Unclutterer’s 2014 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Gifts for kids

Each year Erin is kind enough to let me write the gift guide for kids. I have such a good time, and often have to whittle my ideas down to the best selections. That’s what I’ve done again this year. In the following post you’ll find great suggestions for little and big kids.

Younger tykes

The POWER A Skylanders SWAP Force Tackle Box. Skylanders is a game for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo Wii, and Nintendo 3DS that encourages kids to buy a vast collection of figurines, which become playable characters. Even a small collection can be unwieldily, and if you think stepping on a LEGO brick is bad, try putting your bare foot down on Drobot. This storage box holds up to 20 figures, is stackable, has a lit that latches shut and is transparent. Plus, Jr. can use it to carry his minions to a friend’s house. (It also works with Disney Infinity characters, if your kid is into that one.)

The LEGO Swoop Bag. I mentioned this last year, and I’ve brought it back for 2014 because LEGOS just won’t go away. Between the LEGO Movie, Star Wars tie-ins that are bolstered by a new TV series, those ever-present bricks will be popular again this season. The Swoop Bag holds a huge collection of LEGOs and spreads out during play time, and easily scoops and stores the lot when play is finished. A few other fun ways to keep LEGOS organized:

  1. The LEGO Storage Head offers a fun way to keep LEGOS organized, and gifts should be fun, right? I’d recommend this for smaller collections.
  2. The LEGO ZipBin 1000 Brick Storage Box and Playmat. I love it because it stores 1,000 bricks, comes with a playmat, and features a brick remover! This all-important tool will keep you from using your teeth to separate stubborn bricks. That thing is like gold, so keep it safe.
  3. The Brick Rack Wall Display for LEGO minifigs. As kids get older, they may want to display their favorite LEGOS. This interesting system mounts to the wall and lets kids slide minifigs in and out. The best part is they aren’t in there permanently, so if they want to take a few down to play with them, they can.

Melissa and Doug Trunki Terrance Rolling Kids Luggage. This beautiful little suit case is perfect for the younger child who travels — or doesn’t! For travelers, it’s carry-on sized and features wheels plus handles and a shoulder strap. At home, it’s a cute and sturdy (holds up to 75 lbs) storage container that you won’t mind looking at. It’s available in several colors and patterns, so you can find one that works for you.

The Hot Wheels Basic Car 50-Pack. Perhaps it’s my nostalgia talking, but Hot Wheels are awesome. This set contains 50 vehicles, each individually wrapped, with no duplicates. Plus, it all ships in a cute cardboard storage box. It’s a great way to create an instant Hot Wheels collection or add on to an existing one AND keep them stored nicely when not in use.

Older kids/teens

Gear Pockets. These wall-hanging units feature mesh pockets and straps for storing all sorts of items: sports equipment, hunting supplies, helmets, boots and more. Put one in the garage or your teenager’s room and they’ll have at-a-glance access to their most important gear.

Multi-Device Charging Station. This great-looking bamboo charging station can accommodate three phones/music players of various makes, an iPad, and a laptop computer. There are hidden hook-ups for everything, keeping them charged in a tidy, nice-looking package.

Finally, this one’s a little abstract, but I’d recommend an Evernote Premium subscription for any college students on your list. I’ve sung Evernote’s praises several times on Unclutterer. It really is my external brain. College is a time to run around like a chicken minus its academic head, and Evernote will help students keep everything they need together and accessible.

If you’re like me, you find time spent shopping for kids almost as much fun as watching them open their gifts. I hope there were a few items here that are prefect for the young ones on your list. Have a great holiday season, everybody!

Feel welcome to explore our past Guides for even more ideas: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Digital organizing and productivity tools

I’ve been working with a few tech tools lately to improve my organization and productivity. Some are proving themselves to be quite useful, while I’m on the fence with others. Here’s a look at what I’m using lately, both the good and the could-be-good.

Photo management

I’m still years into my search for the perfect digital photo management solution. Today we can take 400 photos as easily as breathing, but the technology for organizing it all has not kept up. My search for the current something that meets my needs has led to Dropbox’s Carousel. When matched with a Dropbox account, the Carousel app automatically uploads your photos to your storage. It’s pretty nice and, in my experience, the uploads are fast. I have the app installed on my phone and on my wife’s phone, so all of the photos we take end up in the same account — no more remembering to text or email photos to each other.

