Being an organized leader of a kid’s club or scout troop

For more than three years now, my wife and I have both been scout troop leaders (Girl Scouts for her, Cub Scouts for me). The organizations offer a lot of fun for the kids and, let’s be honest, a lot of work for those of us adults who have stepped up to the plate to be leaders. It’s not without its rewards, though, and getting to spend time with our kids and their friends in a learning and creative situation is worth all the unpaid hours.

Depending on how many kids you’ve got in your club, den, troop, or group, you could feel like you’ve taken on a second job. (Especially when cases of cookies pack your house every winter.) One thing is for certain, the job won’t be fun for you if you’re stressing about running the group and keeping things organized. The following are a few techniques my wife and I have put together for staying sane while being a leader of our kids’ groups.

Who has earned what?

Not all clubs and groups are about earning awards, badges, or patches, but a lot of them are and it’s what many people think of when they consider scouting. And the kids do love earning them. Cub Scouts are actually required to move through several ranks before they become Boy Scouts, and to do so they must earn certain achievements. Of course, one boy will miss a meeting because of illness, another is out of town, and so on. To keep track of all their achievements, I use the following method for tracking who has earned what.

I bought several adhesive CD sleeves from Amazon, as well as a large piece of foam board. Then I labeled each sleeve with a boy’s name and stuck the lot to the board. When a boy earns an achievement, I place the name of it as well as the date into the CD sleeve. Now I have an at-a-glance record of who has done what and who hasn’t.

Run your meetings smoothly

When the kids first arrive for a meeting, they’re usually a little hopped up. At the same time, this is when their parents want to ask questions, hand in permission slips, etc. Unsupervised, riled-up, eight-year-old boys? That’s a bad idea. Instead of letting chaos rule, have a “gathering activity” ready. Each week I have something set up for the boys to do upon arrival, from a simple board game to a pile of Boy’s Life magazines to a diagram of a structure to create with LEGO bricks. If you can tie the gathering activity into the meeting’s main activity, even better. The important thing is to give them something fun, engaging, and cooperative to do while they (and the parents) settle in.

Another idea is to create a job board. I’ve printed each boy’s name on a strip of paper and glued it to a clothes pin. These pins get clipped onto a board with labels like: “Attendance,” “Flag Bearer,” “Den Flag Bearer,” “Assistant,” and “Closing Flag Ceremony.” (These are all regular parts of a Cub Scout meeting.) This lets the boys know what their jobs will be for each meeting. Quick tip: give your more antsy members the “Assistant” job, as you can call on them to help out with all sorts of things as his or her energy levels rise and fall.

Foster independence and leadership

My den only has six boys, but my wife’s Girl Scout troop has 14 girls. The entire troop is broken up into several informal units, each with a rotating peer leader, as selected by the girls. The units brainstorm ideas and report their findings, ideas, strategies, and so on to the troop as a whole via their selected leader. These peer leaders make managing a larger group easier on you and teach important skills to the kids.

Tap into the community

In the business world, we call this delegation. In organizations of volunteers, we call this accessing resources. And, since all the kids in your group have parents, these people are wonderful resources for you to rely on from time-to-time. Ask other about their professions and hobbies and see if they’d be willing to share some of what they know with the kids as the focus for a meeting. Same goes for adults in your child’s life — pediatrician, dentist, school teacher, local firefighter, your friends with cool jobs. And all those boxes of Girl Scout cookies don’t have to be sorted only by you — ask other parents and even club members to pitch in for the big jobs.

Don’t be nervous to reach out to the community, either. Community service is a big part of scouting and many clubs and organizations, and to get the kids involved in projects they’ll enjoy you have to make yourself and your group known. Call up local shelters, non-profits, parks departments, and nature organizations to see if there’s an opportunity for the kids to get involved in hands-on charity work. Chances are, there are many ways the kids can help.

Finally, don’t be afraid to look for help online. I’m starting to see more project ideas appear on Pinterest. And, I love, love, love Scouter Mom.com. The site has certainly given me creative ideas for several den meeting projects. What other resources do you use to things organized and operating smoothly for your child’s club or scouting troop?

DIY lightbox for easy, clutter-free artwork photos

Photographing the kids’ artwork is a great way to keep from having to save everything junior creates in a physical form. Photographs save the memories without sacrificing storage space. Digital images are easy to organize, but getting decent shots of the kids’ work can be difficult. Creating a DIY lightbox can be a cheap, inexpensive solution for getting great, memorable shots.

A couple of years ago, I suggested a few strategies for organizing your kids’ artwork. Once you’ve picked out your favorites, it’s nice to frame them for a home gallery or to create an album, like those from Shutterfly or Apple.

