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!

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.

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.

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!”

Charting summer vacation follow-up

Last June, my wife and I decided to save more money and more deeply invest in time we spend with the kids. The result was “Camp Caolo,” our summer-long stay-cation complete with chores, summer rules, goals, a wish list, and more. Now that the summer is over and the kids are about to return to school, I’m taking a look back on what worked, what didn’t, and what we will change next year.

  1. Weekly chores. I’d be lying if I said this went off without a hitch. The kids did their chores, most of the time. Often with protest. But hey, I’m not thrilled about doing my own chores.
  2. The summer rules. “Be nice to everyone or be alone in your room.” “Respect others, their sleep and their stuff.” “No fun until chores are done.” Again, these rules were hit and miss. Following through on number one a few times drove home the notion that we’d do just that: follow through on it. Rule number two was pretty easy to get compliance on, mostly because they slept like logs all summer. Finally, my wife and I did cave on rule number three a few times. Not habitually, but it did happen.
  3. The summer wish list. This was great fun. At the beginning of the summer, we all took sticky notes and wrote down a few things we’d like to do, like visit Boston, establish a family game night, camp out in the back yard, have a movie night, swim in the lake, take a fishing trip, go mini golfing, etc. Really everyone in the family loved moving a “to do” activity to the “We did it!” column. The kids got into figuring out when we might complete a certain activity, and we added a few on the fly. We didn’t get to everything, but now we have goals for long weekends this autumn.
  4. The boredom jar. This was another huge hit. My wife printed many wonderful answers to “What can I do?” onto thin strips of paper, glued them onto tongue depressors, and stuck them into a jar. When the kids asked that inevitable question, we pointed them to the jar. Eventually they’d wander over to it on their own. They ended up making several fun projects and spent lots of time in the yard just being kids. We’re going to keep the jar in play for as long as it’s effective. If you have kids, I recommend making one.

Finally, we bought journals for the kids to update as summer went by with notes and mementos from our activities. This fell by the wayside rather quickly. There was so much other stuff to do that we would forget about it for weeks at a time, and then the thought of getting “caught up” was enough for us to abandon the idea entirely.

Next year we’ll make a few changes. No journals and a little more leeway on chores. They are helpful kids and they do pitch in. So, if there’s an occasional pile-up of flip-flops on the kitchen floor – as there is as I write this – that’s not a big deal as long as it isn’t constant.

I want to say we’ll be less ambitious with proposed activities, but I’m not sure. We missed out on a few and really good ones and that’s disappointing, but not for lack of effort. Plus, we can carry them over to the school year, even though there’s a lot less time to get them done.

The days are getting cooler, the tourists are going home and the summer vacation chart is coming down off of the wall. Next stop is school, scouts, ballet, and so on. Summer 2013 was a good run. Here’s to a safe, fun, and productive autumn for all.

Help your child fly solo with organized planning

Just last weekend, I put my daughter, 10, on an airplane in Boston which was bound for Philadelphia. Neither her mother nor I traveled with her. My heart went with her, however, as the butterflies in my stomach had forced it out of my chest.

What kept me from succumbing to my nerves entirely was thorough preparation. There wasn’t a lot to do, but attending to every detail ahead of time helped ensure a successful experience for my daughter and for me. Here’s how I prepped my 10-year-old to fly as an unaccompanied minor for the first time.