Picturelife is another solution I’m working with. It does auto-upload, too, and offers some unique tools. For one, I love the “Memories” feature. Each morning, I get an email prompting me to review photos I’ve taken on this day from years ago (you can opt out of this if you’re not interested). I find it is a lot of fun to peruse those memories. In fact, Picturelife makes it very easy to find old photos, which is no easy task when you have a contemporary digital library.

Productivity

Bartender is a great little Mac utility that keeps my computer’s menu bar very well organized. The Apple menu bar displays icons that allow quick access to certain applications and utilities. The problem is, I’ve got a lot of those apps installed, and the menu bar becomes a cluttered mess. Bartender lets me display those I use most often, and hide the rest. It’s a great way to keep things tidy and accessible.

Google’s new invite-only email application for iOS and Android devices is named Inbox and it is … interesting. I’ve been using it for about a week and I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my existing email software. It has some interesting features, like a “pin” that keeps certain messages at the top of your box, and defer options that I’m growing to like. I can tell the app to put a message in front of me on another day or time, when I suspect I’ll have more time or energy to deal with it. The app’s looks aren’t the most straight-forward, and so far that’s the biggest struggle for me. But, it’s still early in its life cycle, so that could change.

Kids

My daughter has been blessed with the same sieve-like brain her father enjoys. Now that she’s in junior high, the casual forgetfulness that she’s gotten away with is becoming increasingly detrimental. So, I’m trying to introduce her to a couple of strategies.

One is a good old notebook. I’m a huge fan, as regular readers know, and I’ve given her one of my beloved Field Notes Brand notebooks and pen to carry around. She’s using it all right, but I wonder if the novelty will wear off. The more you love a tool, the more likely you’ll use it. With that in mind, I turned her to an iPad mini and an app for it.

Remember The Milk is a no-frills, straight-forward task manager that’s compatible with just about every platform you can conceive. I know that she loves that iPad and is highly motivated to play with it, so an app may be her long-lasting solution. A habit takes time to build, and attractive tools will make that more likely.

Are you using any interesting organizing and/or productivity tools lately? Have a suggestion for any of the above categories? Let us know in the comments.

Updating the kids’ school stuff landing area

Back in 2012, I described the “landing area” that my wife and I had created for our kids’ school stuff. After two years of use, experience pointed out aspects of our area that weren’t working well for us. We’ve since re-designed the whole space and the result is more efficient. Sometimes you need a year-long, hands-on trial to work out the kinks.

Making changes

In 2012, I wrote, “My wife and I have identified a small cabinet just inside the back door to our house … Now, the kids enter and just as they’re tempted to shed their backpacks, hats, gloves and coats like molting snakes, they see the table right in their path.”

First change, the cabinet has been replaced. It was bulky and took up a good chuck of the space in our house’s very small entrance. Plus, papers and such were getting shoved into the back of the cabinet where we wouldn’t find them for days. Today, we’re using a broad, flat (and inexpensive) table from IKEA. As you can see in the image below, we’ve used duct tape to mark off three sections: one per child. They know to put their important papers, assignment materials and anything that needs to come out of the backpack onto the table and in their “slot.”

Speaking of backpacks, in 2012 I wrote: “We bought a small, child-sized coat tree from a discount department store to hold two backpacks. It works great and, since the backpacks are all that the tree holds, it handles their bulk easily.”

The coat tree did not survive the year. Heavy bags toppled it over several times, and it was wobbly and unstable before the school year ended. Today, I’ve put sturdy, steel hooks into the wall. I picked these up at the hardware store for next to nothing. We’ve got them lined up vertically, so the tallest kid puts her back on the top hook, and the shortest on the bottom. Plus, since the kids are encouraged to empty the contents of their backpacks onto the table each day, their backpacks are a lot lighter than they were last year.

Three more wall hooks hold sweatshirts and jackets.

Also gone are the “inbox and outboxes” for home/school communication. These eventually got filled with pens and then pencils and then packs of gum and then, well, you get the idea. Today, the table serves that purpose.