But like I mentioned earlier, taking a good photo of Jr.’s art project isn’t always easy. Lighting and a “noisy” background can be troublesome. Fortunately, the solution is simple, effective, and inexpensive. The following instructions are how I made a simple light box out of materials I (mostly) already had at home.

What is a light box?

A light box, as I’m describing it, is a box that’s open on one end and has light-diffusing material on the sides and top, that lets you take nearly shadow-free photographs of objects. Professional photographers use them to get gorgeous product shots. You can use them for a variety of items. Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A large-ish cardboard box
  2. White tissue paper
  3. Tape
  4. A box cutter
  5. At least two light sources
  6. White poster board
  7. A ruler

Building your light box

To get started, cut the flaps off of the box’s top and then place it on its side. Next, use a ruler to mark one inch from the edge on the side of the box. Then use a strait edge to mark off lines one inch away from the edge. Use the box cutter to cut out that inner square section of cardboard. (You’re making the sides look like three cardboard picture frames attached to the bottom and one side of the box. See the image above.) Repeat that process on two other sides, leaving the bottom intact.

Next, add your light-diffusing material: tissue paper. Cut a sheet of plain white tissue paper so that it’ll cover the three sides of the box that you cut. Tape it into place. Now for the poster board.

This part is a little bit tricky. Cut a piece of poster board that’s as wide as the opening to your box but twice as long. Slide it into the box and up the back so that it’s touching the top. Make sure not to crease the poster board. If you do, that crease will really show up in your photos. The idea is to make an “infinite” background of white.

Test it out

That’s it! The box has been constructed. Now you need two light sources. I’m using two tabletop gooseneck lamps. Position one on each side, aimed directly at the tissue paper. Finally, put your camera on a tripod, stack of books, table, or whatever will keep it still. Finally, position your subject and shoot.

You’ll have to play around a bit to see if you need more tissue paper, to re-position the camera and so on. But really, you’ll see great results right away. When you’re done, upload the photos to your favorite service, do what you want with the digital image, and enjoy your great-looking archive of the kids’ beautiful art.

Additional tips: Above, I photographed a little clay sculpture. If you’re doing something flat like a painting, carefully remove the top piece of tissue paper and shoot down. Also, you can add more light buy putting another source pointing into the box from the top.

This whole project cost me less than twenty dollars (I bought two lamps) and I’m thrilled with the results. Also, if you’re not the DIY type, you can buy a premade lightbox for around $40.

Essential gear for traveling with young children

This year holds a great amount of travel for my family and me, so I’ve been trying out dependable and useful gear to make it more manageable. With two kids — one being an infant — I have a lot of needs that go beyond a regular suitcase when we’re on the road.

For starters, I continue to be a huge fan of the ZÜCA Pro suitcase. I’ve been using it since 2008 and it’s the bag I use every time I travel, when I’m alone or with the whole family. It fits into overhead bins on all but the smallest airplanes and it is rugged. The frame allows weary travelers a place to sit, the wheels make it incredibly simple to maneuver, and my MacBook Air fits easily into the side pocket.

I also travel wearing a Scottevest women’s trench coat. I use it instead of a purse unless my destination is super cold. A ridiculous amount of stuff — phone, wallet, keys, Kindle, water bottle, passport, earphones, pens/pencils, tissues, snack food, bottle, zip-top bag of formula, pacifier, burp cloth, diapers — fits in it. It’s incredibly convenient, especially when traveling with kids, because it keeps both of my hands free.

Last year, Eagle Creek contacted me to see if I would be interested in reviewing any of their products. I’d been using a Pack-It toiletry travel bag and really liked it, so I thought it would be nice to see what else they offered and if any of their products worked for our needs.

Two of the items they sent have become staples in our family’s travel gear.

The first items are their Compression Sacs. I had always liked the idea of vacuum compression bags but never could figure out how to get my hands on a vacuum for the return trip home. A hotel room might have a vacuum in the closet, but in all my years of travel I never found one with a hose attachment. I had been using large Ziplock XL bags, but after a couple trips the bags were getting ratty and didn’t really compress all that much. I’m still a fan of them and use them around the house for items in longterm storage, but they just don’t hold up for our travel demands.

Conversely, Eagle Creek’s Compression Sacs are extremely durable, made of a reinforced nylon, and are actually useful. After four trips, they are showing no sign of wear. Best of all, they don’t require a vacuum to get out the air, so they work both coming and going on a trip. You just roll the air out of them, and compress down a bunch of bulky clothes. They are awesome for things like coats and baby clothes. They really do save space. We also used them on a travel day to hold wet swimsuits because they’re waterproof and kept the suits from making everything else in our luggage soggy. There is a video on the manufacturer’s site that demonstrates how they work.

