8 best kids’ travel toys (that aren’t a tablet) to keep them busy

·8-min read
When you hit that 99th game of ‘I Spy’, it’s time to bring out the big guns (The Independent)
When you hit that 99th game of ‘I Spy’, it’s time to bring out the big guns (The Independent)

The idea of travelling in a confined space with little ones in tow can feel daunting to say the least. Traffic jams and train delays can test even the most patient of adults – so just imagine how it feels for a young child, to whom 30 minutes can seem like a lifetime.

You’ll definitely need some ideas up your sleeve: snacks, of course; pit-stops; songs to sing along to; and plenty of imagination. But when you hit that 99th game of “I Spy” – well, that’s when you might want to bring out the big guns.

The best travel toys are compact and easily packed away, quiet enough so they won’t bother other people (or you), and practical enough that you won’t have to worry about losing a million pieces. And, of course, they should be safe and simple enough to grasp so a child can play alone or with a sibling for as long as possible. Bonus points if it manages to be educational, too.

To help us put together this round-up, our testers (aged one month to six years) put these travel-friendly toys through their paces for two weeks, playing with them in the car and at home, as well as while out and about in parks, restaurants and on the beach.

No matter how you’re planning to travel with the kids this summer, these are our favourite toys and gadgets for a tantrum-free trip.

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The best kids’ travel toys for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Toniebox: £69.95, Tonies.com

  • Best for one-year-olds – Taf Toys koala car wheel: £29.99, Halfords.com

  • Best for vehicle-loving toddlers – Drive Me! interactive book: £12.99, Jojomamanbebe.co.uk

  • Best for imaginative play – Ruby mini suitcase doll: £27, Merimeri.co.uk

  • Best educational toy – Skillmatics boredom buster junior: £9.99, Smarttoysandgames.co.uk

  • Best for young babies – Wildly Adventures spiral toy: £19, Mamasandpapas.com

  • Best for hand-eye coordination – Djeco Lassanimo lacing game: £12.50, Jojomamanbebe.co.uk

  • Best for creative kids – Janod magnetibook educational toy: £18, Kidly.co.uk

Toniebox

Best: Overall

Rating: 9/10

It’s aimed at children aged three to seven, but our two-year-old tester was a huge fan of this squishy-yet-durable storytelling speaker and, in particular, the sweet hand-painted figurines which play the songs and stories. The device is designed to allow kids to play independently and encourage a love of aural learning and reading – and it does so in spades, with little rubber ears that work as volume and on/off buttons, and a vast array of stories that include everything from Julia Donaldson characters to Peppa Pig, Fireman Sam, and even Disney.

It’s not cheap, with the Tonies all costing £14.99 each, but we’d go as far as saying it inspires imaginary play, too – our tester loved playing with the colourful figurines as much as he enjoyed listening to the device itself. The wireless box requires initial set-up through Wi-Fi, but once you’ve placed on the Tonie, the story is downloaded, so it’s brilliant for snuggling up with for some screen-free time in the back of the car. Oh, and did we mention you can now purchase foldable headphones (£24.99, Tonies.com) to go with it? They could come in handy for when you’re about to hear Stick Man for the 10,000th time in a row.

Buy now £69.95, Tonies.com

Taf Toys koala car wheel

Best: For one-year-olds

Rating: 8/10

Cleverly designed to entertain front-facing babies aged 12 months and over, this interactive car wheel toy attaches securely to the front seat headrest with two plastic rings. It’s cute, colourful and perfect for long drives, particularly if you have a toddler who no longer sleeps the whole journey. There’s plenty of buttons, sounds and lights to captivate baby, too, with a chunky steering wheel that’s perfect for little hands, a ratcheting gear lever, buttons that play sweet melodies and engine sounds (but not too loud that they’ll annoy you the whole way), and a baby-safe car mirror. One huge development benefit of a toy like this, of course, is role play, and our mini tester loved imitating mum by pretending to drive along with her.