  1. Give the traveler a thorough briefing. This goes without saying, but don’t over look it. Talk about what will happen, yes, but don’t stop once you’re at the airport. Allow the child to be an active participant. Go over the boarding pass and explain the gate, departure time, boarding procedure, etc. Point out members of the crew and what their uniforms looks like. Greet the gate agents. Have her listen to announcements. In other words, help her be a traveler, not a child taking orders from mom or dad. This training can be done each time you fly with your children, even before they go on their own.
  2. Try not to freak out. I cannot overstate this enough. If you’re calm, there is a great chance your child will be calm, too.
  3. Pre-pay for on-board Wi-Fi. If your child will be traveling with a connected device (iPod, phone, iPad, etc.) you can probably pre-pay for on-board Wi-Fi online. Visit the airline’s website for information on this. It saves your child the hassle of trying to do it (my Grace would not have figured it out), and a flight attendant will gladly get her up and running. I wrote my account’s username and password on an index card that my daughter could show an attendant, who gladly got her connected.
  4. Decide well in advance if she will check baggage. Based on your child’s physical size, checked baggage may be beneficial. Walking to and from gates, even when accompanied by an airline representative or parent, can be a challenge with a lot of stuff. A simple, manageable backpack should be all your child has to worry about inside the terminals. The person meeting your child at the destination can help her retrieve her luggage.
  5. Provide DIY entertainment for the flight. Depending on the age of your traveler, the plane’s entertainment system might be difficult to operate. I prepared a small bag full of her favorite things, like those insufferable teeny-bopper magazines and a couple episodes of her favorite TV shows on the iPad mini.
  6. Snacks. Forget the overpriced, unhealthy airport food. I placed a few of her favorite, most portable choices into that same carry-on bag. Skip drinks, though.
  7. Book flights that depart early in the day. Morning flights statistically are less likely to be cancelled or delayed.
  8. Easily identify medical concerns. Pin a print-out of any medical/dietary concerns on your child’s shirt if the child is younger or have instructions in his/her carry-on bag. Point both out the gate agent.
  9. Give your kid a few bucks. Chances are she won’t need it, but I felt better giving Grace a five before leaving her.
  10. Grab some great apps. Grace has a few favorite games, but I also put FlightTrack Pro on her iPad. It lets her track her flight’s progress in real time and has one-tap, pre-written text messages like “I’ve taken off” and “I’ve arrived,” which make communication easy for everyone involved. Some airlines even have baggage tracking apps and/or websites so you can be sure your child’s bags are on the same flight.
  11. Confirm your airline’s policies for unaccompanied minors. My daughter flew on US Airways, which required me to call ahead of time and confirm specific information about the adult dropping her off as well as the adult picking her up. Also, confirm that the gate agent is aware of this information. Plan some extra time into your day as you will not be allowed to leave the gate area until Jr’s plane is physically in the air. If there’s a taxi delay on the runway, you’ll be delayed, too, even though you’re not the one flying.

Our careful preparation helped our daughter’s unaccompanied flights go off without a hitch and the planning was a big part of that. Lastly, let me tell you this: nothing feels better than that phone call from the destination that says, “Safe and sound.”

And for the record, I still had a little trouble with not freaking out.

Charting summer vacation success

As of 2:00 p.m. this past Tuesday, my kids are out of school for the summer. Their elation is quite infectious, I must admit. Now the question comes: What will we do?

In previous years we’ve sent them to camp. The enjoy it immensely and we’re happy to be able to provide that for them. We’ve also done extra dance lessons, taken part in the local recreation department programs and more. But, this summer we’re doing things differently. This year, we’re going to “Camp Caolo.”

Our motivations are twofold. The first is financial. Camp is expensive. So much so that we don’t want to pay for it this year. But our main motivation is time.

My son is eight years old and my daughter is 10. It won’t be long before they don’t want to spend their summers with old mom and dad. Friends, both casual and romantic, will be on our doorstep soon enough. Until then, we want to be totally selfish. We want time with our kids. If this is going to be successful, we’ve got to answer one major question consistently and satisfactorily: “What is there to do?”

Enter the Chart.