Some things stay the same

We haven’t changed everything. I’m sad to report that we’re still assembling lunches and snacks early in the morning (I wish we could get in the habit of doing it the night before). And now, irrespective of when the lunches are made, I place them on the table in the kids’ “slots” with the understanding that the kids will grab them and place them in their bags themselves. Finally, the “library book basket” is still in place. It’s there to hold school library books and school library books only! I’m sure the school is as tired of sending me threatening library letters as I am receiving them.

We’ve also encouraged the kids to use the setup, just as we did last year. That amounted to literally standing them in the room, explaining the components of the landing area, and what they’re expected to do with their stuff in this space. I’m sure they’ll forget every now and again, but, hey, they’re kids, and that is to be expected.

Now that we’re a few weeks into the school year, I’m curious: how do you manage the kids’ landing area? Any improvements over previous years?

Part 2: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

Wake the kids and tell them to grab their backpacks: it’s time to go back to school. This can be a stressful time for kids and parents, but a little preparation goes a long way. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series, I’ll highlight some ways technology can ease the transition from summer.

Go social

When I was in school, we huddled around the radio on snowy mornings, eager for a closing announcement. Today, many school districts share this information via the web and social media. Get yourself in the loop this school year and visit your district’s website to find the following information:

  • Your school’s and/or district’s Twitter feed
  • Any associated Facebook accounts
  • Classroom-specific websites
  • Classroom Blackboard accounts and mobile applications
  • Teacher blogs

Of course, some schools will embrace social technology more completely than others. Colleges and universities seem to be the most aggressive, but even elementary schools are using the technologies available to them. If your school/district/child’s teacher is using websites, be sure to bookmark the sites and/or add them to an RSS feed so you can easily access the information for future reference.

Subscribe to a school calendar

Most schools publish a calendar for parents and students to review, and many offer the opportunity to subscribe electronically for immediate updates. The Salt Lake City School District is a great example of a digital calendar, with instructions for subscribing to it with Apple’s Calendar, Google Calendar, and Outlook and Yahoo Calendar. Once you’re subscribed, you needn’t depend on the monthly printed calendars you likely have hanging on the refrigerator.

Make custom notifications

I’ve written about IFTTT before on Unclutterer, and the start of the school year is another time to use this program. IFTT is an online service that lets you create actions, or recipes, to accomplish tasks for you, including custom notifications.

For example, let’s say your district or teacher always uses adds a certain hashtag when composing tweets related to your child’s school or class. You could create a recipe that sends you a text message or an email whenever such a tweet is published. Or, you can have all of those tweets pushed to a Google document for a daily review.

On the other side of the desk, IFTTT is a terrific resource for teachers and schools. Communications with students and parents can easily be automated.

Here’s hoping you have a successful school year. There’s more to do to get ready, of course, but these technology tips are a good place to start.


Part 1 of the series

Part 1: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

Based on where you live, your kids may have already headed back to the classroom or they’re preparing to go in September. If you’re a student, you might be in the same boat. This transition period doesn’t have to be a stressful time. Households that have established routines are extremely beneficial for children and parents. Being prepared will bring peace of mind and make everyone’s transition from summer days to school days easier.

Start the school routine a week early

Practicing the routine in advance is especially important for children who are just starting school or who will be starting a new school. By doing a few trial runs before the school year actually starts, you’ll be able to determine if there are any problems with the new routine before the first day.

Plot the route

If your children are starting a new school, walk or bike with them on their route. Point out areas where there is heavy traffic and where drivers may have difficulty seeing pedestrians. Indicate safe havens where children can find assistance or a telephone if needed (e.g. convenience stores, public offices, houses of worship). Map out an alternate route home in case of emergency. If your child takes public transit or a school bus, create a plan in case the buses are late or if your child misses his/her stop.

Unplug and preset

Turning off the TVs and computers at least an hour before bedtime will allow you and/or your kids to get organized for the next morning. Make lunches (if you didn’t make them when preparing dinner) and gather school supplies together. You can even set plates, cups, and silverware on the table for breakfast.

Create a drop zone

Hang backpacks on hooks near the door so kids will know exactly where to find their stuff and where to put it when they get home. Make an inbox where they can put all the paperwork for you to fill out and sign. You can create one inbox for all the children but one box per child may work better, especially if the children attend different schools.

