1 Backpack of Toys, 2 Kids, 3 Months

Lane waits at the airport for the flight, playing with her felt cupcakes next to her backpack of toys.

My kids are not minimalists. They are not serene and clutter-free, they don’t crave orderly spaces, and they love little junk as much as the next kid.

When we took our two children (ages 4 and 1½) to Italy for three months, the only toys we brought with us fit inside one child’s backpack. Would that be enough for three months?

I look for small, lightweight toys that can encourage a lot of creative play.  Since we have always lived in apartments with our kids, these are my preferred toys they play with at home as well. Do you think it’s odd how small children’s toys can be so big? Sometimes they can be as big as the kid! If you live in a small home, it can make your house crazy to have a lot of big toys to pick up.

But if you’re hoping (like I was) that having fewer, smaller toys will keep your kids’ rooms clean, it doesn’t. My kids still made a big mess of their room every day, and they had a blast doing it. The real difference is that clean-up time took fifteen minutes, not an hour, and we didn’t have to wonder where to put everything.

If you’re looking for small gifts, travel ideas, or new toys that will be worth the space, these are my top choices for small toys:

  • art supplies: watercolor case, colored pencils, coloring book.
  • tea set and petit fours by Haba
  • jewelry box with dress up jewelry – it also served as a place to put special things
  • puzzles – stored in ziplock bags, not in the boxes
  • felt cupcakes – see my how-to instructions on AlphaMom.
  • more felt and scissors – we made a felt town and other crafts.
  • balloons – the kids played with them in the tub. We made the biggest water balloon they ever saw.
  • balls
  • favorite stuffed animal
  • a couple of books

I also like LEGO, but I knew we wouldn’t be able to keep track of them (I find stray pieces everywhere!), so they stayed at home.

When we arrived, the kids made use of household items for play things, such as water bottles in the bath, and they made superhero capes with my Baggu bags. They made forts with the blankets and sofa pillows. We bought poster board when we arrived to decorate their new room with artwork.

Florence had a neat support network of play groups (called ludoteca) where moms could meet and the kids could play with more toys there.

What small toys do you prefer and recommend?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. Maaike Quinn @ Life with FlyLady says:

    I remember how I always wanted to play with whatever I wasn’t allowed to play with! I guess children are able to have fun with about everything you give them. They have such great imagination and fantasy!

    I used to love Lego too, by the way. And Playmobil. And I simply adore those petit fours! And that Lane of yours is sooo cute!

    Thanks, Rachel! I hope you’re happy to be back home again :D
    Maaike Quinn @ Life with FlyLady´s last post…Simplify Your Before Bed Routine

  2. I picked up a toy set for my son at a Cracker Barrel of all places (!) that is great for trips and visits. 6 jigsaw pieces can be put together in different ways, making a map. The roads have grooves that the little wind-up car travels on. So many different ways to play, all inside 6 x 8 inches.

  3. These stacking cups from Ikea are great!


    They are so small to store and Ella absolutely love to play with them. They also work as bath toys.

  4. I have really enjoyed reading about your travels to Italy – what a great experience for all of you!

    One of the things that we like to do when we travel (especially if going to a place where we have access to a printer, like grandma’s), is have some paper toys for the kids to play with. They are easy to pack or print out when you get there, and recyclable so you don’t have to pack them to go home.

    madebyjoel.com has a lot of fun ones- search for “paper city” and “tumble bunnies”, 2 of our favorites!

  5. I love bean bags for children. With a little imagination (or a goggle search) you can make up all sorts of games for young kids, and change the games a little to make them harder as they grow. We stack them to build towers, throw them into buckets/ bowls for a toss game, balance them on our heads and run around the house, and we’ve even hid them and sent someone out to find them yelling “hot or cold” as they search. The possiblities are endless. Such a small thing can lead to hours of playtime.

  6. I love the felt cupcakes! So cute and not a space hog!
    Tami @ ThisMomsDelight.com´s last post…The Lightkeeper’s Ball by Colleen Coble

  7. I agree on the smaller scale toys. It is amazing how much fun they can have with so little. I think it encourages the use of their imagination and they end up playing for a much longer period of time.

