Organize a staycation

A regular weekend or an extended one can be a great time to have a staycation — a vacation where you enjoy the sights and activities that are found in and around your hometown. If this sounds like something you’d like to try, the following post describes how to organize for a great staycation and includes several ideas to get you started.

Make a list of what not to do on your staycation

First and foremost, you’ll want to make your staycation feel like a vacation as much as possible. While it’s true that a staycation isn’t the same as a zero-responsibility stay in a remote hotel, it can be a restorative and enjoyable time. To that end, you’ll want to limit your typical day-to-day responsibilities as much as possible, including:

  1. TV
  2. Time spent staring at phones
  3. Laundry
  4. Worrying about this and that
  5. Cooking
  6. Excessive cleaning

Create a list or a set of rules as to what you won’t do on your staycation to help you better define what you will be doing. Having this reminder will be exceptionally important if you will have other people participating in the staycation.

Plan activities

Since you’ll be staying at home, you might be tempted to think you can pull off a nice staycation without planning. “We live here, I know what’s around.” But time spent planning what you’ll do, how much money you’ll need, acquiring tickets, etc. will pay off in the long run and help you to feel more like you’re on a real vacation.

If you have kids and they’re old enough to have opinions, get them in on the planning discussion. If the ideas are really flowing, write them on strips of paper and stick them in a jar. Then draw one (or more) to determine what you’ll do each day. Create a staycation calendar to hang up or distribute, so everyone will know the plan.

Plan meals

It’s a staycation after all, so make necessary reservations and go out to dinner. If going out isn’t your style, gather menus from favorite spots or places that deliver. If you’re not interested in eating out, prepare freezer meals ahead of time that can be prepared with minimum effort and mess during your staycation.

Take care of small details

In the days leading up to your staycation, make sure laundry is caught up, outstanding school projects are done, and the house is tidy, so you can enjoy your staycation without those burdens. Be sure to mark these on the calendar so you actually get these things done ahead of time.

Staycation ideas

One activity my 11 year old came up with is an ice cream tour. Each day, we’ll drive to a new spot, try out what they’ve got and take photos as well as our reviews of what we try. Not the most healthful staycation idea, but definitely one everyone in our family would enjoy.

What is your area known for? So often we don’t do the fun, “touristy” things in our own back yards. For example, I lived on Cape Cod, Massachusetts for 21 years before taking a seal tour. I’d wager there are fun, tourist destinations to see or do in your hometown that you’ve never tried.

Visit a National Park (or two). National Parks are educational and set up to entertain all sorts of visitors. For additional fun, get a National Parks Passport that you can fill with stamps during your visit.

Find a minor league sporting event to attend. These are often less expensive than their major league counterparts and in smaller venues, so you can get closer to the action. I love minor league baseball, for example, and have had a great time seeing the Pawtucket Red Sox play.

Create an outdoor family film festival. Let everyone pick a favorite movie, set up a simple outdoor theatre, and settle in for fun.

Lastly, I’ll suggest looking for a local festival. These are typically a short drive away, inexpensive, and a lot of fun. In my neighborhood, we look forward to the Cranberry Festival, Oyster Festival and Scallop Festival. They’re always a good time.

Most importantly, just try to enjoy your time with the other people participating in your staycation. It’s a great opportunity to connect and bond. Relax, laugh, and do something a little different.

Organizing video games

I really enjoy video games. My favorite one is, “Where am I going to put all this bulky junk?” Wait, that’s real life and it’s far from being a fun game. Along with playing video games comes games boxes, consoles, controllers and more cables than you’d ever want to see spread like locust around the TV, the entertainment center, and the house at large. If you’re a gamer, the following advice may help you to tame the swarm and organize your video games and accessories.

Game boxes

Games sold on physical media (that is to say, not games downloaded from a digital app store) typically come in decorative plastic boxes. They’re stackable, uniform in size, and clearly labeled with the game’s title. Still, finding the one game you want can be a hassle. Here’s what we do at home to keep things straight.