Prepare for the paperwork

Every year the school requires information such as health card numbers, vaccination schedules, emergency contact numbers, etc. If you know where all this information is, you’ll be able to fill out all those forms quickly and easily. Once filled out, make a copy of the paperwork for yourself. It will be easier to find the information for next year.

Create an in-home supply closet and pharmacy

Stocking up on supplies will save you from running across town to the 24-hour (expensive) pharmacy. While the sales are still going on at retailers, gather pencils, markers, notebook paper, and other supplies you and/or your children will need this entire school year (that is, if you have the space to store these items in an uncluttered way) Also, don’t forget items such as bandages, cold medication, and even lice shampoo that may be needed during the first weeks back.

Create a homework zone

While older children may benefit from doing homework in their bedrooms at a desk or in the home office, younger children who need parental support to do their homework in the kitchen or dining room while their parents are preparing dinner. Wherever the homework zone is located, make it easy to use and easy to put away supplies.

Make a “fingertip file”

Use a binder with sheet protectors to contain important information such as the school phone numbers, a list of phone numbers of friends of your children, the list of parents who carpool, menus from the local take-out restaurants, etc. You’ll be able to find what you need this school year exactly when you need it.

Get your money and tickets ready

 
Purchase transit tickets and taxi vouchers in advance, if necessary. Fill a jar or bowl with coins and small bills so you won’t be scrounging for lunch money at the last minute.

Schedule everyone’s activities on a calendar

Enter all of the school holidays and pedagogical days on the calendar as soon as the information is received from the school so that you can arrange for daycare or other activities as soon as possible. In Part 2 of our back-to-school series we’ll go into more detail about creating a digital calendar and in Part 3 we’ll explore using a paper calendar with younger children.

A place for everything and everything in its place, well, for the most part

At Unclutterer, we usually support the organizing standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” However, there are occasions when adhering to this motto is inefficient and might best be put on hold.

For example, most of the year our family eats meals in the dining room. During the financial year-end though, the dining room table turns into a horizontal filing cabinet for a couple of days while I prepare our income tax returns. During these few days, our family eats in the kitchen or in the living room on TV trays while the paperwork stays out on the table. This is a minor inconvenience for our family compared to the time-consuming task of packing up all of the paper work and re-filing it into the filing cabinet everyday. All of this paperwork does have a long-term place, but for this period of time it has a short-term place on the dining table.

You may decide there are other times when the standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place” should be temporarily ignored or when a short-term home should be established for specific items.

From time-to-time, your children may take on projects with their toys that are too much fun to go away after just a single play session. If your child is building a space station with blocks, confine the construction to a certain area of the room and let the building continue for a few days. A doll’s excessive wardrobe and shoe collection could be out for a few days and then sent to the “dry cleaners” (cardboard box) that can be easily moved so that housekeeping can be done. If you notice the projects haven’t been worked on in awhile, that is a good indication that the toys are ready to be returned to their permanent homes.

Rather than trying to obtain one those picture perfect houses from the magazines, think about how to manage your projects efficiently. When is it a good idea for you to ignore the “a place for everything and everything in its place” motto?

Family calendars

When we had young children, it was important for us to have a large calendar on the wall so that everyone could see and prepare for upcoming engagements. It was a good teaching tool for the kids. They learned the days of the week and they learned to count down days until a big event.

We had the calendar posted on the wall in our dining room. This allowed us to see the upcoming day during breakfast, and at dinner we would discuss upcoming events plan for the following days. We used Command picture strips to mount the calendar on the wall. We also had a decorative wall-hanging the same size as the calendar. Whenever we had adult guests for dinner, the calendar came down and the decorative wall hanging went up.

We used a 60-day perpetual calendar. Everyone could see two months. When one month was done, we could add the next month so we would not miss things as one month rolled over to the next. It also allowed us to do longer-term planning.

Before the children could read, I used the computer to print various clip-art drawings for things like dentist and doctor appointments and holidays. I printed the clip-art drawings on removable stickers.

We assigned each person in the family a different colour for his or her events. We decided that because our last name is Brown, we would use a brown marker for events involving the whole family. Using the computer, we printed each person’s repeating events on removable coloured stickers in their assigned colours to save time writing each event over and over.

