Public clutter: whose responsibility is it?

Two weeks ago my husband and I went out for dinner and a movie with friends, young friends, so we ended up going to Burger King. The place was full of teenagers and apart from the incredible amount of noise they produced, they also produced a horrifying amount of garbage. Half-eaten food on the floor stepped on and smeared across the tiles, drinks spilt across the table, and bags and wrappers strewn everywhere.

When they finished, they got up and walked away.

Then last week we went to Pamplona for its famous festival, and although it’s more known for running with the bulls, the festival itself is really an opportunity to drink obscene amounts of alcohol in public and let loose. The broken plastic cups, plastic bags and bottles of all sorts made walking a challenge and each morning the city’s garbage crews spent hours and hours sweeping up the plastics disaster.

Often, when people are asked why they care so little about public clutter like this, they answer “that’s why the city hires street sweepers” as if they have no responsibility in maintaining the streets litter-free.

I was reminded of a photo I saw once posted online by Canada’s environmental fighter David Suzuki. The photo showed the sea of plastic that was left in a public park after a fundraising concert for the environment. The anti-consumerist website Make Wealth History talks about this problem providing details about the garbage collected one year after the supposedly environmental-friendly Glastonbury Festival:

Glastonbury picked up 6,500 sleeping bags, 5,500 tents, 3,500 airbeds, 2,200 chairs, 950 rolled mats and 400 gazebos.

Fortunately, most of that material could be donated to refugee sites, but what about the rest of the garbage? If attendees left all this behind, how much plastic did they not bother taking away with them?

All of this got me thinking. Whose responsibility is public clutter? Those of you who are parents, what do you do to ensure that your children clutter the world as little as possible?

Bound to clutter and time

A recent study from UCLA-affiliated social scientists paints a bleak picture of modern parents: beholden to clutter, technology, and stuff. Likewise, they found, many (if not most) rarely step foot outdoors and claim that a perceived lack of time drives a lot of daily decisions. It’s a study I can relate to, and that’s really depressing.

The study

The longitudinal study entitled, “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors,” (currently available at Amazon as a book) observed middle-class families in Los Angeles over four years. The results, according to the authors, are “disheartening,” and include:

  1. Many families rely heavily on prepared and frozen foods even though they only save an average of 11 minutes per meal. “They give me the illusion of saving time and energy,” said one participant, “and that’s almost as important.”
  2. Most families in the study rarely go outdoors, even those who recently spent money on outdoor improvements like a new deck. “That’s the backyard,” one mom said. “I never go out there.”
  3. Leisure time is spent in front of the TV or the computer.

One interesting revelation I found has to do with a family’s refrigerator door. Those that are cluttered with notices, magnets, papers and the like, often indicate a home that is in a similar state. (Read our article on dealing with refrigerator door clutter here).

That’s rough, but the most depressing and relatable bit for me was about 2-year-old Anjellisa Redfern. According to researchers, she has a great many toys. However, “…she doesn’t want to play with them,” said her mother. “She wants to be on the couch watching TV.”

Second screen? Try first.

In 2014, Jeff Bercovici wrote an article for Forbes entitled, “Using A Second Screen While Watching TV Is The New Normal.” He went on to describe the growing habit of glancing at a smartphone or tablet while watching television:

Watching TV while simultaneously using a smartphone, laptop, or tablet is on the verge of becoming a majority behavior worldwide.

Later that year, the New York Times noted the emerging “second screen marketing” efforts that were just beginning to happen, targeted at those who use a smartphone or tablet as the titular “second screen” while watching TV. It is interesting, but that’s not the behavior in 2017. The TV is the second screen, the smartphone is the first.

Every night in my home, a depressing scene plays out. We have dinner, almost never together, almost always within 15 minutes, almost always silently and almost certainly with each in his or her own chair, doing his or her own thing. When this non-family time is complete, everyone retreats to his or her room of choice with his or her preferred screen, not to be seen again until morning.

It’s killing me and I hate it.

I’m partly to blame as I’ve let it go on this long. Extinguishing this pattern will not be easy. There will be loud complaining. There will be rolling of eyes and harsh words. But it must be done.

