Many families with airline tickets to the United States are groaning at the prospect of flying tablet-free.
On March 21 the US government put an electronic travel ban in place that forces passengers travelling on direct flights from 10 destinations, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports to check in their laptops, e-readers, tablets and other devices with their luggage and parents are speaking out.
“I am a bit bothered,” admits Lenka Uzakova, a Slovakian mother of two children, 7 and 5, based in Abu Dhabi.
“The iPad helps when my children are extremely tired, sleepy and I need them to run to catch the train. For our kids, iPads are a part of everyday life, whether we like it or not. Even schools use them as learning tools.”
While some parents are crying foul, some are using the development as an opportunity to wean their children off gadgets and embrace good old-fashioned concepts such as conversation and living in the moment.
Keri Hedrick – a British travel blogger and founder of the family travel website www.ourglobetrotters.com – has three children, 7, 4 and 2, and admits her initial reaction to news of the tablet ban was one of shock.
“Surely I can’t survive a 16-hour flight without relying on an iPad,” says Hedrick, who in the past two years has flown with her children to the US, Australia, South Africa and South-east Asia.
But in hindsight, she realised it wasn’t such a problem.
“The ban wouldn’t put me off booking a long haul flight, but it would involve a little more planning, in terms of the airline we would use, flight timing and what to pack,” she says.
Packing would take on an even bigger importance, figuring out what to bring to keep her children stimulated.
“Mix a few old and new toys in their bags to keep the journey interesting and exciting for them,” she advises.
“And always save a few toys in your own bag to surprise them with later in the flight – as well as perhaps an exciting snack or treat to reward behaviour.”
Amanda Tinnin, an American parent coach based in Abu Dhabi and mother of a 4-year-old and a 7-month-old, says parents should see the ban as “very much an opportunity” to drop their reliance on gadgets.
“Everyone is freaking out, it’s hilarious, but I think we should take a positive slant,” she says.
“Hands-on activities and communication should definitely be encouraged.”
Tinnin explains that the parent coaching training she has undergone is very much focused on limiting time spent on devices.
She believes that preparing children for a gadget-less long haul flight begins way before heading to the airport. They need to be weaned of iPads gradually.
“Children under six should only have up to seven hours of screen time a week, technically in segments of up to one hour a day,” she says.
“But getting them away from the screens these days is very challenging – as there are devices everywhere.”
And what about that restless child cry of being bored?
Don’t let it bother you, Tinnin advises, it is a good thing. “You see mums in despair, thinking ‘how can I last this long?’,” she says.
“But actually the adults are really the ones who have the most issue with the ban on iPads, because they think they have to constantly entertain their children. That’s not true.
“Boredom is key to the inner life of the child. It helps them decide what they want to become, because the imagination flourishes.”
British mother Nicola Wakeling, who lives in Abu Dhabi, founded the Facebook group “With the Kids …” and is a firm believer in not relying on electronic devices on the trips she takes with her three children, ages 4, 5 and 7.
“They’ve never really had their own devices, so for us it’s no different from the good old days,” she says.
“Last summer I flew to London with them and drove from Essex to Liverpool, before my husband joined us. We then drove over to France, staying in various locations. They were amazing – we made up games and had fun.
“My daughter loves to draw and my son will play with a small toy.
“They love to play [the card game] Top Trumps together too, and snacks also provide a great distraction.”
Failing that, there is also the on-screen flight entertainment option to keep children occupied.
Tinnin recommends that anyone travelling with a child under 6 years old should bring their own child-friendly headphones if they plan to use the in-flight system.
“Those little headphones the airlines provide are really uncomfortable for young children,” she says.
While the on-screen entertainment provided by some airlines might suffice for older children, Hedrick says it won’t work for her 2-year-old.
“He lacks the attention span, won’t wear the headphones and gets frustrated that the seat screen won’t do as he says,” she explains. “For the sake of the passenger in front, we try not to use the in-flight entertainment with a toddler, as it causes too much fussing.”
This is where an initiative such as Etihad Airways nanny service becomes handy.
Launched last September, the Abu Dhabi-based airline provides trained air nannies on some flights to help children make origami animals, puppets, and even perform magic tricks to take the strain off exhausted parents.
Children can get their faces painted and are given age-specific goody bags containing games and stationary.
Children aged 9 to 13 can get stuck into Sudoku, mazes, lined notepads and join-the-dots as well as an Abu Dhabi-themed pencil case, pencil, and a dual-function bookmark and ruler.
“We used to have a one-size-fits-all bag, but now we have a range of packs to suit flight durations and ages,” an Etihad spokesperson said.
“We want our families to want to come back and we know that flying long haul, although exciting, can be difficult for parents.
“We want to make it as comfortable for them as possible.”