    Thanks for the list!
    Jill V. / TerraSavvy´s last post…Fun Friday

  8. We travel with a hard-backed notebook, stickers, markers or crayons and a gluestick.
    It’s a great way to make a scrapbook on the go of the kids favorite things… or a spot to play tic tac toe!
    Amy @ MomsTravelTales´s last post…Legoland Windsor near London

  9. I’m glad you’re back safely! I don’t have any kids yet, but as we are trying, we get soooo much advice from everyone! :)

    When I tell people, we don’t plan on moving into a bigger place (one with two bedrooms) when we have a baby, we hear, “Oh, you will change your mind. Kids need so much stuff!!!”

    It always irks me and I love to see people that are living proof that that simply isn’t true. Thanks for the example. Maybe I’ll send people your way so they can get de-brainwashed about how much kids need.
    Jennie´s last post…being ruthless with your Stuff

    • you are so right! Last time I checked, my husband and I have much more stuff than our kids! They must be easier to blame . . .

    • We are expecting our first in September and I find myself saying, “I’m not sure how much stuff kids need, but I don’t think they’ll ever stop selling (insert item here) since it sounds so fantastic. I’m sure when the time comes we’ll pick one up.”
      I say this genuinely and then change the subject. I’ve found that people who buy a lot for their kiddos (or themselves) tend to need a lot of validation for their actions and so they don’t stop defending their position.

  10. Absolutely Lego and Playmobil. Wood blocks (mini ones are great with playmobil people/animals. My children have always loved the Schleich animals, they are handpainted replicas of the real thing (real genitalia too so be aware of the questions especially with the stallions!).
    And there will never be enough art supplies to make my daughters happy :)
    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your experiences in Italy!

  11. We took a family road trip from Ohio to Texas last year. Our then 3yr. old got hours of enjoyment with a box of band aids! He sat in the back seat and stuck them everywhere.

    • I remember once upon a time, when I had 3 little ones, I was working a temp job delivering phone books to residences. We spent WAY too many hours in the van for 2 weeks! My saving grace? Cheap packs of baby wipes. They wiped everything within reach of themselves, the car windows, doors, carseats, legs, faces, etc! Not the best solution for a regular diversion, but it saved my sanity!
      Love the bandaids!
      Living the Balanced Life´s last post…Are you stuck in a rut

      • Karen (Scotland) says:

        We once gave our three year old son a sticker book on the way home for an hour long car journey. He was so lovely and quiet. When we got home and opened the car door, we saw why. He had stuck nearly every sticker from the book on some part of himself – cheeks, tshirt, legs, arms, sandals. He had the most serious look on his face and my husband and I just collapsed laughing.
        I feel myself giggling every time I think of those big brown eyes staring out from between the stickers.
        Karen (Scotland)

  12. Felt veggie basket and fruit basket from Ikea! Love Ikea toys. Very reasonable and so conservative on space (like everything else there!)

    Also, welcome back. Your blog is my absolute favorite of many awesome mommy blogs. Please be encouraged and continue to post! Fantastic!

  13. We take “epic” road trips with our seven children and so space is at a premium. We have bought, over the years, lots of self contained thinking games that travel well. My favorite source for these is Timberdoodle.com. They have wonderful service and their catalog (online or paper) gives a detailed description of each of their items. It allows me to be very confident in spending the money. And we have never been disappointed. As a homeschooler, we have ordered from them for decades, literally. :)
    I Live in an Antbed´s last post…The Gratitude List- May 16

  14. vermontmommy says:

    We travel a lot over the US. We have three kids and these are things that over the years have been helpful.

    Paper, stickers, the crayola twist crayons (they don’t break, if they melt they would be contained and you don’t have to worry about the papers pealing off). We bought a couple sets and have been using them for years.

    Books! My kids are huge readers and I try to pick up a few new books for our travels. On some of our travels I have searched out used book stores and gathered a few more for the return trip.

    Each of our kids have an ipod. I know it is an electronic toy but for long car rides and plane rides I love them. They can put movies, books and songs on them.