Childhood is a window that closes at 18 years of age. That’s all you get, those 18 precious years. Then they’re off to work, off to school, off to adulthood, and whatever comes next. There is no time machine. You can’t go back. My kids are 12 and 14 years old. The window is almost closed. I absolutely will not sit with regret years from now because I did not make the most of being their dad. Because I lost out to apps and YouTube stars. Because Snapchat was more appealing.

If the modern American family is succumbing to clutter and technology, it’s time to revisit our priorities. The window on childhood is closing. Be there – really be there – before it does.

More thoughts on managing kids’ screen time

I’m not a parent, so I’m always interested in how those who are parents deal with child-related organizing issues: handling school papers, assigning chores, etc. Dave’s recent take on managing screen time gave me one more bit of real-life insight.

It’s an interesting topic, partly because not everyone agrees about what’s best — and sometimes the recommendations change. The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend zero screen time for those under the age of 2, and that recommendation became widely known. Less widely known, perhaps, is that the group revised its recommendations a bit last October, so it now suggests the following:

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

Some of this makes intuitive sense to me. For example, letting young children Skype or FaceTime with distant grandparents or travelling parents seems like a good thing. And making sure screen time doesn’t take over a child’s life seems like an obvious goal.

But I feel as though some of the limits are overly restrictive. No matter how much a parent might wish things were different, there are times when using a tablet or smartphone as a babysitter for a child age 5 or younger can be a lifesaver to a parent’s sanity and ability to get essential tasks done. Suzanne Janesse described on Babble.com how this works in her family. I’m sure many parents have their own similar tales.

As Athena Tsavliris wrote in Today’s Parent, “Reality sometimes calls for the iNanny.” This doesn’t mean that these parents let their children use electronic devices for hours on end, with no controls on the content. But insisting that all screen time with young children should involve co-viewing seems unrealistic in many family situations.

It’s also worth noting that our scientific knowledge regarding the effects of using apps with young children is still evolving. For example, Greg Toppo reported the following in USA Today in 2014:

A recent small-scale trial by New York University researcher Susan B. Neuman, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, found that giving a group of preschoolers the chance to play for just 15 minutes a day on a popular app called Learn with Homer improved their reading skills 74% in a six-week summer period — without the help of a teacher.

So, as with almost anything related to organizing, there are no absolutes that work for everyone. Just make thoughtful decisions about your family’s use of screen time, based on your individual family members’ needs, and adjust those decisions if they don’t seem to be working.

An April opportunity to recycle old, broken toys

Many parents face the issue of toy clutter. Their children have more toys than they could ever need or want, often gifted by well-meaning friends and relatives. Or they just have toys their children have outgrown.

If the toys are in good condition, they can often be passed along to other families. But what do you do with the toys that are broken or missing parts? Sending them to landfill often seems like the only answer.

However, through April 30, those in the U.S. have a cool alternative. Tom’s of Maine and TerraCycle have joined forces to provide free recycling of these toys. Just go to the Tom’s of Maine website and click to get a free shipping label. Then fill a box with up to 10 pounds of toys and ship it off at any UPS location.

TerraCycle has a number of ongoing free recycling programs for Clif Bar wrappers, Brita items, Solo cups, Wellness pet food packets, and more — including Tom’s of Maine toothbrushes and much of the company’s product packaging. Tom’s worked with TerraCycle on a toy recycling program in April 2015, but that one was limited to 500 of TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Boxes. The boxes were all claimed within four days, so this year’s program was designed to allow more people to participate.

What happens to the items sent in through the Tom’s of Maine Toy Recycling Program? Lauren Taylor of TerraCycle gave me the answer in an email:

The collected waste is mechanically and/or manually separated into fabrics, metals, fibers, and plastics. Fabrics are reused, upcycled or recycled as appropriate. Metals are smelted so they may be recycled. The fibers (such as paper or wood based products) are recycled or composted. The plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new recycled plastic products.

So if you cringe at sending things to landfill, here’s your opportunity to gather up those dilapidated stuffed animals, the puzzles with missing pieces, the mystery toy pieces, the torn playing cards — and any other broken, worn-out, or incomplete toys — and ship them off for recycling.