  1. Put all game discs in their proper boxes. It’s so easy to grab a disc and pop it into the nearest box, saying, “Eh, I’ll put it in the right box later.” In my experience, “later” never comes. Take the extra few seconds to store the game properly. Make sure you eject any disc in your console/computer before you begin this task.
  2. Spread out all of the boxes on a large table or even the floor.
  3. Sort alphabetically. Put all games starting with “A” in one pile, “B” in another and so on. And then again within each pile, “Marvel Nemesis” precedes “Medal of Honor.”
  4. Find a home for the alphabetized lot. In our house, we line them up on a shelf like books, but you might find it easier to put them in a box or drawer based on your space.

Those with a lot of games may want to sort by category. For example, after step two above, sort games by type: shooter, racing, educational, etc. Then do the ABC sort. Next, make labels for wherever you store the boxes so you can jump right to the category you’re searching and so it’s easier to put the discs away after use.

Game controllers and accessories

This is most likely where things get messy in your home, at least it’s that way in mine. Controllers are bulky and vary quite a bit. Some have wires, some don’t. Many have replaceable batteries, others don’t. Certain models must be charged regularly and/or require protective cases.

Storage

Video games are often played by kids, so a kid-friendly shelf is a good way to go if this is the situation in your home. An easily accessible shelf puts devices within reach and also out of the way. (A basic, no-frills option on Amazon, if you’re interested.) I also like wall-mounted models, as they’re one less thing on the floor and can hide cords more successfully than a shelf.

There are personalized game controller tubs on Etsy, which are cool, and look great while keeping unwieldy controllers in one place. Additionally, Instructables has a tutorial for wall-hanging your controllers, which is well done.

Charging

As nice as these solutions are, they don’t account for devices that need to be charged. A hidden drawer is a great way to go, as you can charge up the devices without having to look at them in the meantime. You may need to drill a hole in the back of the drawer for cables, if there isn’t enough space to run the cables currently. A converted storage box is another great-looking and effective option.

Game consoles

Xboxes, Playstations, Wiis, and other gaming towers are usually bulky and are stored on a shelf of the media center. There aren’t many options when it comes to disguising them while keeping them useful, however, there are some things you can do to keep them from being an eye sore.

First, keep them clean. A game console is just a powerful computer, and as such they give off a lot of heat. Make sure they’re stored so that all vents are unblocked. Additionally, dust them periodically as a build-up will hinder heat dispersion.

Keep cords in the rear separate. Twist-ties work very well here, and labeled ties are even better for keeping your cables organized.

Try to keep them clear of areas with heavy foot traffic or bounding pets. Gaming systems really don’t like to be suddenly flung onto the floor.

Really, the best thing to do is to get all of the gamers in your house into the habit of cleaning up after saving the universe, offing a zombie, or rescuing the princess. It only takes a minute and is a lot more fun than playing “Now Where Did I Put That?”

Storing a casual comic book collection

My 10-year-old has taken to comic books in a big way. I never had more than a passing interest as a kid, but my son is a fan. What was once a very small collection of a few issues on his dresser has become a full-on collection that needs organizing attention.

One note before I get too heavily into this topic: my son’s comic book collection bears no resemblance to the investment libraries that many older collectors have amassed over a longer period of time. For those folks, specialty materials and practices are required. In this article, I’m talking about a casual collection that’s maintained for fun. I’m not talking about a super rare Batman comic that’s worth a pile of dough. In my case, these are low-cost comic books that a kid wants to read and show off to friends. A few steps will keep them enjoyable for years to come.

Bags and boards

Even for casual collections, I recommend keeping your comics in protective bags. These thin, plastic coverings will keep books safe from spills, dirt, and grimy “kid hands.” The three most common materials for bags are mylar, polyethylene, and polypropylene. For my uses, polyethylene bags are fine. Reserve mylar bags for your more costly comics ($30+).

Boards slip into a bag with the comics themselves and help prevent bending and corner wear. Just like with the bags, there are several types of boards. For a casual collection, I’d recommend .24 millimeter basic boards. They’re inexpensive and will do the job. Again, if the comic is more valuable, use a better grade of cardboard.

Boxes for storage

Find some good, acid-free storage boxes and be careful about where you store them. A damp basement is a bad idea for storing cardboard. If you can find a storage spot that’s a moderate temperature with low humidity, you’ll be good. Also, make sure the box does not rest directly on the floor. Put it on a shelf, but not a high one. And don’t forget to mark the exterior of the box to list what’s inside.