The Camp Caolo Chart consists of six sections:

  1. Weekly chores. Yes, chores. I know this is supposed to be fun but everyone has to help out. You’ll notice my wife and I have assignments on there, too.
  2. Daily chores. My son’s list includes feeding the dog, clearing the dishes from the table, and picking up his stuff. My daughter must walk the dog, clear her dishes, and do some reading.
  3. The summer rules. These are pretty basic. “Be nice to everyone or be alone in your room.” “Respect others, their sleep and their stuff.” They love to wake up at 6:00 a.m. and then attempt to have a conversation with my unconscious body. Not fun. “No fun until chores are done.” My wife is not kidding about that one.
  4. A calendar of events.
  5. The Summer Wish List. We all took sticky notes and wrote down a few things we’d like to do, like visit Boston, establish a family game night, camp out in the back yard, have a movie night, swim in the lake, take a fishing tip, go mini golfing. More can be added at any time by anyone.
  6. We did it! As we complete the fun activities, the sticky note is moved to the “We Did It!” section. At the end of the summer, we’ll have a nice record of all the awesome things we’ve done.

That’s pretty cool, but there’s more. My favorite thing is The Boredom Jar. My clever wife has printed many wonderful answers to “What can I do?” onto thin strips of paper.

These will be glued onto tongue depressors and stuck inside a mason jar (there are 40 options in total). Now, when we’re asked “What can I do?” we can invite the kids to pull a stick from The Boredom Jar.

Finally, we took the kids to a craft store last week and let them select a journal/scrapbook. They’ll be adding photos, souvenirs, writings, drawings, etc. to them as our summer progresses.

This is going to be fun and I’m looking forward to it. Adding items to the wish list is great and gives all of us goals for the summer. Plus, The Boredom Jar should be a real boost to the kids’ fun and our sanity. Here’s to a successful Camp Caolo.

What to do with your kids’ art

What do you do with all the artwork your kids bring home from school? What happens with all the drawings, paintings and macaroni collages they also make — lovingly — for you at home? They’re so cute, but refrigerator doors can only hold so much!

My wife and I implement a simple process of editing, displaying and swapping that serves us well. It does take a little honesty and “tough love,” but it works out quite well.

Step One: Edit

In essence, these pieces of art tell a story. You can watch Jr.’s skills evolve, and notice what he notices in his daily life. This story, like any other, needs editing. Now that the year draws to a close, it’s a good time to sit down with the stack and identify the keepers and the rest. What does a keeper look like?

  1. A first. For example, we saved my daughter’s first attempt at drawing people who weren’t stick figures. I’m wearing an actual shirt! Other firsts might include a new home, new puppy in the family and so on.
  2. A beautiful piece of art. Every now and then they’ll knock your socks off with something that looks downright good. Those examples definitely go in the keep pile.
  3. Holiday Theme. As I’ll explain later, it’s nice to grab something to represent Christmas, Thanksgiving, summer or whatever you celebrate. Only one, though.
  4. Something Meaningful. Maybe you’ve got something that was made on a special trip, on a memorable occasion, or for a reason that has great significance to you and your family. Just be careful not to let your emotions get the best of you here or you may go overboard.

Step Two: Display

Now that you’ve identified the cream of the crop and eliminated a lot of clutter potential, it’s time to give the winners the respect and prominence they deserve. Here are a few ideas.

  1. Frame them. You can find inexpensive matted frames in various sizes at photo supply stores, craft stores and even the supermarket. They hang on the wall and really make that art look special. We’ve found that you can store three or four paintings or drawings in the frame behind the piece being displayed. So, we’ve got four frames that actually store 16 pieces of art. As the seasons (or our whims) change, we simply take the frame off the wall and rotate which piece is in front.
  2. Make a digital photo book. Shutterfly and Apple’s iPhoto will let you create beautiful hard-bound books of photos. You can snap photos of your children’s art and in a few steps have a beautiful coffee table book of their work. This is especially useful for items that might break like pottery or tree ornaments. These are also great to share with grandma, grandpa and other loved ones who don’t get to see your childrens’ art in person. Finally, here’s how to get great photos of objects at home on the cheap.
  3. Create a home gallery. This can be a lot of fun and gets the kids involved in the editing process. Pick one area of the house, perhaps a single wall, to be the art gallery. Avoid Jr.’s bedroom because you want this to be visible to all visitors. Have her select the pieces to be displayed. I love this idea of putting a frame around an office clip mounted to the wall. How easy to swap pieces in and out. When the gallery gets full, take a photo, then pull that “exhibit” down and begin replacing it with the next one.
  4. Re-use. That painting needn’t be a painting forever! You can turn it into a greeting card or laminate larger pieces and use them as place mats.