Managing kids’ screen time

When I was a kid in the 1980s, “screen time” wasn’t really a thing. Personal computers were rare, expensive things that few people had and were mainly for business. Telephones were “dumb” and tethered to the wall, and television offered 13 channels, many of which were snow.

What a difference 40 years makes!

Today, my kids have a staggering amount of media and entertainment available to them at all times. As a parent, I struggle with raising the first generation of kids to never know a day without the internet, pocket-sized computers, and on-demand entertainment. It’s not easy to manage but oh, so important to do so.

Research has demonstrated the dangers of unbridled screen time. A study recently conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that “…children [between the ages of] 8 to 18 spend, on average, close to 45 hours per week watching TV, playing video games, instant messaging, and listening to music online.” That’s more time — far more — than they spend in a classroom.

What’s the result of all this time spent staring at a glowing rectangle? As of this writing, it’s hard to say. Since this issue is so new, there haven’t been a lot of longitudinal studies conducted. But research is being done. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior suggests that sixth graders who abstained from screen time for a period of time were better able to read human emotions than those who did not.

So how can we stay on top of it? Organize a healthy “media diet” with the kids. Here are a few ideas.

First, be aware of what’s age-appropriate. Know what they’re watching, playing, and listening to. I know it sounds obvious, but new entertainment comes out so often, we as parents must actively stay up to date.

This doesn’t just go for content. While digital entertainment is being made for two-year-olds, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV or computer screens (including phones and tablets) for that age group at all.

Next, set family rules and stick to them. Our rule is this: two hours of screen time after dinner and that’s it. Of course, this is considering that all homework is done, lunches and snacks are prepared, and bags are packed up for the next morning. Both parents must be consistent with rule enforcement here. This leads me to the next tip.

No media in bedrooms. You can’t monitor your children when they’re in bed. If a phone or tablet is at hand, the temptation may be too great to pass up.

So far I’ve put all of the focus on the kids. That’s important, but phone-addicted parents need a reminder to put their devices down, too. A recent study noted that kids can feel unimportant when their parents spend so-called “quality time” looking at a phone . Face-to-face interaction is the way children learn.

I guess we could all do with a little less screen time. Manage the amount of time your kids — and you yourself — spend looking at a phone, tablet or computer screen.

Getting rid of someone else’s stuff

Last week an article by Nicole Hong in the Wall Street Journal focused on cargo shorts: their fans and their detractors. I don’t have any strong opinions about cargo shorts, but I did have an opinion about the following anecdote:

Dane Hansen, who operates a small steel business in Pleasant Grove, Utah, says that throughout his 11-year marriage, 15 pairs of cargo shorts have slowly disappeared from his closet. On the occasions when he has confronted his wife about the missing shorts, she will either admit to throwing them away or deflect confrontation by saying things like, “Honey, you just need a little help.”

Mr. Hansen, 35 years old, is now down to one pair of cargo shorts, and he guards them closely. He has hidden them in small closet nooks where his wife can’t find them. …

Mr. Hansen’s wife, Ashleigh Hansen, said she sneaks her husband’s cargo shorts off to Goodwill when he’s not around. Mrs. Hansen, 30, no longer throws them out at home because her husband has found them in the trash and fished them out.

I have no problem with someone discretely disposing of anything that is theirs, including gifts from a spouse or partner. But getting rid of another person’s items? That’s generally a horrible idea.

There are some specific circumstances when it’s okay to toss or donate another person’s possessions, including the following:

  • When that other person has given you explicit permission to do so. For example, sometimes one spouse will accept, or even appreciate, having the other manage his or her wardrobe. Or an elderly parent might appreciate some help with uncluttering — perhaps giving you general guidelines but otherwise allowing you to decide what stays and what goes.
  • When the other person is a child who is too young to make such decisions. But even children as young as three can be involved in an uncluttering effort, and parents are sometimes surprised at how much their children are willing to discard.
  • When you have the legal authority to make decisions for someone who can no longer make decisions for himself or herself.