Organizing systems

How the comics are organized inside the box is up to the user, but instilling a system will definitely save its user time retrieving and returning comics to the storage box. A trip to a few comic book stores might provide ideas for how to organize the issues. Could easily organize by publisher and then subdivide by series and issue number. If the collection is small, could organize by year or series only. And, in addition to bags and boxes, you can also buy dividers and label them to make the organizing system obvious.

Favorites

If you or your kid likes to haul a handful of favorite comics around to enjoy or share with friends, you might wish to invest in a comic notebook. The harder cover helps to protect the comics inside of it. This is also a great option for people who only have a few comics and wish to store them on a bookshelf.

Children and age-appropriate chores

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t give me any household chores. My mother, who handled most of the household activities, hoped I would see her doing housework and offer to help. Being a fairly normal child, I was oblivious and never offered.

As an adult, I look back and think assigning chores to me would have been a much better strategy. I would have learned more about maintaining a home, and my mother would have had some help in keeping the house organized. Everyone would have been better served.

But what chores are appropriate for what ages? I’m not a parent myself, so I went looking for resources to help answer that question. I found some lists in a brochure I bought years ago entitled Ages and Stages of Getting Children Organized (available in PDF format) by organizer Marcia Ramsland. The following is part of what Ramsland recommends (with ages added when needed to make comparisons easier):

Toddler, ages 1-3

  • Pick up toys in a small area (floor, shelf, table) and put them away
  • Put books on shelves, clothes in hamper

Preschool/kindergarten (3-5 years)

  • Make bed daily with help
  • Carry belongings to and from car
  • Help set table and clear dishes

Primary grades (1-3rd grades, which would be 6-8 years)

  • Make bed before breakfast/school
  • Put away own things (backpack, lunch box, coat)
  • Empty dishwasher

Upper grades (4-5th grades, which would be 9-10 years)

  • Put clean laundry away
  • Keep room neat

Middle school

  • Be more self-reliant with homework, activities, carpool rides
  • Clean bathroom, closet, and drawers
  • Vacuum and dust

Organizer Geralin Thomas included the following suggestions (and more) in her book Decluttering Your Home: Tips, Techniques & Trade Secrets:

3 to 5 year olds:

  • Sort laundry by color
  • Pick up dirty clothes from around the house
  • Carry newspapers/old schoolwork/magazines to the recycling bin

5 to 8 year olds:

  • Make the bed
  • Help with folding laundry by matching socks

8 to 11 year olds:

  • Clear the table after meals
  • Load the dishwasher
  • Put dishes away
  • Wheel the trash bin to the curb
  • Do a load of laundry

Jessica Lahey, who wrote The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, suggests that younger children can often do more than we might expect. The following are some of the items on her lists:

Toddlers:

  • Put their dirty clothes in a basket or hamper
  • Fold simple items of clothing or linens such as pillowcases or washcloths
  • Put their clothes away in drawers
  • Throw trash and recycling away in the proper place
  • Put toys away in tubs and baskets when they are done playing with them

Kids between ages 3 and 5:

  • Make their bed
  • Straighten their room
  • Sort and categorize items, such as utensils in a drawer or socks in the laundry
  • Clear their place at the table

Between the ages of 6 and 11:

  • Laundry — all of it, from sorting to putting it away
  • Replacing the toilet paper when it’s gone
  • Setting and clearing the table
  • Vacuuming and mopping floors
  • Helping to plan and prepare grocery lists and meals

Suggestions like these can help you develop a chore list that’s right for your family. As you’re deciding what chores you want your children to take on, be sure the scope of each task is clear. Something like “straighten the room” needs to be broken down into specifics, so your children understand exactly what that means.

Of course, children will need to be taught how to do these tasks, and this might well mean repeated lessons. Written how-to reminders will often be helpful. Regarding the laundry, Lahey suggested: “Post a list on the washing machine and dryer after you’ve conducted the requisite one-on-one lessons in order to provide reminders for all the steps. One mom pointed out that dry-erase markers write and erase well on the side of washers and dryers, so she simply writes instructions on the appliance itself.”