    I had a cute felt book/bag made on etsy and that is a huge

    Magnetic tin books. This is not one we have as we have the generic themes (construction vehicles, animals, barn) but this will show you what I mean. http://www.amazon.com/Magnetic-Fun-Wall-Collectors-Magnets/dp/B001U2MQE0

    Legos – Yes, they get lost but they do entertain. I picked up a Lego Lap Desk at a garage sale years ago and it is handy in the car (too much for the airplane but great for the car).

    Matchbox cars. Tiny, can be used in hotels, tubs, cars, planes and at the parks.

    A stuffed animal.

    Playsilks (they can be used as all sort of things). I made our using this link: http://artfulparent.wordpress.com/2008/03/25/dyeing-playsilks-with-kool-aid/

    Yes, we have brought bandaids too. They don’t last forever but they do occupy a child if you are trying to buy some time while stuck on a plane or in the car. Sometimes you have to be tricky. :)

    When we travel I search out: Parks, Library, Zoos, aquariums and children’s museums. We have several local passes and they actually transfer to many other places across the country.

  15. I just did a big toy purge this morning. My kids were ecstatic to see all the toys at the bottom of the toy basket that they hadn’t seen in weeks. I am always surprised (yes, every time) that they actually play more with their toys when there are less of them and they are somewhat organized (puzzle pieces with the puzzles, for example, and not in fifteen different parts of the house).
    Our favorites are the numbered nesting boxes that fit inside each other. We got it at the SPCA rummage store for $2 and it remains a favorite for two kids now.
    Katherine@YeOldCollegeTry´s last post…Hot Dogs and Spam

  16. I wrote a post a month or 2 ago about keeping little hands busy amd one thing I suggested was using a muffin tin. That is the base for play and then you can add cheerios or fruit loops or buttons or pennies or whatever, depending on the age, and they can sort, count, categorize, and more!
    Living the Balanced Life´s last post…What we REALLY want for Mother’s Day!

  17. I was talking about Lego with my sister in law last week! My brother (her hubbie) had told her he had a Lego mat to play on when he was little, and the legos weren’t allowed off the mat… What he failed to mention was that the circular “mat” had a drawstring all the way round the edge of it – and when it was time for tidy up, all that was needed to be done was to pull the string up! Simple to make in decor weight fabric, and easy to stash.

  18. i love the idea of the lego drawstring playmat – i’m going to try that one too :)

    i must admit, at home anything goes
    but we do travel and small toys are a must. we usually take playmobil figures, a new colouring book and pens, and some new-to-us small pocket toys from the local thrift (usually these last are brought out at regular intervals in flight). my son is now 8y so the iPod is a winner (i’ll be getting one of those multipple recharger units for our next trip this summer). i also collect travel games, especially the magnetic, fold-up type though my pocket travel spirograph is a firm fave
    pomomama´s last post…words or pictures what i did at northern voice 2011

  19. We are driving 350 miles later this week to our new home. I’ve packed most of my son’s toys, but left out some ones that will be good in the car and at our new apartment while we wait for our stuff to arrive a week later.

    I bought an Etch-A-Sketch and small Magna Doodle and he will get those at points on down the road. Doesn’t know he has those yet! I have a Melissa & Doug puzzle where the pieces are already attached to the board, you just slide them to their spaces. And a magnetic puzzle maze http://www.amazon.com/Educo-Colorback-Turtle-Bead-Maze/dp/B0017UBQ64/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1305583549&sr=8-1-fkmr0 that is great for the car.

    Plus some books, a ball for when we are at rest stops, and some little cars. Maybe some sidewalk chalk for stops, too.

  20. We recently went on a cross country plane trip with our two girls and my 3 and a half year old LOVED this “Find it” game.
    The funny thing was that when we got to my in-law’s house all of the adults had fun playing with it too!

    LOVE your site. My dream is to live abroad someday with our family!

    Kristen´s last post…Wild Basin

  21. I am totally going to make the felt cupcakes as party favors for my daughters’ birthday party! How fun! :) Thanks for the idea, Rachel, and all the other ideas, fellow readers!

