Kid Brains

jsolie, Suphatthra China, Thomas Northcut, Peter Dazeley, ivanastar, Bakhtiar Irwandie, EyeEm/Getty Images

Why Do Kids Pack The Most Random Stuff For A Trip?

Kids are chaos... but it turns out that’s perfectly normal.

If you’ve ever asked your child to pack a bag for a trip of any length — or had a child insist “I can do it all by myself!” — you’ve no doubt noticed that they have wild ideas about the proper way to travel. (“Do you have to bring your 15-pound rock collection and all 47 Barbies? Also did you remember socks?”) I was curious about why these small weirdos are the way that they are, developmentally, so I ran a limited, unscientific experiment. I spoke to children ages 3 to 10 and gave them a simple instruction: “Pretend you’re going on an overnight trip. Pack what you think you’ll need.”

That... went just about how you’d expect it to go. Delighted, I observed what I saw and reviewed the results with Dr. Bernard Dreyer, director of the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone (and former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics) to explain behavior which, to an adult, seems absurd.

Here are the results.

Cole, 3

Cole was an adorable and enthusiastic participant. When asked “What are you going to pack?” he smiled and replied. “My suitcase!”

OK. Clearly I was going to have to be a lot more specific. So I asked, “What are you going to put in your suitcase for your trip?”

That worked. Flitting around his room, he selected items that were clearly visible and within reach — no opening drawers or scanning closets like a sucker for this kiddo! — and announcing each item as he packed. He had to put back several items when he realized they were too big for a designated compartment, like a football that was too big for the tiny front pocket of his wheeled suitcase (gotta love toddlers’ spatial reasoning skills). It was about this time when he zipped everything closed and cheerily declared, “That’s good enough!”

Photo Courtesy of Cole's mother.

Why did Cole pack his suitcase like that?

“A 3-year-old has very concrete thinking,” says Dr. Dreyer. “Like when you asked what he’s going to pack and he said ‘my suitcase.’ I like that answer. It’s typical of 3.

“The kinds of things he picked make sense [for his developmental stage]. The fact that he doesn’t look in the closets, etc., — he’s going to be stimulus bound. Whatever he sees he think he’s going to want. But he’s not going to be planning and thinking out of the box at this age to say, ‘Let me look in the closet, I think my favorite whatever is in there.’ It’s going to be whatever is out in front of him.”

Lucy, 4

The first thing you should know about Lucy is that she packed for her overnight trip using a metal lunchbox. So, off to a very good, realistic start there. That sort of make-believe whimsy was a running theme for her. Like Cole, she packed impulsively: she felt she “needed” the things she saw at the moment. No looking for specific items or planning ahead.

But unlike Cole, Lucy quickly moved from “packing for a make believe trip” to “playing make believe.” At one point she was going to bring her “little itty bitty baby” (who, just FYI, was a toy frog... we’re not here to judge), but when neither her baby nor its various accessories fit in her lunchbox (shocking) she left the baby in the care of her husband (no word on his species). Other items she did pack reflected her delightful imagination.

Photo courtesy of Lucy's mom.

Why did Lucy pack her suitcase like that?

“Imaginative play is very typical for 4-year-olds,” Dreyer says. “But she’s really into pretend play. Pretend husband, pretend baby, pretend food. That’s very typical. It could be typical of a 3-year-old but it’s much more typical of a 4-year-old.”

Julia, 5

Like the previous children, Julia only selected items that were already visible to her, indicating that the kind of stimulus-driven, concrete thinking that motivated younger children is also at play with this 5-year-old. And, like Lucy, she added an element of imaginative play to her packing experience, telling her mother she was packing to go to Hawaii. Of course, if she was actually packing for a trip to the South Pacific she probably would have run into some issues. (No bathing suit, Julia?)

Photo Courtesy of Julia's mom

Why did Julia pack her suitcase like that?

“Five-year-olds’ concrete thinking is different. They’re beginning to plan, and isn’t that what we’re seeing in this girl?” says Dreyer. “She’s not just picking things she doesn’t need, but she’s saying ‘Since I’ll be sleeping I’ll bring a pillow.’ This may also be based on previous experience, like if she took a car trip and someone brought a pillow for her to rest her head and go to sleep in the backseat. Each kid is different, but classically somewhere between 5 and 7 kids begin to rely on their experience to do this kind of concrete planning. It’s not abstract thinking, where they can really problem solve, but the machinery is basically beginning to turn where they can think ‘OK, what do I really need? What have I had on previous trips?’ And that’s what we’re seeing. It’s not that the other kids can’t remember it, it’s just not the way they think about it.”

Gioia, 7

Initially, Gioia suggested she had finished packing in literally 10 seconds. “I think that’s it!” she declared proudly. Not too surprising: aside from speed, that was about what I’d seen so far with younger kids.

“OK, that’s everything you need for your overnight trip?” (A prompt offered to all the children who participated.)

That’s when things got a little bit different.

“Oh! Wait! We’re missing something! BRB!”

And she walked out of the room — something none of the younger children had even hinted at doing.

Photo Courtesy of Jamie Kenney

Why did Gioia pack her suitcase like that?

Dreyer suggests that what we see here is a natural progression from the kind of planning we first started to see with Julia. “Once she got stimulated to think about it, she could think about ‘What is my day like; what are all the activities that I have; and what do I need to bring for those activities?’”

Gavin, 8

Unlike the other kids in this experiment, Gavin really did have an overnight trip to pack for, so this experiment folded in nicely with the rest of his day!

Photo Courtesy of Gavin's mom

Why did Gavin pack his suitcase like that?

“[Gavin] didn’t need to be prompted to remember clothing or essential items,” notes Dreyer. “That’s an 8- or 9-year-old!” He also acknowledges that, at this age, past travel experience, which is often affected by a family’s socioeconomic situation, counts for a lot and can indicate how well or poorly a child might do in realistically packing their suitcase.

William, 10

What’s notable about William is that he was the first child to a) go straight for clothing; b) ask questions about exactly how long he’d be away; and c) intentionally prepare for weather conditions (“Well, it’s October,” he reasoned out loud. “It’s probably going to be a bit chilly...”)

Photo Courtesy of Jamie Kenney

Why did William pack his suitcase like that?

“A 10- or 11-year-old is really just like this,” says Dreyer. “They plan, they problem solve. We say abstract thinking doesn’t happen until 12 or 13, but my experience is that a lot of 10- or 11-year-olds have some abstract thinking and that’s what we see here. It’s not just the concrete world that he’s looking at, but rather he’s thinking about ‘I don’t see it, but I know, I can see in my mind, that I might need these things.’”

In conclusion...

None of this came as a surprise to our expert. “These kids must have read Piaget’s book on childhood development!” he joked on our phone call. Indeed, much of what we saw was what you might call “textbook.” Though it does bear mentioning again that, as often in the case of psychology textbooks, all our subjects came from middle-class homes — poor and/or otherwise disadvantaged children, Dreyer notes, could be expected to behave differently, either as a result of necessary self-sufficiency or a lack of experience and enrichment as it relates to travel.

“Most children in a nurturing, supportive environment do exactly what they’re supposed to do at their developmental age,” he concluded.

My conclusion? Children are chaotic, but it’s nice to know that’s exactly how they’re supposed to be.

Bernard Dreyer, MD, is Professor of Pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. He leads the Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at NYU Langone Health and is Director of Pediatrics at Bellevue Hospital. He is a past President of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and is currently serving as the AAP’s Medical Director for Policies. Dr. Dreyer also hosts a weekly radio show, “On-Call for Kids”, on Sirius-XM.