Another thing to consider: Leave your children as much latitude as feasible in how tasks get done, as long as the end results are fine. They may approach something a bit differently than you would, but that’s not necessarily a problem!

Organize for a sick day at home

Autumn is that dastardly time of year that gives way to cold and flu season. Sick days can be disruptive, no matter who you are. However, there are a few steps you can take now, while everyone’s feeling fine, to prepare your home for a day on the couch with some tissues and a movie.

For the kids

Keep a list of telephone numbers on your phone but also in a handy binder or taped to the inside of a kitchen cabinet or on the refrigerator for their pediatrician and the local pharmacy. You’ll also want the number for their school’s attendance call line and any child care providers. (For adults, it’s also good to have your doctor’s number and your boss’ number in the same location so it’s just as simple to retrieve.)

Be prepared to record information a doctor or nurse might need for your child. Years ago when I worked at a residential school, my colleagues and I were taught to monitor a fever by writing down the patient’s temperature and time it was taken. It’s a good practice to get into, because doctors or nurses will find it quite useful when you’re on the phone or at the clinic. I simply use index cards and a pen.

Regularly check and record your child’s weight. Many medications for children base dosage amounts on this information.

For everyone

Ensure you’ve got a working thermometer in the house. If you use an electric one, it’s a good practice to test the battery twice a year. Daylight Savings Time switches are a good reminder for this.

Multiple boxes of tissues around the house in convenient locations are great to stock up on now. I also love those small, travel-sized packs of tissues. They’re less obtrusive than standard boxes, and easily fit in small spaces (like the car, a bag, and a drawer of the nightstand).

Afterward

When everyone is feeling better, the work isn’t done. The following are some things to help spreading the germs around the house.

  1. A few spare toothbrushes so it’s easy to replace the sick person’s toothbrush when he/she is feeling better (especially with things like strep throat)
  2. Disinfect surfaces like doorknobs, the TV remote, cell phone, refrigerator door handle, light switches and so forth
  3. Wash the sick person’s bed sheets and blankets alone in hot, hot water.

Finally, consider making a “sick kit.” Tuck it away and save it for a stuffy, achy, rainy day.

Encouraging kids to do chores

If you’re a parent, the idea of children completing chores likely makes you tense. Getting the young ones to adhere to their given house chores can be like asking a human-size slug to take the trash out. It will eventually happen but, well …. not quickly. My wife and I recently tried something that worked quite well, and I wanted to share it with Unclutterer readers: The Hour of Clean.

The concept behind the Hour of Clean really couldn’t be simpler, and I was surprised by how effective it was.

We told the kids, “At 5:00, the ‘Hour of Clean’ will begin.” We listed the available jobs: dust, vacuum, put laundry away, general tidying up, cleaning the bathroom, etc. Everyone made their choices as to which chores they wanted to complete, and at 5:00 we started.

The best part of the Hour of Clean: there was no complaining. There was no slacking off. The result, after an hour, was a tidy house. The camaraderie from everyone working (mom and dad included) at the same time, was a great motivation. The set time limit also worked well because everyone knew there was a limit to how much of their day would be spent cleaning.

In subsequent weeks, my daughter made an observation. “If we keep the house tidy all week, the ‘Hour of Clean’ might be the ‘Half-Hour of Clean.'” I tried to hold back the tears of parental joy at this. “Yes,” I simply said, my heart full of parental pride. “Yes it can.”

A 15-minute House of Clean might also be something to do each day, especially if you have young children who need more supervision while they complete chores or if you need to wear a baby while you work.

The sense of “we’re all in this together” and the clearly-defined work period have helped it become successful in my house. Give it a try and let us know how it worked for your family.

Book Review: Minimalist Parenting

As someone without children, I’m always in awe of the many parents I see raising remarkable children — and dealing with the added stresses that parenting can bring to already busy lives. Minimalist Parenting by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest is a book filled with advice intended to help alleviate some of that stress.

While “minimalist” often brings up images of Spartan surroundings, that’s not what the authors are advocating. Rather, they focus on “editing out the unnecessary” — whatever that is for you and your family — in “physical items, activities, expectations and maybe even a few people” so you can focus on the things that are most meaningful.