The second item they sent that we have found indispensable is the Digi Hauler Backpack. As its name implies, it holds a laptop easily in a hidden, padded compartment that sits directly next to your back. Since we usually travel with two computers, this second compartment holds my husband’s laptop and my son’s Kindle. The shoulder straps are very nicely padded, so it’s comfortable to wear for long periods of time. And the part of the pack that rests next to your back is also very well padded, so nothing pokes you. And, like the trench coat, it keeps my arms free to wrangle kids as we walk through an airport or train station. It has a waist belt for added stability, which is good since it’s usually stuffed to its gills. The zippers also lock, making it less desirable of a target for pickpocketing. It has handles and a shoulder strap if for some reason you want to carry it like a duffel and the backpack straps fold away, but I’ve never had use for that feature. The main compartment has huge storage capacity. In combination with the Compression Sacs, we’ve been able to fit a ridiculous amount of stuff into it. I love this bag.

With the ZÜCA Pro, the trench coat, Compression Sacs, and the Digi Hauler backpack, I can travel easily with two kids and not have to check a single bag. I wear my daughter in a Beco Carrier on my front, pull the ZÜCA with one hand, and have my other hand free to hold my son’s hand. If my husband is traveling with us, we’ve got an extra set of hands and no need for additional luggage. This setup is also great for taking public transportation once we’re at our destination. It’s so nice to be able to travel easily and in an organized manner with two young kids — finally!

Kids’ backpack essentials

Clutter has a way of accumulating in unexpected places, and my kids’ backpacks are one such surprising place.

This past weekend, I went into my daughter’s bag to find a study guide and pulled out all sorts of interesting things: random pencils, a penguin eraser, box tops, and more. After prompting her to clean it out, I mentally compiled a list of what should be in there, and what shouldn’t.

I should note that my kids are in a public elementary school. An older or younger student might carry around different things. And, a child in an alternative learning environment might have different supplies. Think of the following list as a starting point and adapt as necessary for you or your child’s specific needs.

Both of my kids are now carrying a small pack of tissues in their bags. The weather is still brutally cold here in the northeast, and that means runny noses. Their classrooms have tissues, of course, but they could run out or need one while on the bus. As any parent knows, a kid’s go-to tissue alternative is the sleeve.

A daily calendar is also a good idea. We’re fortunate in that our school provides the kids with an organizer at the beginning of the school year. It’s sorted by subject, and the teachers require the students to write down any assignments that are due in each subject’s slot. I love that they can look at that and know, at a glance, what they’ve got to do each night for homework or review.

If you’re shopping for a planner not issued by the school, bring Jr. along. I tried giving one of my beloved Field Notes notebooks to the kids, but they didn’t take. However, my daughter fell in love with One Direction-themed school supplies. If they love it, they’ll use it.

A good pencil case is another fine idea. My kids have plenty of pencils and erasers, but they were swimming around on the bottom of the bag.

You may or may not want to put emergency information in your child’s bag. For example, if Jr. carries an Epi-Pen, a short note regarding its use might be helpful to those who don’t know your child well, like substitute teachers or field trip chaperones. A non-specific Gmail address you’ve created for the family might be good to write inside the backpack in case it is lost.

Many students keep a refillable water bottle in their school bags, but we found out the hard way how that is not always a good idea. If your child’s bag has an exterior pocket, this might be the safer storage place than in the actual backpack.

Finally, school books and homework storage are all your children likely need. Since Trapper Keepers aren’t cool any longer, nice sturdy pocket folders are great for ensuring work makes it back to the teacher in a decent condition.

Children’s book review: Franklin is Messy

There are books available for adults on the whys and wherefores of getting organized but there are not that many for young children.

Franklin the Turtle is a Canadian book series that first appeared in the mid-1980s. I love this entire series of books. Franklin is amiable, cheerful, and enjoys playing with his many friends. These wonderfully illustrated books are written to engage beginning readers.

Specifically, Franklin is Messy recounts how Franklin misses opportunities to play with his friends because he can’t find his costumes or toys. Franklin gets exasperated at not being able to find what he needs as he attempts to do some tidying himself. His parents offer assistance and together they create storage solutions adapted to Franklin’s needs. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing Franklin’s perspective on his organized and tidy room!

When I organized families, younger children would often be intimidated and nervous that a professional organizer was going to overhaul the house, and possibly throw out all of their treasures. I felt that Franklin is Messy was so well written that I took it with me whenever a client had children under eight years old. I would have the kids help me clear a space on the floor and I would sit with them and either read the book to them or have them read the book to me. Often, I would tell the pre-teens to sit with us too — so their younger brothers and sisters would have familiar company.

Usually, as soon as we finished the book, the children would start organizing on their own. Sometimes it was because they wanted to find lost treasures like Franklin and other times it was because they understood that a tidy room meant more time playing with friends.