But in general, it’s disrespectful to get rid of another person’s belongings, and it can build up resentment and distrust that have a wide range of negative repercussions. What can you do instead? The following are some suggestions:

  • Have a discussion about the items in question, where each party listens respectfully to the other person’s position. There’s always a chance that if you calmly explain why you’d like something to be discarded you can convince the other person to go along with you. Or maybe, when you fully understand why someone wants to keep something that you want to discard, you’ll change your mind and decide it’s fine to have it stay.
  • Reach a compromise. Maybe he keeps the cargo shorts but agrees not to wear them when the two of you go out together. If there’s a disputed item of décor, maybe it can be displayed in a spot in the home where you rarely go.
  • Agree on boundaries, where anything can be kept as long as it fits within a designated space: a dresser drawer, a storage box, a shelf in the garage, a basket for stuffed animals, etc.
  • Bring in a professional organizer. An impartial third party with recognized expertise can ask questions and make suggestions while avoiding the emotional landmines that can be triggered when a spouse or partner makes suggestions.

Apps for your student

Technology is routine for the modern student. And that technology can help your favorite student to stay organized and productive this school year.

Tinycards from Duolingo helps young students learn a language with engaging, fun, and effective lessons. My daughter’s Spanish class started using it when she was in 7th grade. Now, the company has released Tinycards, a flashcards app (free, iPhone only) that’s as handy as it is beautiful. There are thousands of pre-made decks to choose from, or you can make custom sets to support specific course material.

By late elementary school, students take on the extra responsibility of managing their time and duties. myHomework Student Planner is an app that will help them do just that. Available for iOS devices, Android, and Windows, this comprehensive solution lets tech-savvy students toss out the paper planner and go digital with a nearly ubiquitous access to all of their assignments that’s synchronized across devices for them. Students can get reminders of what’s due, browse their class schedules, and check in on assignments. Plus, it looks great.

Speaking of college students, EasyBib quickly creates bibliography citations for use in an academic paper. There are hundreds of styles available, from APA to who-knows-what. You can even use it to scan a book’s bar code to create the citation. EasyBib is available for both iPhone and Android devices. As someone who wrote a lot of papers in APA format, I can say it’s quite nice to have an organized and portable style guide like this.

My last pick has a bit of environmentalism built into it. Forest (available for iPhone and Android), lets you set aside time for concentration and study. Simply pick your work time and get started. As you work, a small on-screen seedling grows into a beautiful tree. What’s very cool is that a real tree results as well. As you use the app, your earn in-game currency that you can spend to plant real trees. Forest’s developers have partnered with Trees for the Future, a non-profit organization that will plant a real tree for every 2500 currency you “spend” in the app. Neat.

The new school year is upon here and finding the right app for you or your kid can help make the year more productive, organized, and educational.

Staying safe while organizing with tall bookshelves, dressers, etc.

Bookshelves, armoires, and dressers are some of the common furniture pieces we use to organize our possessions. But if they aren’t used properly, they can cause serious problems.

You may have read about the Ikea recall of a number of its chests and dressers, which are “unstable if they are not properly anchored to the wall, posing a tip-over and entrapment hazard that can result in death or injuries to children.” Two types of items are included in the recall:

  • Children’s chests and dressers taller than 23.5 inches
  • Adult chests and dressers taller than 29.5 inches that do not comply with the performance requirements of the U.S. voluntary industry standard, ASTM F2057-014.

The recall followed the death of three toddlers in three years. While the dressers and chests all shipped with wall anchoring kits, the items involved in these tragedies were not anchored.

While the Ikea recall got a lot of press attention, it’s certainly not the only product that has this kind of tip-over potential. Other recent recalls include Bestar Dream Dressers (juvenile five-drawer dressers) and a dresser and nightstand in Bernhardt’s Marquesa line.

How big a problem is this? The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a report in 2014 (PDF) that included the following statistics:

  • An estimated 38,000 emergency-department-treated tip-over injuries in 2011-2013. Of these, 56 percent involved only furniture falling, 41 percent involved televisions (or TVs plus furniture), and 4 percent involved appliances falling.
  • 430 reported fatalities related to tip-overs between 2000 and 2013. Of these, 37 percent involved TVs falling, 27 percent involved a TV plus furniture, 28 percent involved only furniture falling (with the largest category being chests, bureaus, and dressers), and 7 percent involved appliances falling. Children from 1 month through 10 years were the victims in 84 percent of the fatalities.