The book is comprehensive, covering daily routines, meal planning, uncluttering the toys, managing the holidays, and much more. It’s showered with examples from the authors’ lives and from the lives of other parents who’ve commented on their websites. (Both authors have sites that deal with parenting: Boston Mamas from Koh and Parent Hacks from Dornfest.) It has a friendly voice and was easy to read.

While much of the advice in this book is similar to that you’ll find in other books and on websites such as Unclutterer, I still found much to admire. I was delighted to see the emphasis on finding solutions that fit with each family’s values and the personalities of the individual family members. There were some “everyone needs to do this” parts — for example, everyone needs a shared, portable family calendar and a to-do list — but these were kept to a minimum. The authors also emphasized the need to follow your gut feelings, which they referred to as your “inner bus driver.”

I also noted and appreciated the continual emphasis on working toward making children self-sufficient through assigning age-appropriate chores, having kids use an alarm clock, letting them do homework independently, etc. This doesn’t mean children are left to flounder — with homework, for example, you would be available to consult and guide your children, but “the plan is to gradually remove yourself from the process.”

Sometimes there were ideas that I hadn’t heard before, such as the secondhand baby shower. One of the authors found herself pregnant with her second child after giving away all her baby things, and when friends wanted to throw a shower she asked that everything be secondhand. This allowed her friends, who almost all had young children themselves, to unload things they no longer needed and wanted to pass along, anyway. Those who didn’t have little kids and hand-me-downs were welcome to just come and hang out or to bring diapers or gift cards.

The authors continually emphasized that “course correction beats perfection.” Looking for perfect solutions is a waste of time, they say, since perfect solutions simply don’t exist. (The author who spent ages researching cribs found they all had something that made them less than perfect. She could have saved time by just finding three cribs that were highly recommended from reliable sources and then picking one of those.) They recommend you go with something good and adjust as necessary — tweaking new routines, for example, or adjusting a family spending plan. This sounds like solid advice to me.

The one disappointing aspect of this book is that while it’s called Minimalist Parenting, the book is definitely geared toward mothers. Much of the advice applies to any parent, but many of examples are mother-focused. I especially noticed this in the section on self-care. Adding some voices from fathers would have made a good book much stronger.

Defining technology and increasing your productivity

Recently, my 10-year-old son reminded me that technology doesn’t have to be a collection of wires and software, but can be the simplest of devices and still wonderfully productive.

His teacher asked him to write about his favorite subject. He chose science, and broke his writing project into a few aspects of scientific study, including technology, which he defined as “a tool to help you do things better.”

“Well,” I thought, “that’s right.”

Years ago, when I worked as an IT director and had many computers — and computer users — it was quite the task to keep all my work and equipment all organized. It was around that time I discovered David Seah, a designer who often writes about his efforts to become more productive online. He makes lots of cool paper-based productivity tools, including the delightful Task Order Up sheets, which I used religiously. (And Erin loves the sticky version of his Emergent Task Planner, too.)

They were inspired by the order tickets you might see in a deli or restaurant where short-order cooks whip up pancakes, chowder, and slabs of meatloaf on a regular basis. Each sheet represents a single project, with fields for the project’s title and all of the actions that must be completed before the project can me marked as “done.”

There are also fields for marking down the amount of time you’ve spent on a given project, time spent on each action step, and the date. Best of all, they look like the tickets from a deli counter, so you can line them up at your desk and then pull then down as each “order” is completed. Dave even recommends using an order check rail for added authenticity.

Of course you can just use index cards if you like, but I believe that the tools we use can be useful, attractive AND fun. Technology really is any tool that helps you do things better.

Technology and games to encourage kids’ organizing skills

It’s a wonderful time of year: Back to school time! Depending on your area’s schedule, children may have already started the 2015-2016 school year, while others have until after Labor Day for classes to begin. In either case, a big part of a student’s success this year will depend on his or her organizational skills.

Every year we buy the typical organizational tools for our kids: binders, folders, calendars for jotting down assignments and other important dates that must not be forgotten. The kids then sort and label their binders and folders by subject matter, actionable items (like permission slips that require signatures), and homework.

Beyond this groundwork, we’ve been looking for ways to help our children continue to gain skills. At ages 10 and 13, they’re capable of stepping up their skill levels. How are we supporting them?