Franklin is Messy has been translated into over 30 languages and views the benefits of getting organized in a brilliant, well written way that children can relate to in their own lives.

For those who prefer to watch rather than read, the books were adapted for television in the mid-1990s. In this Youtube video, the Franklin is Messy story starts at 11:40.

Book Review: Joshua Becker’s Clutterfree with Kids

Clutterfree with Kids by Joshua Becker is not a book of organizing tips. It does not tell you what type of baskets to buy. It does not tell you how to arrange clothes in your closets. This book helps you evaluate the choices you make and develop new habits to lead a life that is full of meaning and free of clutter.

The book begins by introducing the concept of minimalism and leading a minimalist lifestyle. Many people believe that a minimalistic lifestyle is stark and boring but Mr. Becker explains that “minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.”

Mr. Becker describes the empty promises of advertisements and their attempt to convince us that the more we own the happier we will be. He recounts the journey he and his typical American family have taken towards living a minimalist lifestyle and the challenges they faced.

In the first section, “Change Your Thinking”, Mr. Becker presents an alternate way of thinking about uncluttering and organizing. He explains the impact minimalism can have on contentment, generosity, and honesty in one’s life and also debunks many of the myths of living a minimalist lifestyle. It really is not stark and boring!

The section of the book that focuses on parenting states, “the lifestyle of minimalism requires far more inspiration than instruction.” It describes how parents can best model the minimalistic lifestyle. It also outlines the benefits of family life where possessions are deemed less important than self-development and interpersonal relationships.

Mr. Becker outlines a roadmap to becoming clutter free and explains how to include your children on this journey. He does not stick to hard and fast rules but asks questions that allow the reader to choose the minimalistic path that is right for his/her family.

Clutterfree with Kids will show readers new ways of thinking about, and establishing better habits, regarding children’s toys, clothes, artwork, and collections. There is advice on how to adjust schedules to spend more time participating in developmental activities and reducing the amount of ‘screen time’ – be it computer or television.

Some other practical advice provided in the book includes how to:

  • Become clutterfree with a reluctant family member
  • Deal with gifts and excessive gift-givers
  • Resist the influence of advertisements in our consumer-driven culture
  • Prepare for a new baby
  • Pack for holidays and vacations

Clutterfree with Kids is an enjoyable, refreshing, easy-to-read book. Mr. Becker provides practical advice in a non-judgemental way. He encourages readers to adopt a level of minimalism with which they are comfortable. Whether you are new to minimalism or you are new to parenting, this book can help you move toward a happier and more minimalist life.

2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Gifts for helping kids be organized

Maybe it’s me, but I get as much enjoyment from buying and imagining my kids’ reactions to opening gifts as I get from witnessing the unwrapping itself. As a result, Erin assigned me the task for putting together the shopping guide for kids for this year. I’ve collected a number of gift ideas for kids of various ages and interest, from toddlers to teens. And, each of these gifts has a special organizing slant, of course.

  1. Foldie T-shirts. I am flat-out in love with these. The Foldie “educational” tee is very cute. The shirts feature adorable graphics and they have a secret. Specifically, they teach kids how to fold shirts in a very clever way. Flip it over and bring the sleeves together, and the image on the back becomes a whole new picture. Fold it again, bringing the bottom to the top, and a third image is created. It’s utterly delightful. I tried one out with my own kids and, not only did they love it, the lesson generalized to non-Foldie shirts. Perfect.
  2. The Swoop Bag. The fantastic swoop bag serves three purposes. First, it’s a play surface. When fully opened, this sturdy bag makes a great area for playing with LEGO bricks, wooden blocks, and so on. Second, it’s fantastic for storage. When playtime’s over, just zip! It’s closed. Use the built-in straps to close or hang it up. Finally, it’s super for transportation. My son has a mind-bending number of Skylanders figures which he brings to his buddy’s house. The Swoop Bag is a great way to transport them.
  3. Rainbow Loom. It’s a clever little device that lets kids make all sorts of bracelets with elastics. My kids sure love it, and that means I find tiny rubber bands all over the place. Keep them tidy with a multi-compartment container. It also helps kids more easily transport their “loom gear” to their friends’ houses.
  4. A can of chalkboard paint. Stay with me here. Last Christmas, we gave a pint of chalkboard paint to the kids, whose initial reaction was hesitant. A year later, they absolutely love it. My son is always changing the “art” on his wall, while my daughter has taken to using her wall as a calendar. She’ll note down what’s happening on a given day, like “ballet” or “play practice.” She draws goofy faces, too, but that’s the fun. Slap some on the wall, hand them a box of fresh, colorful chalk, and let them go wild without any paper mess cluttering up their spaces.
  5. Activity bags are great for older kids. Val Jacobs makes super dance bags, from multi-pocketed duffels to hanging solutions that can accommodate costumes, makeup, and more. CCM makes a very nice hockey bag that’s suitable for other sports, too. (While we’re on the subject, here’s how to keep odor out of sports equipment bags.)
  6. The chalkboard laptop. Seriously, how adorable is this? This handmade, wooden “laptop” features a chalkboard screen and keyboard, plus a slot for chalk where the trackpad is on mom and dad’s laptop. The whole thing folds up for easily for travel and storage, just like its computer counterpart.
  7. The crayon bandolier is adorable and handy. First of all, it’s super cute. And, secondly, it keeps crayons ready to go and not all over the table or floor.
  8. The Doodle Tablecloth. Since you’ve got the crayons out, break out the Doodle Tablecloth to complete the set. This lined tablecloth is machine washable and ships with a pack of eight washable markers. If you’re not willing to subject your entire tablecloth to Jr.’s artistic endeavors, consider the Doodle placemat set.