Buy now £29.99, Halfords.com

Drive Me! interactive book

Best: For vehicle-loving toddlers

Rating: 7/10

Books, in general, make great travel toys – not least because they can be slipped easily into a bag. And if your little one is as car/fire engine/digger/space rocket [delete as appropriate] mad as our three-year-old tester, they’ll love this sensory board book. There are handle-shaped cut-outs on every page, allowing little passengers to take on the role of driver, as well as a 10 button sound bar with honking horns and revving cars that may well drive you mad by the end of the trip but will keep an older toddler entertained for ages. It’s also great quality and will no doubt remain a firm favourite on your bookshelf at home, as well as when out and about.

Buy now £12.99, Jojomamanbebe.co.uk

Ruby mini suitcase doll

Best: For imaginative play

Rating: 8/10

We struggled to find a cuter travel companion than this adorable cotton doll, packed inside a miniature suitcase “house”. She even comes with a cotton quilt and pink velvet pillow for bedtime. Essentially, she can be played with anytime, anywhere, and our five-year-old tester carried her around for three days straight while also filling the case with as many toys and trinkets as they could. The attention to detail – leather handle, hand-stitching and beautiful illustrations – make this a really lovely gift for any child getting ready to stay away from home.

Buy now £27.00, Merimeri.co.uk

Skillmatics boredom buster junior

Best: Educational toy

This value-for-money kit does exactly what it says on the box. With 12 repeatable activities across six double-sided mats that cover everything from numbers to drawing and problem-solving, this travel-friendly set seamlessly combines education and fun. Inside you’ll find the wipe-clean cards, a black, washable pen that also wipes clean, a cloth and a certificate of achievement. It’s aimed at ages three to six but probably suits children at the older end of the scale – it was a hit with our five-year-old tester who loved being able to rub things out and start again, especially when he realised there was more than one way to complete the maze… it’s the small things, right?

Buy now £9.99, Smarttoysandgames.co.uk

Wildly Adventures spiral toy

Best: For young babies

Rating: 8/10

When it comes to keeping young babies occupied on long (or not so long) journeys, anything colourful and tactile should do the trick. Cue this delightful spiral toy from Mamas & Papas, which ticks those boxes while also being beautiful and rather stylish – much unlike the plastic, gaudy-coloured toys you’ll find attached to some pushchairs and car seats. Dangling from the squishy monochrome strip are cute animal characters in a super-soft fabric, all of which have hidden sounds and textures, and another with a baby-safe mirror. There’s also a teether for sore gums. It’s adaptable, lightweight and super portable, so perfect for travel, and it wraps easily around the bars of a pushchair, carrycot or car seat handle. It entertained our month-old tester endlessly.

Buy now £19.00, Mamasandpapas.com

Djeco Lassanimo lacing game

Best: For hand-eye coordination

Rating: 8/10

With the aim of helping little ones develop dexterity and fine motor skills, this lacing game from Djeco could be the secret to surviving a long car journey with the kids because it requires all their concentration. The set features four bright, wooden animals to thread, and four colourful, coordinating laces – the illustrations are beautiful, as they always are from Djeco, and the quality excellent. It’s designed to be played with by anyone over the age of two, but, as suspected, our two-year-old tester found it rather difficult to master and tossed it aside. Our four-year-old, on the other hand, became very immersed.

Buy now £12.50, Jojomamanbebe.co.uk

Janod magnetibook educational toy

Best: For creative kids

Rating: 9/10

This creative toy is the perfect antidote to the inevitable cries of “Are we there yet?!” Traditional toy maker Janod actually offers up a few different magnetic games – including puzzles for toddlers – but the portable magnetibooks are brilliant for little ones aged three to eight (or anyone who won’t automatically tip the pieces out on to the floor really). We tested out “Crazy Faces” and – yep – the adults ended up having just as much fun as the children. It looks like a book but is actually a rather sturdy box filled with magnetic cardboard pieces. Copy the faces using the cards provided or simply have fun making your own genius creations. We were also super impressed with the quality of the materials and the fact that it’s wipe-clean.

Buy now £18.00, Kidly.co.uk

The verdict: Kids’ travel toys

It’s the most expensive toy on our list, but we were won over by the Toniebox and all its creative play possibilities. If you’re looking for a device with zero screen time, we’d consider this an investment piece that’ll be used both at home and away. However, we should also give a special mention to the Boredom Buster for its compact size, fun activities and amazing value.

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