I included many things on my calendar that fellow Unclutterer, Jeri Dansky, suggests including community events, school events, and when to water and fertilize the houseplants. I also write garbage and recycle collection days on my calendar as well as household hazardous waste and electronics collection events.

As the children grew older, they were encouraged to write their events on the calendar themselves. They learned about budgeting time as well as coordinating with other family members.

I used a paper-based purse-sized planner that mirrored the wall calendar. On Sunday evenings, I would ensure that I had transferred the upcoming weeks events from my planner to the family wall calendar and visa versa. I used the printed removable stickers to quickly and easily put repeating events in my paper planner.

As technology improved and the children got older, our family moved to a shared, online calendar. Because we have Mac computers and iPhones, we decided to use the Mac Calendar app through iCloud. We subscribe to each other’s calendars and have given each other permission to add events to our calendars. Google Calendar is a good alternative. (Mashable has an article on how to set up Google Calendar for your family if you wish to learn more.)

There are several benefits of using an online calendar. Repeating events are easy to add. Any family member can add events to the calendar of other family members anywhere at any time. For example, if one of the children has an appointment and I am not able to take the child, I can add the appointment to my husband’s calendar so he knows he will be busy at that time.

Additional information can be added to an event. If you have a meeting scheduled, you can add the contact information of the person you’re supposed to meet, the address of the meeting venue and a list of documents required for the meeting. Events can have alerts and alarms to remind people where they need to be and when. This is important for teenagers whose eyes never seem to leave their phones.

Using a calendar to which the whole family has access is important in keeping everyone organized and on track. It doesn’t matter if it is a paper-based or electronic system, simply choose what works best for your family.

Collections: If you’re going to have one, organize and protect it

About two years ago, I got into board games in a serious way. This hobby creates hours of fun and huge storage needs for me. I recently wrote about keeping board games stored and organized, and today I’ll take a look at doing the same with collectible game cards. Like other hobbies and collections, if you’re going to pursue them, it can be a good idea to keep associated items organized and protected for ease of use, less mess, and longevity of the items. Similar principles apply to storing many items, so although this article is about collectible cards it is meant to inspire ideas about storing whatever it is you have decided to collect. Whether you’re into wax Mold-o-Rama figures like Erin or something else entirely, hopefully there are some insights here you can apply to your collections.

A little background for those of you not into card games: there are a huge number of collectible card games in production. Game enthusiast website Board Game Geek lists 47 pages of game titles. Many cards are of a standard playing-card size, but you can find examples that are larger and smaller than a deck you use to play poker. For the sake of this article, I’ll focus on the most common size.

There are three categories of cards: those you actively play with (like you would in a game of Bridge), those you don’t play with but are willing to trade (collectible card games often include trading), and valuable cards that are kept locked away (I’ll explain more about these below).

The Cards You Use

Deck Box

I keep the cards I’m actively using in a single box. If the cards won’t fit in the box, I don’t bring them into the house (following the concept: a place for everything and everything in its place). My current game of choice is Magic: The Gathering. It requires players to build a custom deck to play against their opponents. After testing several brands and types, I like the Ultra Pro Satin Tower (pictured above). It holds up to 100 sleeves of cards (more on sleeves in a minute) and has an additional, snap-off compartment for holding dice, counters or other accouterment that the game requires. With the lid removed, your cards are easily accessible and it looks great. Plus, the lid fits snugly enough that you don’t have to worry about it accidentally opening up and making a mess.

Sleeves

Putting your cards into sleeves is divisive. Casual players spend little on cards and just want the fun of competition and spending time with friends. But with resale value in mind, I’m somewhat more than a casual player. I definitely play the cards I buy, and I want them to look nice for as long as possible. To protect them, I put them in sleeves. The best sleeves I’ve found are from Demkar’s Dragon Shield.

Willing to Trade

Binders

A big part of collectible card games is trading with friends. Binders are a great way to show off your collection and let a friend browse through it easily. This could apply to a number of hobbies and collections where sharing it with others is part of the fun of collecting. For cards specifically, there are several manufacturers out there, but I suggest you pick up one from Ultra Pro or Monster.

The Ultra Pro sleeves can accommodate two cards (though I suggest putting one card per pocket) and it carries up to 360 sleeved cards in total. Additional pages can be purchased for about $0.20 each, and the piece of elastic that surrounds the cover ensures that your cards won’t fall out during storage or transport.