Step Three: Swap

When swapping out some pieces, consider sending them to far-flung family and friends. Chances are they’ll love having them.

More Ideas

Another option is Kids Art for the Cure. This organization takes donated artwork and puts them on greeting cards. Proceeds go to recognized cancer research organizations.

Or, consider Child’s Own Studio. This company builds actual stuffed dolls based on your child’s drawings.

What do you do or have you done with children’s artwork? Share your success stories in the comments.

What to do with old toys

The winter holidays are coming and, for those who celebrate and have kids, it typically means the acquisition of new toys. It’s great for the kids but becomes problematic when the new bounty is piled upon last year’s. And the year before that. Before long, you’ve got clutter on your hands. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to reduce the mess, keep things tidy, and, best of all, keep the kids happy about it. If you’re looking to part with used toys, the following are several ideas for what you can do with older, outgrown or otherwise unused toys.

Donate

It’s always nice to donate a toy to someone who could use it and there are plenty of options. Here are a few that should be available in many communities for very lightly used toys:

  1. Toy drives. To find a toy drive in your area, contact a local church or chamber of commerce. Organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts also organize drives, so seek them out in your neighborhood.
  2. S.A.F.E. Stuffed Animals for Emergencies. This organization delivers donated stuffed animals, toys, books and blankets to hospitals, children’s services, homeless shelters and hospitals across the country. You can find a chapter in your area here.
  3. Goodwill. Goodwill works to foster employment training opportunities for those it serves. The vast majority of funds brought in through its stores serves that purpose.
  4. Local fire department. Firefighters and EMTs often keep stuffed animals around to give to children they must transport to the hospital. Call the department in your area to see if they have such a program.

Repurpose Old Toys

Repurposing is where it gets fun. You and your child can let your creativity run wild and think of fun and useful ways to repurpose old toys. It can soften the blow that comes with giving something away. Often children can have an emotional bond to a toy they haven’t touched in years. Tricks like these allow them to keep that toy around (or a part of it at least).

Repurposing helps kids (and parents) realize that making something can be more fun than buying. It fosters a real sense of ownership and accomplishment. Finally, you’re keeping a hunk of plastic out of the landfill in many cases. Here are some great ideas for re-purposing old toys.

Website Apartment Therapy has gathered 10 fantastic projects for old toys from around the web. My favorites include:

  1. Plastic toy as planter. This fantastic tutorial shows you how to turn a plastic dinosaur into a cute planter.
  2. Wooden block wall hangings. My wife and I bought so many wooden blocks for my children. At 7 and 9 years old, they’ve lost interest. This quick how-to from snug.studio shows how to turn them into wall hangings for book bags, hats, jackets and more. Very clever.
  3. Animal head toy coat rack. A very clever and useful project from Make: Craft uses the heads of discarded plastic animals to make a good-looking coat rack.
  4. Tree ornaments. When I was very young, my mother cut the plastic animals that hung from the mobile above my crib and turned them into Christmas tree ornaments. They’re still among my favorites (wooden peg puzzle pieces also make great ornaments).

I know that kids aren’t thrilled about receiving clothes as gifts, but it happens. Even I have a T-shirt collection that drives my wife a little crazy. Last year, she had several made into the quilt pictured below that has graced my bed ever since.

Honor the Memory

We often fail to part with things not because of the item itself, but with the memory or emotion it represents. This is especially true as kids grow up. One way to honor the memory without incurring clutter is with a shadow box like these from Lawrence Frames. Add an item or two and discard the rest. The memory is intact, and the clutter isn’t.