The CPSC launched an “Anchor It” campaign in June 2015 with a lot of common-sense advice, including the following:

  • Existing furniture can be anchored with inexpensive anti-tip brackets. New furniture, such as dressers, are sold with anti-tip devices. Install them right away.
  • Anti-tip devices are sold online and in-stores for prices ranging from $5 to $25. Consumers can visit their local home improvement, electronic or mass merchandise store to purchase anti-tip devices. An online search for “anti-tip strap” or “anti-tip kit” will result in a variety of purchase options. Install the anti-tip devices according to manufacturer instructions, and always double check the attachment points to make sure the device is secure.

The campaign also has a poster (PDF) showing how to anchor furniture.

While tip-over dangers are often associated with children, who like to climb on furniture, the CPSC report makes it clear that they aren’t the only ones who get hurt by tip-overs. And those of us in earthquake territory have an added incentive to secure our top-heavy furniture. The Earthquake Country Alliance provides good information on just how that can be done for filing cabinets and for bookcases, china hutches, armoires, etc.

As Rain Noe wrote on the website Core77:

If you live in a household with children and own tall furniture of any variety, PLEASE take the time to anchor them to your wall. If you have friends who are parents, please urge them to do the same. And if you or they don’t know how to do it, you’ll find plenty of videos on YouTube demonstrating the process. You might need to spend a few bucks on a drill, a studfinder and/or some wall anchors, but it’s money well spent.

And I’d add: If you don’t know how to do it and you aren’t horribly handy, you can always hire someone to do it for you. That’s what I did, and it was worth every penny.

Organizing summer with a professional organizer

“Disorganization is a delayed decision.”

That was the most valuable quote and pervasive theme of my conversation with Heidi Solomon, the woman behind P.O.S.H., or Professional Organizing Systems by Heidi. Now 10 years into her organization business, Heidi took some time to sit with me to discuss best practices and creating a summer organization system that will last well beyond the warm weather.

After a little New Englander bonding (Heidi is in Boston), I asked about her definition of an organized person. “A big part of [being organized] is deciding where does something go, do I actually need it, etc. early and often. But truly, the systems you employ are irrelevant.”

“I’m an organized person” means life can erupt and not cause an immense amount of stress to reset your space.

Summer is starting, so we discussed strategies for being organized after coming home from a vacation or a trip. When you already have established locations for all the things you own, unpacking and returning to normal can be accomplished in a couple of hours, as opposed to living with suitcases for a few days.

My summer kicks off for real on Wednesday, as that’s when my kids will be out of school. The end of the school year, Heidi says, is a perfect time to evaluate the systems you’ve got in place. “Kids’ interests and developmental and physical changes are rapid. A system that worked six months ago might be breaking down as these changes occur. Take this time to look at what’s working and what isn’t. Are there clothes that no longer fit? A play area or toys that are no longer appropriate/receiving attention?”

“Plan along the natural calendar schedule of the school year,” she advises. “In August, set aside a day or two to go through belongings and identify what’s no longer relevant. As the year progresses, for example, they outgrow boots or hats. Have a bin that’s a destination for these things — again, we’re back to making decisions early. Christmas and summer are also great opportunities for a check-in.”

To me, summer means using a lot of towels. We live on a lake and that means the back porch is continually draped with towels. And bottles of sunscreen. Plus a few swim masks, beach toys…you get the idea. For many, summer introduces a unique mass of stuff. How, I asked, can we create a system for “summer stuff” that will last beyond August 31? She said it starts with what’s available to you.

“If you have a closet that can accommodate these things in clear, labeled containers, great,” she told me. “If not, a door hanger works so well. Put the kids’ stuff at the lower level. That way everyone can just grab and go (and replace!) with ease.” Why clear containers? To help the young ones see what goes where.

“For many of the younger set,” Heidi said, “items are out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Simply being told the sunscreen goes on the back of the door might not be as effective as it would with an adult. Using clear storage lets them see what is where, and fosters recall of where it goes when not in use.”

As far as creating a sustainable system that will work for everyone, a little conversation goes a long way. “Not everyone organizes in the same way. It’s based on the way you learn, which is, in part, a function of how you process information. Ensure [to use] each ‘user’s’ preferences and learning style. Kids are often visual learners, so the see-through containers help them.”