Want more gift-giving ideas? Explore Unclutterer’s full 2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.

Easing out of daylight saving time

As a child, I had an eccentric uncle who collected clocks. Every room had at least five or six, all ticking away. As you could imagine, the end of daylight saving time was an adventure. Uncle Mike would start adjusting their time one week in advance. Each day he’d change a handful of clocks, and leave the rest for the following day. It drove my poor aunt crazy. “For one week each year,” she’d say, “I have no idea what time it is.”

If you’re in the U.S., don’t let the change from daylight saving time (DST) this weekend stress you out (even if you collect clocks). With some careful preparation, you can get through it relatively unscathed.

Most people dislike the change to their sleeping habits that comes with the return to standard time. According to WebMD, it’s best to ease into it. Nicholas Rummo, MD, director of the Center for Sleep at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., recommends going to sleep a little bit earlier each night leading up to the changeover. For example, going to sleep 10 minutes earlier each night for six nights will help quite a bit.

This is especially helpful for the kids, who often struggle with the change. In fact, this is the same thing my wife and I do as we make the transition from summer vacation to the school year. It works pretty well.

WebMD also suggests exposing yourself to sunlight as early as you can. Have breakfast near a window or even walk outdoors for a bit, if you can. This will help reset your internal clock.

Back to the kids. The time change can be difficult for school-age children, and downright miserable for toddlers (and their parents). One thing you can do to ease the pain for everyone is stick to an established routine. Dr. Jodi Mindell, author of Sleeping Through the Night, believes this is the way to go. “You want to stick by the clock and stick to the bedtime rules,” she said. “Another piece that is key is wake them up at their normal times–don’t let them sleep later to ‘make up’ for lost sleep from the night before.”

But really, the best advice I can give here is be prepared. The kids are going to get less sleep then they’re used to, so try to be patient and prepared.

Besides sleeping changes, what else is there to do? First of all, confirm that your clocks — both electronic and analog — make the change. Some will do so automatically, like your cable box, computer, smartphone or tablet. Others will need a little help. I always forget about the clock in the car (as well as how to change it). Our microwave oven also spends a few days displaying the wrong time.

Also, this is a good time to make sure your home’s smoke detectors are working and replace batteries in your flashlights. The end of DST also marks the start of hurricane season here in New England, so I make a review of our storm food and related supplies each October/early November.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say, “Happy Halloween!”

Keeping your head above water when you’re exhausted and/or going through a major life change

As a parent with an infant at home, I haven’t been getting much sleep. Oddly, though, I’m incredibly happy to be exhausted. Even when she’s screaming at 2:00 in the morning for a bottle and a diaper change, I’m smiling. We waited so long for her and having her in our family is an incredible blessing.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the exhaustion is taking its toll, however. I wrote an email to my mom, never hit send, and then wondered for a few days why she didn’t respond — all the while the drafted email was just sitting on my computer’s desktop, staring me in the face. Clean laundry is hanging out on the bed in our guest room, waiting to be put away. And, those of us in the house with teeth, well, we have eaten more pizza for dinner in the last month than we had in the previous six months combined.

Thankfully, I know this exhaustion will pass as our daughter gets older. She’ll start sleeping through the night and I’ll stop trying to open the front door of the house with the car key. In the meantime, there are steps I’ve been taking to keep things from spinning out of control that I thought might be able to help other new parents as well as anyone going through a major life event or bout of exhaustion.

Embrace chaos in the minor priorities

I have an infant, a four year old, a full-time job, and numerous other responsibilities to care for right now, and very little energy. The energy I have is going toward the things that must be done, and pretty much zero energy is being spent on other things. I’ve resigned from a committee I was serving on that I enjoyed but that my participation isn’t essential to the success of the committee. I haven’t made my bed in the last month except for the two times I’ve changed the sheets. My pile of filing and scanning is three inches high. When my energy levels return, I’ll resume taking care of the minor priorities in my life. Until then, oh well …

If you are unclear as to which priorities in your life are major and which are minor, take a few minutes to list them. What deserves your attention right now? What doesn’t? Be honest with yourself and remember you’re only human and you lack super powers.