I also love this wall decoration made from small, unused toys. What a nice way to let Jr. keep some of the items he loves without letting them form a space-hogging pile.

Sell

You won’t be able to sell all of your old toys, of course. But some vintage toys and collectibles can attract buyers. Before you list your little treasures online, you’ll need to take some photos. A good photo can make or break a sale. Here’s a fantastic tutorial on how to photograph your items for the likes of ebay. And, Thomas train sets are very popular this time of year for sale on Craigslist.

There’s a lot that can be done with old toys. If you can, have your kids take part in the process you choose. They’ll feel a part of the decision and enjoy seeing the toy’s new role.

2012 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Gifts for children

Kids excel at many things, including the acquisition of stuff. From books to LEGO bricks, and dolls to video games, it all piles up and leads to the inevitable question: Where should they put this? There’s a larger question at work here, too: do they need all this stuff? Listed below are a few gift ideas to help children answer both questions. And don’t worry, they’ll enjoy opening these gifts, too.

  1. A notebook. My nine-year-old is a real “Forgetful Flower” (she takes after her father). So I’ve gotten her to adopt a habit of mine: writing things down in a notebook. Filednotes Brand sells this super-cute “Summer Camp” 3-pack of brightly-colored notebooks that comes with a three matching pencils and an oversized rubber band that make a great stocking stuffer. My daughter uses hers to write down classroom assignments.
  2. Labels from Mabel’s Labels. These super-cute labels clearly display your child’s name, come in many sizes, colors and themes (dinosaur, nature, etc.) and stick to just about anything. We’ve placed them on clothes sent to camp, inside baseball hats and other sports equipment, lunch boxes and more. They also make dog-tag style bag tags (older kids won’t be embarrassed to use them) perfect for hockey equipment, laundry, etc. We’ve even put the clothing labels through several washings and they’ve remained intact.
  3. The IRIS LEGO 6-Case Workstation and Storage Unit is awesome. Shallow, color-coded drawers make it easy to find the pieces you want. The top of the unit itself is a LEGO surface, so it doubles as a play area. LEGO bricks seem to reproduce on their own that his unit keeps their population under control.
  4. Wall-mounted sports storage racks. I love these great-looking racks for storing/displaying snowboards, wakeboards, surfboards, skateboards and skis. Teenagers will like them because their gear looks cool presented like this. You’ll like them because it gets that stuff up off the floor.
  5. Nintendo DS game organizer. These game cartridges are so tiny and they love to disappear. This organizer holds 12 cartridges and offers easy access. There are similar storage devices for all handheld gaming systems. Include a new game with the organizer, and it will make most any kid happy.
  6. Lap desks. In dark and bright models, a lap desk can be incredibly useful gift for a kid who likes to do homework on the couch or in a comfy chair. My kids covered theirs with strips of Duck Tape in crazy patterns for a custom look.

Younger children who aren’t yet into skateboarding, gaming systems, or homework might enjoy books that have underlying themes on uncluttering and organizing:

  1. Room Enough for Daisy by Debbie Waldman. Little Daisy has so many toys, she wishes for a larger bedroom to accommodate them all. Eventually, her mom convinces her to donate some items to a rummage sale. Cindy Revell’s illustrations are really cute.
  2. Too Many Toys by David Shannon. David’s books are fantastic, starting with the hilariously relatable “No, David!” Too Many Toys has a similar theme to Room Enough for Daisy, in that David is required to thin his massive collection of toys. It’s a fun story that my kids think is funny and I find quite charming.
  3. Mr. Messy, part of the Mr./Mrs. series by Roger Hargreaves, is an untidy fellow until he meets Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy.
  4. More by I. C. Springman is about a hoarding magpie whose friends teach him the value of “enough.” Again, the illustrations are great and the minimal text great for new readers.