With a little thought, frequent re-evaluation and consideration for everyone in your organizing system, you can get through the busy summer — or any season — with solutions that work effectively. Big thanks to Heidi for taking time to chat with me.

Organizing the end of the school year

June is upon us and if your kids (or you) aren’t already out of school then the last days of school are right around the corner. It’s time to say goodbye to homework and celebrate an end to the 2015-16 school year.

With a little prep you can wrap up the school year with a tidy bow and prepare for next year now. Imagine staring the summer knowing that some of the work for back-to-school 2016-17 is already sorted. The following will help you get started.

End of the school year

I’m all about avoiding clutter, so identify what we won’t need over the summer and put it away — now. The items on this list will depend on the age of your student(s).

Young kids:

If your student attends a school that requires a uniform, make sure it’s properly stored away for the summer. (Be sure to properly store off-season clothes.) Before you store it away, however, consider if your kid will likely wear that size next fall. Will it fit in September or will the uniform requirements change when the kid goes back? If it’s not going to work, see if your school accepts donations of gently used uniforms or uniform components (vest, skirt, etc.).

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself bemoaning the fact that I’ve got to buy a new batch of pencils, erasers, sharpeners, and so on each year. Chances are there are some good, perfectly useable options in Jr.’s bag. Set them aside for the “First Day Back Box,” which I’ll explain in a bit. They’ll be easy to find and save you a few bucks.

It’s also a good time to sort through the bin of artwork and papers from the year and only store the best of the best items. Everything else can be photographed and some can be shipped off to grandma or an aunt or someone who would love to have one of your kid’s creations.

Older kids:

For high school students and college kids, the list is certainly different. Sort through papers and materials and get rid of anything that won’t be reused or needed in the next school year.

College students may find some textbooks invading their spaces. If the textbook is one you’ll need in the future for reference material, find a convenient but out-of-the-way location for it. If you’ll never have use for that Art History book again, sell it back to the bookstore or an online retailer (if you haven’t already).

Special topic: Bags

School bags can be used all year. A backpack, for instance, can follow a younger student to camp or family outings, like hikes. For older students, a shoulder bag could be useful at a summer job. Store these, however, if you don’t foresee a need.

Teachers

Let’s not forget the teachers when it comes to end-of-school! You folks work hard all year and now that those 180 long days are gone, it’s time to enjoy the summer sun. First, get organized from the year and prep for September.

Teacher gifts:

It’s always heartwarming to receive gifts from students and families you served over the last several months. If you’re a veteran teacher, however, they tend to accumulate. Have a plan for where these gifts are going to go if you choose to keep them. I know one teacher who uses a bit of hot glue and some wire to turn smaller gifts into tree ornaments. Her “teacher tree” is quite the sight each year. Others can be re-gifted (be honest, it happens). Just don’t let them take over your space.

Purge:

For some reason, teaching generates huge libraries of stuff, some of which never gets used. That draw of toilet paper tubes from the late ’90s? It might be time for them to go. Have a good, honest go-round in your classroom and ditch, donate, or hand-off to another teacher anything you probably won’t use.

Take a photo:

It’s likely that the custodial staff will give your classroom a good cleaning over the summer. You might return to find the furniture neatly stacked in the center of the room in September. Today, take a photo that shows how your room — each area — is set up. That way, you’ll have a reliable reference when you’re setting back up. Speaking of….

The “First Day Back Box”

This is a clearly-labeled, accessible box that will be the first thing you open when you’re getting ready for school to resume in the fall, be you a teacher or a student (any grade level).

Fill it with the most essential items that you’ll need for the start of school next year. That might include scissors, a stapler, paper clips, pen and paper, or thumbtacks. Maybe you’ll need some cash for a week of lunches, or pocket-sized tissues.

High school students might add a USB flash drive or binders. Perhaps a college student will need an ID or course catalog. In any case, take the time before hitting the beach to think of the must-have items that will make your first day a breeze, collect them all, and create your (labeled) First Day Back Box. Finally, keep the box accessible as you will likely get a list of items necessary for the next school year during the summer, and you can easily add those items to the box.

With a little forethought and elbow grease, you’ll have organized you stuff from the current school year and prepped for the fall.

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?”