  22. Thanks for the list – so useful to know what others have packed :) Love the idea of the felt too – long underused resource for many things. Welcome home!
    angelvalerie´s last post…when is near enough good enough

  23. Nice list, and good timing as I’ve just started to peek into the crazy world of toys that is available nowadays. People laugh when I say that tupperware can make a great toy for a toddler and give me that pitying “oh you’re so naieve” look when I talk about keeping toys somewhat limited to long-lasting, imagination-building toys rather than the overload of bright plastic battery-powered one-function toys I see in stores. I still maintain a 2-year-old will stay entertained longer with a cardboard box than a Tickle-Me-Elmo!
    Kait Palmer´s last post…Birth Stories

  24. I love those petit fours you mentioned! I don’t have kids yet, but we have three nieces and other little friends who love tea party stuff as much as I do. Those would be perfect for them! And I love your felt cupcake idea. I totally want to make those myself!!
    Kristen@PrettySweet´s last post…The Tea Boutique

  25. For my 3 year old boy, the little magnetic trains will entertain him for a while. Tracks are good but not mandatory. He likes the plain and cheap ikea ones as much as the fancy Thomas trains.

  26. I keep downsizing my kids’ toys and they DON’T NOTICE. And they are able to entertain themselves almost anywhere with the randomest stuff.

    I’ve noticed that it’s helpful to my kids to have the toy feel new to them, one they haven’t played with for a while. So I usually dig into my toy shelf for traveling.

    I usually take a viewfinder like this: http://www.amazon.com/Classic-ViewMaster-Viewer-Collector-Reel/dp/B000IOGVM4/ref=sr_1_1?s=toys-and-games&ie=UTF8&qid=1305593374&sr=1-1

    When we travel, we take a box of cheapo bandaids. They are fun stickers, fun play doctor, and actually could be pressed into real service if needed.
    Margo´s last post…My Husband Thinks These Earrings are HOT- yo

  27. Yes, I have to concur with the little wooden Thomas trains. With 3 boys, these are always played with. You can make an Island of Sodor anywhere! Also, cards. My eldest is 5 and he love playing card games (Go fish, uno etc). He’s been doing this for about a year so from about 4 I would definitely recommend this. For kids younger (say from about 3) SNAP is also great.
    Francesca´s last post…Confession- I am a mothers group drop-out

  28. My husband and I just traveled with two kids under 3 yrs from St. Louis to Zimbabwe. We had one toy for the baby (we knew he would rather play with the seat belt anyway) and one little backpack for our 3 yr old.

    Crayons are a must. Stickers are great, too. We also brought a small dry erase board with a few non-toxic markers. That is worth hours of entertainment. Our newest favorite is an eye spy book. Our son loves finding things and it always takes a while. Other than that, we relied heavily on the fact that we were flying at night some of the time and the movies available.

    Thankfully we had friends who donated some toys to our home here in Zimbabwe that we could borrow. So wonderful!

  29. Welcome back. I am looking forward to reading more on your stay in Italy.

    Lane is adorable!! Such a happy child.
    don_mae´s last post…Designing Doggie Placemats

  30. Michelle says:

    I love the games like Double Shutter and Yam Slam for older children (above 5 because of the dice and adding) because they are self contained in a tin box. We enjoy playing with the children with them and they can play together or by themselves. We travel to the beach every year (sometimes twice/year) and it’s a 15 hour trip each way. Richard Scarry books have been a hit for years in the car(even if the children aren’t reading yet, the pictures are so interesting and full of detail). We also listen to books on tape. A great full-length one to start with for small children is “My Father’s Dragon” (there are three books in the series). It goes on for hours and is very easy for little ones to follow. I credit that one to making my children love listening to books on tapes. Another good series is the Romona series by Beverly Cleary. Stockard Channing reads practically all of them and there are so many in the series that they can last a LONG time. Libraries should have both of those series (we raid the library every year before our trip). When we get to the beach the books on tape are great for the kids to listen to when every one needs some down time. . .

  31. Stacking cups and Legos. Can’t loose with either. My kids are 17 and 21 and they both still like Legos.
    Anita´s last post…French Toast for Sunday Brunch

  32. We just took a plane flight, and Playdough was a big hit. I took one container of it and a small ziploc of cookie cutters, a plastic knife and fork, and some toothpicks. My 4-year-old played with it on the tray table, and that worked great. I also agree with small cars, and paper and stickers. We teach Sunday School, and there are tons of unused pages of stickers in the kid workbooks when we clean out at the end of each semester. I just bring them home for my kids so they don’t go to waste! =)

  33. Jenny Fretz says:


    lego mat/bag tutorial would be fun to make for other thimgs too and you could create the inside to fit with the to example:if it was for cars have a road and a town or if it was for ponies have a stable, creey,trail, trees…..