Hire, accept, and ask for help

My mother-in-law stayed with us the first week after our daughter was born. A cleaning crew has come to the house twice to clean the toilets and floors and to dust. Next week, I’ll be hiring the neighbor boys to rake the leaves in the yard and do the last mowing of the season. I can’t do it all and I’m not about to let pride or having things done my way get in the way of my family’s sanity.

Also, it’s a good idea to remind yourself that people cannot read your mind. If you need help, you have to ask for it. If someone offers to bring your family dinner, you have to respond to the person who made the offer that you think this is a great idea and then provide them a date, time, and information about any food allergies. Now is not the time to be polite for the sake of being polite and decline the offer if you actually would like the help. If you are overwhelmed by a project at work and everything else going on at home, you need to tell your coworkers/boss that you are overwhelmed and ask for help to rectify the situation. Don’t just wish for someone to help you, ask for help if you need it.

Simplify tasks

I have an inbox for each of my children that is collecting stuff I want to keep or remember for later, but don’t have the time to process right this moment. For my daughter, I’ve been writing important milestones on notecards and tossing the notecards in the box to eventually be recorded in her baby book. “Rolled over unassisted first time 10/16″ is on one of the cards, for example. Yes, I could just write the information into the baby book now, but getting out and putting the book away each time I want to record something isn’t going to happen. Writing on a note card is more my speed. It’s all about the bare minimum right now.

On the television show Holmes on Homes, host Mike Holmes often points out that other people’s work has been done to “minimum code.” He means the contractor or plumber or whomever only did the work the law required, and nothing else. This phrase has made its way into our family’s regular dialog when we want to refer to doing something as easily as possible, and nothing more. Minimum code is now how we make lunch and dinner — a protein and a vegetable. Minimum code is how we take care of the car — put gas in it when the tank is low. Minimum code is how we maintain the house — put stuff away after using it, but let a cleaning crew take care of the rest. Be realistic about what you will do and simplify tasks to minimal code.

Hit pause

Now is not the time to become commissioner of the softball league or volunteer to spearhead the silent auction for the annual PTA fundraiser. It’s also not a good time to make a major life decision. Get through this period of exhaustion and then start adding new things to your life and contemplating your next move. This wave is temporary and you just need to ride it out.

Obviously, the advice doesn’t stop here. Please feel welcome to share valuable lessons you have learned from being ridiculously exhausted in the post’s comment section. I’m certainly looking for even more ways to reduce stress and streamline processes right now and I know there are many readers out there who could benefit as well.

Avoiding Halloween candy clutter

Halloween used to create clutter in my home; I’d be afraid of running out of candy, so I’d overbuy. Then, because I bought good stuff, I’d be tempted to eat way too much of the leftovers.

I also knew I was creating candy clutter for others. It’s been a long time since I went trick-or-treating, but I know I always came home with more candy than I needed, and more than my parents wanted for themselves.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, I’ve got some suggestions: three for getting rid of excess candy, and one for helping to minimize the excess candy glut in the first place.

Donate candy to poll workers (and voters)

When I became self-employed, I lost the easy “take the leftover candy to work” option. But then I noticed there are often elections being held very shortly after Halloween, so I started taking my leftover candy to my polling place — and everyone was delighted to get it. The enjoyment of good candy is a non-partisan issue!

Donate candy to U.S. troops deployed outside the U.S.

If you’re up to shipping off your candy, you could send it to groups such as Operation Shoebox or Operation Gratitude. Some dentists in your area might be participating in Operation Gratitude’s Halloween Candy Buy Back program. In the Washington, D.C. area, there’s MoverMoms’ Treats-4-Troops program.

Donate candy in other ways

In San Francisco, At The Crosroads can use your candy. On Dallasnews.com, I found some more good ideas. Annabel Lugo Hoffman says she donates her leftover candy to her local fire department. Claudia Moore says her church collects leftover candy and “donates it inside Thanksgiving meal baskets that are given to families in need.”

Give books instead of candy

I discovered Books for Treats a few years ago, and I’ve been giving away books ever since. Some of them came from my own bookshelves; as much as I love children’s books, I had some I no longer felt any need to keep. Others I got at a used bookstore where I had a huge store credit from prior uncluttering efforts.

My Halloween book “treats” range from board books to chapter books, so I have something for kids of all ages. Yes, the kids were a bit taken aback when I first offered them their choice of books instead of candy bars. But then they got into it, and I heard things like “Awesome!”