I’ve got one last tip to share. My wife and I have two kids. To make things easy on Christmas morning, we wrap gifts strategically. Presents to Child A from mom and dad are wrapped in Paper A. Those to Kid B are in Paper B. Finally, gifts from Santa are magically in a third paper. This way, we avoid the “Who is this from?” question as well as “Is this mine?” It works very well for us.

The full 2012 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.

Create a landing area for your kid’s school stuff

A new school year has begun here in the US and that means parents will be chasing the kids down for forgotten homework, crumpled permission slips and library books that were due weeks ago. Not to mention the trail of shoes, hats, jackets and backpacks, which, in my house at least, lead to the refrigerator. Save yourself some frustration — and teach the kids responsibility at the same time — by creating a “landing area” for all their stuff.

When I was young, my sisters and I were often late for school because we spent too much time in the morning running around like headless chickens who can’t find their Trapper Keepers. Such drama is easily avoided with a little planning and practice. It begins with picking the right spot for a landing area in your home.

Pick The Perfect Spot

Your kid’s landing area won’t be effective if it isn’t in the right spot. Finding that spot isn’t as easy as it sounds. The key is to identify an area of your home that’s in the arrival traffic pattern, preferably the very beginning. It’s tempting to consider a beautiful desk or cubby that’s far from the door. (Or even Jr.’s bedroom.) But, if Jr. is anything like my kids, he’ll either create a path between the door and his room, or lose his stuff somewhere in between.

My wife and I have identified a small cabinet just inside the back door to our house (no one uses the front door unless they’re selling something). 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.

Set It Up

When setting it all up, consider what you’ve got to capture. The list will likely change as the seasons do, so keep that in mind. If you live in an area that experiences the highs and lows of the four seasons, leave room for bulky winter clothing. Here’s the list of items we’ve accommodated for, and where each one goes.

  1. Backpacks. The young student’s staple. 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.
  2. Clothing. We went Shaker-style here and I put two rows of wooden pegs on the wall, one above the other. There’s plenty of room for hats, coats, gloves and scarves.
  3. An “inbox” for school-to-home communication. This one is a biggie. If my 9-year-old were a super hero, her power would be losing papers, permission slips and notes in a single bound. A simple plastic in-tray from an office supply store fits the bill here. Now when she and her brother arrive home, they move papers, etc. from their backpacks to the inbox (more on encouraging this behavior later).
  4. An “outbox” for home-to-school communication. As you know, some forms must be returned to school. Place them in “Out,” and have Jr. check it at night before going to bed.
  5. A snack/lunch bag area. I’d love to say that I make lunches and snacks the night before and keep them in the ’fridge, but that’s called lying. After hastily putting these items together at 7:00 AM, I plop them in the bag area on the table. The kids then toss them into their backpacks.
  6. Library books. After receiving a few threatening letters from school librarians last year, I’ve designated a spot for library books. The rule is, if you see one there, place it in your backpack.

Encourage Use

A landing area is all well and good only if it gets used. You can help that happen with a little behavior motivation. Prior to my career as a professional geek, I worked as a special needs teacher. We used the Applied Behavior Analysis model of instruction, and today I use some of the same techniques in my parenting. In this case, a contract system will work wonders. Here’s how to set it up.

Explain the landing area to the kids and let them see it. Tell them how it works and why you’re going to use it. Then, set up the contract. For example, I have a simple dry erase board that onto which I’ve drawn two rows of five squares. For every day that the kids put away their stuff and empty their backpacks before descending upon the house, they get a star in a block. If there are five stars at the end of the week, they receive a small treat.

Note: it’s important to pair praise and affection with the treat. That way, you can eventually stop using the contract and reward (that is the goal, after all) as your hugs and appreciation will be enough to maintain the behavior.

That’s it! Good luck setting up your landing area. Understand that it won’t work perfectly every day, or even every week, but keep at it and save yourself and your kids some frustration. You’ll probably be very glad you did.