I’m happy to watch my kids build a house for Bun and Lion out of scraps from our recycling bin or draw a map of our new neighborhood with color-coded marks and symbols. After all, we’re here to show them what it means to be an explorer. And when you’re exploring, the discoveries you make along the way are always more than enough.

Laurie Sales is a high school theatre teacher who is currently taking a sabbatical year to travel around the world with her husband and two young children. Laurie records her reflections on radical sabbatical parenting on her blog, Our Lives in Wanderland. Laurie is a passionate advocate for Global and Arts Education and the dismantling of xenophobia through cross-cultural experiences for learners of all ages. Every day of parenting on the road is a new adventure! Follow the journey on Facebook.

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