Practice, practice

If a basketball player wants to improve her skills, she practices. The same goes for a violin student, a dancer, or an organized adult. The more you work on any skill, the stronger the skill becomes. With that in mind, we’re giving our daughter plenty of opportunities to practice these new skills.

First, we had her write down her daily routine and her evening routine. “However you want,” went the instructions. “Put them somewhere that you’ll be able to easily see. Again, however you want to do this is fine.” This was the result:

Two lists, taped to the wall above her dresser. I love this because:

  1. It forced her to consider the general contents of a day
  2. It prompted her to think of her day sequentially
  3. It encouraged list-making
  4. It required her to find a spot that could store this information and be easily referenced

Someday she’ll apply these techniques to her career and/or a college student perhaps. Maybe an employee, a spouse, or a parent. There are other, more fun ways to practice organizing skills. Based on your kids’ interests, consider:

  • Creating a playlist of favorite songs
  • Making lists for an upcoming birthday party, road trip, or pending sleepover with some friends
  • Joining a fantasy sports club with some friends: Draft a team, organize meetings of other participating friends, and keep track of all related statistics

Technology options

If your student has a smartphone or tablet, consider an app like Remember the Milk. This to-do list and task manager supports alarms that can remind him or her to start on homework, prepare for the next day, and so on. The Kindle Fire has capabilities for parents to set time limits for how long specific types of programs can be running — videos only for 30 minutes, for example.

Playing games

Yes, games can foster positive, life-long skills. I’m a huge fan of board games, and suggest these titles for sneaking in some life lessons while having fun:

Elementary school

Tokaido: Take a leisurely walk through Japan, and compete to have the “richest” experience by eating food, meeting locals, and visiting hot springs. To do well, players must plan several moves ahead and manage their coins.

Middle school

Fairy Tale, A New Story: This is a card game that has you making sets while being careful not to give opponents the cards they want. Players must pay attention to what they don’t have as well as what is in others’ hands.

High School

Pandemic: This is a cooperative game in which the players play together to identify and defeat a virus that’s spreading across the globe. It requires planning and above all else, team work.

Do you have children and have suggestions for helping them to build their organizing skills in fun and productive ways? If so, sound off in the comments. My family is always on the lookout for more strategies.

Uncluttering and other people’s things

An unfortunate uncluttering incident hit the news last week when Leonard Lasek accidentally discarded his wife’s copy of an old Judy Blume book.

As Lasek wrote on the posters he has put around his neighborhood:

I accidentally gave this book away on Saturday July 25th in a box on the corner of Green & Franklin. This book is extremely important to my wife. It was a keepsake from her mother and is irreplaceable. On the inside cover is a note that reads “Christmas 1991.” If you happened to pick up this book can you please get in touch with me.

Judy Blume heard about this and has offered to send an autographed copy as a replacement — which is wonderful, but even she isn’t sure she can get the specific edition since that particular printing is no longer available. Perhaps the person who picked it up will see one of the posters and will return it.

This incident is a good reminder that uncluttering someone else’s stuff without permission is almost never a good idea. (I’m not discussing extreme situations here, where there may be health or safety issues — just normal stuff that one person sees as clutter.)

Rather than getting rid of your partner’s things on the sly, consider going through them (with permission) and identifying those items that seem like good candidates for giving away, and then checking to see if your partner agrees.

I’ve found that checking in about everything, even the smallest of stuff, shows respect and builds trust. And that trust makes it easier to then have good discussions about the bigger things.

With children, uncluttering their things a bit more complicated. I’ve read and heard plenty of stories about adults who felt betrayed when, as children, their parents got rid of much-loved possessions. Yet involving children in every decision might be a real time-waster.

But it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing situation. It might be fine to throw away a broken toy no one plays with anyway or to give away clothes the kids have outgrown. For other things, though, involving children in the decision-making process can teach them uncluttering habits and skills that will be useful throughout their lives. And sometimes they may surprise you! I’ve seen some children gladly give up way more toys than their parents thought they would.

At what age can children be involved? From my experience, I’d say that some preschoolers can do a fine job of choosing things to give away, with a bit of coaching. You can read online accounts of parents who started working on this with their children at age 3 or age 4.