  34. I agree, that some kids toys are as big as they are. My oldest loves notebook and color pencil to keep him busy. My toddler loves small cars to hold, so when we go somewhere we can easily carry those. Sand toys are great for beach, sands and indoor to keep them busy.

    I love felt story board and felt characters too.

    Zengirl @ Heart and Mind´s last post…Great Reads around the Net- Link Love

  35. I can’t even imagine trying to take toys for 3 months in one backpack, I think we take more than that in the car wherever we go. It does seem so much easier though… I love those cupcakes. They’re definitely on our summer list of things to do!
    Jackie´s last post…The Vegetable Garden 2011

  36. The game Mancala is available with folding boards so it can be easily packed for trips. I don’t have children of my own, but I have volunteered at elementary schools when I was in college where it is a huge hit that they love to play. It is good for children learning to count or that already know how to count. It keeps them busy and is easy to learn.

  37. I’m a big fan of playsilks and will be getting some for bub very soon. They would be great for travelling as they are light and can be packed away easily into a small bundle. You could even use them to wrap other toys or luggage like socks that have a habit of going missing.
    Here’s some play ideas: http://www.silkplayground.com/
    Sally´s last post…February’s Theme is Character

  38. I find that kids will adapt to what they are used to. We have lived all over the world, so traveling is in our nature. For road trips, we listen to books on tape and play with plastic cups at the hotel. for airplane trips, we read books or empty mommy’s wallet. Not ideal, but certainly works.

    Parents who avoid travel with their children because of all the stuff they “need” just aren’t aware of what they can get by without. The saying is true…just like with goldfish, people grow to the size of their container.
    Tracey´s last post…Just One Thing

  39. Rebecca says:

    I’m currently in the middle of a two month trip with a 1 1/2 yr old. I brought books, some Duplo blocks, balls, and a toy car. It just doesn’t seem like enough. He’s so active and needs to move and run, but the weather here is so hot it’s not safe to go out between 9 AM and 6 PM.
    What entertained your 1 1/2 yr old the most?

  40. RachelNichols says:

    I’m not a mom, but a devoted aunt. I like your ideas for small toys and plan on buying some for my nephews this Christmas. They have enough big stuff that breaks down easily.

  41. This makes fascinating reading – I don’t actually particularly remember giving our girls toys on long car trips; we often travelled overnight so they could sleep or else we played games like iSpy or singing. I guess they maybe had a soft toy or something and I usually had crayons and paper or a colouring book in my bag or they were given them in restaurants. My youngest would happily make foil sweet wrappers into little balls that were people and be occupied for the longest time while I chatted with grandma.

    Love all the ideas here, though, and my grandson is a new generation who is used to more entertainment. I will be getting some silks for play since he will be with me more now he is waiting for a new brother/sister (he’s 3).
    Although I don’t recall seeing it here, I remembered we used to have felt shapes with a flat felt card, some were abstract shapes, some were animals etc. and as felt sticks to itself, it was endlessly variable. In fact, I had this kind of toy myself 40 years ago. I imagine it would be easy to make your own if they are no longer available?
    Both my husband and I adored the Richard Scarry books – he loved the construction ones, which he had in German, and I pored for hours over mine when I was 8 and we first moved to a French-speaking country, I learned the names of so many objects from it! Now our grandson loves his, but I noticed it wasn’t easily available, such a shame.
    Another book my girls all adored was Rain – no text but a story of what two children do as the rain comes, rains and then afterwards, they would look at it for hours and I would invent all kinds of stories around the pictures, lots of detail. I don’t know if this still exists (mid 80s book!).
    We had quite a lot of quiz packs that flip over (cards), they are available for all ages.
    I saw no mention of dolls – both I and my daughters all had little dolls with not too many clothes or fiddly bits, enough to fit into a keychain backpack and for playing. Maybe a mini version of the playsilks could work with dolls, too?