Monster makes a smaller binder that has four pockets per sheet instead of nine. They’re much more portable and have a nice-looking matte finish cover (the Ultra Pro’s is shiny). The build quality is a bit better, and they’re more expensive. Whichever you use, remember that the sheets are not acid-free, so you want to first place your cards into acid-free sleeves, like the Dragon Shields.

Whatever you’re collecting, try your best to store it in a way that doesn’t damage your collection.

Investment Cards

I realize it might seem silly to some to keep a playing card tucked away as an investment. I tend to play with the cards I buy. However, I also realize that there’s a real market for some of these items and that many people treat them as an investment. And, there are other types of collections beyond cards where people do buy items hoping to make money on their sale.

The best advice I can give here comes from Mao Zedong: “The best defense is a good offense.” Meaning, take precautionary steps to protect your darlings. I recommend double-sleeving these cards, putting them into a lock-seal bag that’s as free of air as possible, and then placing that into a fireproof safe. Excessive? Yes. But, if you’ve got cards (or whatever it is you’re hoping to sell for profit) that are worth a significant amount of money, you’ve got good reason to protect them.

The good news is that, with a little thought, you can enjoy your card games and keep them looking great for years to come. If decorative plates are your thing, don’t pile them up in a stack at the bottom of a closet where they can be broken — display them on your wall with secure plate hangers to organize, protect, and display them. If signed baseballs are what you collect, get a UV-protected glass display chest and show them off. Organize, protect, and share your collection so it’s obvious you value it and don’t think of it as clutter. If you want it in your life, take care of it.

Tips for easy road tripping with the kids

Spring break is taking place this week and my family and I are spending it on the road. By the time you read this, we will have already traveled from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. It’s a drive I’ve done many times over the past 20 years. And, since our oldest is 11 years old, we’ve been taking kids along for the trip for more than a decade. All this driving has taught me a thing or two about getting organized for road trips. The following are lessons I’ve learned on how to manage lengthy road trips with the kids.

I sound like my dad here, but make sure the car is ready to go before you leave. I like to make sure the oil has recently been changed, the wipers are in good condition, and so on. I keep a working set of jumper cables in the back of the car, plus a first aid kit, some blankets, a pocket knife, and a flashlight. I’ve meant to get one of these emergency car kits for a while now, but I keep putting it off. It’s a good investment and I ought to do it.

The next step is packing and gassing up, which I always do the night before we leave. As for packing, there are types of cargo and each has its location in the car.

Luggage

This is the stuff we don’t need during the journey but will need at our destination — clothes, toiletries, stuffed animals, night lights. These items go in what we used to call “the way back,” but what you likely call the bottom of the trunk.

Entertainment

A few years ago we borrowed a portable DVD player for the kids. Now, iPads fill this role for entertaining them. A fully charged iPad will keep the kids occupied for quite a while. Our rule for electronics in the car: the journey must be more than three hours to warrant iPad use. A jaunt to the grocery store does not count. Headphones are also required.

Books, drawing paper, pencils, and portable toys are also packed in the back seat. All of this stuff goes into a sturdy Tupperware bin that fits between the kids’ seats. This way, the kids can retrieve/replace what they want on their own. If you don’t want to use a bin, an over-the-seat organizer might work for your needs. We also keep small pillows within reach of the kids, should they want to take a nap.

Snacks and more

Road food is often expensive (for what it is) and almost never healthy. My wife always packs some healthier snacks and keeps that in a small cooler up front with us. She can dispense snacks and drinks as needed.

And, don’t forget a bin for trash.

A few more quick tips: Magazine holders fit beautifully between mini van seats and hold books so that they’re easy to see. If your kids are older, let them pack and be responsible for their own activity bag. People who travel regularly with kids might benefit from creating a travel go-bag, like Jacki wrote about yesterday. At the very least, keep a list of things to pack in the backseat with the kids so you don’t forget anything and also so you can note afterward what items were a hit and which ones should be left at home next time. Baby wipes and paper towels are a great idea, as somebody is likely going to spill something or need to clean their hands. Finally, if your kids are younger like mine, decide on assigned seating ahead of time. No switching. No upgrading. No changing.

Happy trails!

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!