Everyone likes to know that the things that are special to them, for whatever reason, aren’t going to disappear because someone else decided they were unimportant.

Repurposing a room

Organizing and uncluttering are ongoing projects because the needs you have and your goals change with time. In my case, a room in my home that was once very useful has stopped being so, and my wife and I have decided to transform it.

First, a little background: When my wife and I moved into our home, it had a tidy room just off of the back door that we turned into a dining room. We set it up with a small table, a few chairs and we were good. Later, the kids came along and the table was replaced with IKEA bins for toys, and later still, it took on coats and backpacks. We’ve called the room “the playroom” for the last 12 years. But a few weeks ago, we noticed something odd: No one ever plays in it.

In fact, the room was almost completely unused. The kids would hang their coats, hats, and backpacks there, walk into the house proper, and not return until the next time they left the house. In addition to being the drop-off point for these items, it also housed our our wall calendar and some seldom-used toys. We didn’t spend much time in there at all and it was time for a change.

Now, if you ever find yourself in this situation, you might personally want to consider our advice from 2007: buy a smaller house. But, if you’re like me and moving isn’t a possibility or a desire, I recommend considering how else the room can be used. Do so by observing how the room is being used, and build upon that.

We started the repurposing by removing what we no longer wanted in this space:

  1. The IKEA cabinets went upstairs to hold my own collection of board games.
  2. A large IKEA table went to the laundry room as a perfect surface for folding clean clothes.
  3. Toys that the kids no longer played with went to charity or to the trash (if not in good enough condition to donate).

Then, we kept those useful aspects of it (landing space for items coming and going) and added to the room what we needed (like seating and working spaces). We kept a small cabinet in the corner that houses the games we play most often and turned it into the following:

It felt great to rework this room, and it only took a single weekend to get the job done. It isn’t always obvious when something like this needs to change, but try to recognize that feeling when it comes. With a little elbow grease, you can turn an “eh” room into something working that you’ll love.

What to do with unused school supplies

Now that school’s over, the kids are at home and all of their stuff is with them. Having a break from school is great, but what can be done with the half-used notebooks, stubby pencils, worn crayons, and more?

Notebooks

First, and most simply, use them. They’re good practice for your kids and their writing or maybe for keeping a summer journal. Have them draw on the pages or send letters to far-flung family and friends.

Another, less obvious idea is to find every half-used notebook that’s hiding in backpacks, on bookshelves, etc. Go through them and decide: is what’s written in here important? Do I want to save it? If the answer is yes, tear out those pages and scan them into the archive software of your choice (I prefer Evernote). If you’d rather not go digital, a quality three-ring binder will do the job as well. If the notebooks in question still have a decent amount of blank pages inside, consider donating them. Fiends of Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and often accepts donations of school supplies. Likewise, Operation Give helps members of the US military supply those in need with a variety of items, including notebooks, as does Project Smile.

Alternatively, old notebooks can be upcycled into scrap paper notebooks quite easily. Here’s a great tutorial from Instructables for making a handy scrap notebook to keep by your computer, on your desk, in the kitchen, or where ever you typically jot down quick notes. In this video, Martha Stewart describes a similar project that looks great.

Crayons

Kids love crayons until they get too small to use. It seems wasteful to toss them away. Instead, you can make them super appealing all over again. You can follow a tutorial that explains how to use some candy mold, your old crayon numbs and a microwave oven to make great-looking crayon characters.

Alternatively, send them off to Crazy Crayons, a service that essentially uses the above process to upcycle unwanted crayons and make them available again.

Pencils

One idea for those frustrating pencil nubs is to use them with a pencil extender. This clever little device does just what you’re thinking it does: holds the nub in a larger case that lets you continue to write until the thing is completely gone. This might be a unitasker, but if you actually use it then it won’t be a unitasker in your home.

If you’re willing to saw off the eraser, the pencil can be tossed into a fire. Also, the graphite can be a good “dry lubricant” for keys and locks.

Whatever it is you decide to do with old school supplies, just be sure to turn that after-school clutter into something useful or get it out of your house so it’s not still sitting in your kid’s backpack at the start of next school year.