Another advantage: I don’t need to worry about giving children a treat they may not be able to eat, depending on any allergies or dietary restrictions they may have.

My neighborhood doesn’t get many children trick-or-treating any more, so when the evening is done, I just put the remaining books away for the next year, making sure to store them where they won’t get damaged, just as I would pack away holiday decorations. If my book selection for any age group gets low, I note that so I can replenish it before the next Halloween.

Creative organization with chalkboard paint

Chalkboard paint is magical. I bought a gallon for the kids last Christmas. You should have seen their little eyes light up when they unwrapped it.

“Um, dad?”

“Yeah.”

“This is house paint.”

“Yep.”

“So…”

“We’re going to paint some walls with it.”

“…”

Today, they love it. We covered one wall in my son’s room and another outside his room. They draw pictures on it, leave notes, play games, and more. I mean, it’s permission to write on the wall. What kid wouldn’t love that?

My wife and I soon discovered that it’s good for more than entertainment. I framed an 8″x11″ rectangle I painted in the kitchen to make a quick-and-easy family communication area. After that I started to poke around the Internet to find even more ideas. The following are a few of the best ones I encountered:

  1. Label jars. Yes, a lot of people are using chalkboard paint for labels. And why not? It makes for a durable, re-usable identifier. I love these food canisters at Babble. Those are quite inexpensive and a bit of paint lets you easily find what you’re after.
  2. Identify spices. This one is just brilliant. It seems that, no matter how you store your spices, it’s never easy to find the jar you’re after. This clever person painted each lid with chalkboard paint and then wrote the name of each jar’s contents. I love it.
  3. Chore Chart. Maybe I’ll consider this for Camp Caolo 2014. The folks at Sweet Pickins have posted a full how-to for the great, door-length chore chart that they made and topped off with, you guessed it, chalkboard paint.
  4. DIY Clock. This is a nifty idea from Home Made Simple. A piece of plywood, a simple clock mechanism and some chalkboard paint make for an adorable addition to a child’s bedroom wall.
  5. Martha Stewart goes all out, of course, with this wall-sized, multi-tone calendar. It takes some effort (and a large wall) but the result is infinitely great looking and infinitely re-usable. No unitasker here!
  6. These chalkboard wine glasses are cute, too. No more drinking someone else’s merlot.
  7. Chalkboard “placemats” offer irresistible permission to write on the table for the little ones, as well as built-in place cards for larger family events.

Finally, here’s a great tip. You’ll be tempted to write on your new surface as soon as it’s dry, but hold off. It’s possible for your initial scribbles to get “burned” into the paint. That is to say, leave a faint shadow of itself even after repeated erasing. To prevent that, HGTV explains, coat the fresh surface – all of it – with a thin layer of chalk. Erase that, and you’re good to go!

Ask Unclutterer: Teaching children organizing skills

Reader Ines asked the following question in the comments’ section of a post:

I would love love love for you share your thoughts about time management, organization, etc. for young kids. I have struggled with toy clean up for years.

One example, despite modeling over a hundred times how we put away a board game (count the pieces, make sure they are in the right spot, put game back on shelf in closet) before moving on to next item. If I am not there to micro manage, it just doesn’t get done.

Ines, you ask a very good question. It is a question we have been struggling with in our home, as we are trying to teach our son — who recently turned four — how to care for his things. Each child is certainly different, and no single method will work for each kid, but that doesn’t mean children can’t learn how to take care of their possessions. The following are some things we do in our house to get toys back in place:

  • Have fewer toys. Our house is not overflowing with toys, and our son does not seem to notice. Like most children, he has an active imagination, and his knights can do battle on the couch or bookshelf as easily as in a castle. He isn’t deprived by any standard, but in comparison to most of his friends, he doesn’t have a great deal. The fewer toys he has, the fewer that can mess up the house.
  • Regular pruning. He has fewer toys than most of his friends because we regularly get rid of toys. Once a quarter we go through his things with him and we all decide what can stay and what can go. Hard toys (not stuffed animals) and books are easy to donate to charity or pass down to a friend or younger relative. Small doodads he got as party favors go straight to the trash. On the same day, we go through the rest of the house and find items to donate so our son can see he’s not the only one expected to clear clutter.
  • Request experience gifts. If someone asks us what to get our son for his birthday or at the holidays, we usually request experiences (movie passes, museum and/or zoo memberships, etc.) or practical goods (clothes, shoes, school supplies). People still give him toys, but his grandparents often give experiences now.
  • Use small containers for small items. My son has a Playmobil police officer set that came with miniature handcuffs and flashlights and such. The pieces are all less than an inch in size. I made the mistake of putting them in a basket with the motorcycles and police cars and … this was awful. He would dump out the entire container onto the floor to look for the itty bitty flashlight. Now he has pillbox containers for his small items and those pillboxes live inside bigger bins. It’s easy to spot and doesn’t require dumping out the whole box to get to it. We also do this with game pieces — we have small storage containers with compartments for pieces so they aren’t just sitting in the box. If you use these, make sure they’re clear so kids can see inside them without having to open the container.
  • Label everything and have a place for everything. My son is just learning to read, so all of his toy storage has pictures on it and words describing what is to be stored there. We label bins as well as the location in the room where the bin is stored. We attach the labels using velcro so we can move them around to different containers/shelves. You can laminate the labels at Kinkos to make them sturdy. Older children probably don’t need images with the words and you can get by with just a standard label maker printout.
  • Instruct and guide. Modeling behavior is very important, but not all children are learners through observation. In addition to modeling, instruct them on how to put things away, ask them questions at each step of the process, and guide them through the behavior. Be clear from the beginning that you are instructing them: “Now we are going to put away the game and return it to the shelf properly. What is the first step to putting away the game?” These lessons may take weeks or months, depending on the age of the child (obviously, more time is required for younger children). Once they can reliably complete the actions and answer all questions correctly, then you know they are able to do the task on their own. If they don’t complete the task after this lesson, you should repeat the lesson the next time the opportunity arises. Don’t assume your child knows what “clean up your room” or “put away your toys” means to you.
  • Remember they’re kids. A reader shared this gem with me — Children are perfectly capable of doing organizing activities, but they’re not yet necessarily capable of doing those activities perfectly. The hope is that by the time they graduate from high school they will do things perfectly … until then, you instruct and guide them so that each day is a little better. My standards for my four year old are much lower than the standards I have for myself. I still expect him to pick up his toys after he plays with them, but I don’t expect him to do it exactly as I do it.
  • Leave time for cleanup. The hardest part of teaching organizing skills — at least for me — is to pad time into the schedule for cleaning up. If we need to be out the door at 10:00 for swim lessons, at 9:45 all playing must stop and the activity has to be put away. That means as a parent, I have to be ready to leave by 9:45. I can’t supervise and instruct my child while I’m running around the house doing other things. We also have 10 minutes before bath time each night where we walk around the house and pick up errant items and review the family chore chart (more on that below).
  • Heavily rely on clocks and/or the Time Timer. First, we have clocks all over the house, which helps with time management. Second, we also regularly use a Time Timer to give our son an idea of how long things take. I’ll set the Time Timer and say, “all the toys have to be put away before the timer sounds in 15 minutes,” and then we work on cleaning up for 15 minutes together. We also use it when there will be a limited time for playing before heading out of the house and for music practice. I love that thing.
  • Get rid of external distractions while cleaning up. When cleaning up with your child, attentions should be on cleaning up. Turn off the tv, iPad, etc. and focus on returning the room to its preferred state. The only exception to this might be to play a “clean up playlist.” I don’t love Barney, but his “Clean Up Song” is pretty catchy and effective with younger kids. Older kids might benefit from music with a fast beat to help motivate them to move around. I recommend using the exact same playlist for six months or more to reinforce that when they hear the song they know it’s time to clean up.
  • Don’t yell or nag, instead participate. Yelling at your children has been found to be as harmful as hitting a child and nagging creates resentment for you and your kids. Instead, work together when motivations are low. My son won’t yet clean his room unless I’m sitting on his bed talking to him while he does it. He can do it, he just doesn’t want to do it. He’s like many adults who prefer to have accountability partners when they clean and organize. I can’t begrudge him this since I like having company when I’m cleaning.
  • Have clear expectations written or charted for your child. We have a chore chart that outlines what everyone in the house is responsible for each day (dirty clothes in hamper, clearing dishes after meals, taking out trash, putting away toys/activities after using them, etc.). Before bedtime, we review the chart together and discuss what was done and what wasn’t. We don’t have consequences for undone chores, we just usually go with him to do the chore if it wasn’t completed or we let it go and make sure it gets done as part of the next day’s chores.
  • Create incentives. Incentives don’t work for everyone, but our son is currently motivated by them. For example, if he practices his violin every day for 30 minutes for a month, he gets a reward — it might be a trip to the zoo or a toy or a pizza party with his best mate. He decides the reward at the beginning of the month and dad and I discuss it before agreeing to it. We then print out a picture of the reward and hang it next to his practice checklist.

Looking back over this advice, I think a theme is to be involved until your kids have shown they can consistently complete the tasks independently. Until that time, you either have to be involved to instruct and guide or accept that chores won’t get done the way you want them to. A second theme is to work as a team in your home, not as individuals taking up the same living space. But, if all goes well, our children will leave home with the skills to take responsibility for their things.

Thank you, Ines, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments for even more advice from our readers.

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