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 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?”

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.

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.

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.

Organize your kids for camp

It’s difficult to believe, but summer begins next week for those of us in the northern hemisphere. My to-do list is long and one of the items on that list is to help get my kids organized for camp. Like countless kids across the country, they’ll join their friends — and make new ones — at camp.

You can help make the experience even more pleasant for them with strategic planning before Jr. walks out the door.

All types of camps

You son or daughter will likely receive a list of requirements and suggestions from the camp itself. Start shopping for these items at least a week in advance, if not longer. This will avoid the last-second rush and allow you to label everything properly. Speaking of labels…

Get some labels for the kids’ clothing and other personal items. There are many of these available: Name Bubbles makes some cute ones, including a whole line meant to “…last all summer long.” Be sure to label items that she or he might take off, like hats, flip-flops, and t-shirts, as well as accessories like sunscreen and lunch boxes. If you don’t want to purchase labels, a permanent marker will do a good job, as well as a laundry marker.

Sleep away camp

It’s a good idea to provide your little camper with a Re-Pack list that he or she can check when preparing to come home. Stick it in your child’s bag and laminate it, if you can.

Also, only pack clothes and other items that can get lost without causing a big deal. That beloved, irreplaceable shirt that Jr. simply adores might not be the best choice for camp, no matter how cool it is.

Pack liquids and anything that might be attractive to pests in zip-top bags. Write on the bags the contents with permanent markers so items have a greater chance of returning to the bags.

Day camp

A lesson my family learned the hard way: don’t send your child’s nice school backpack to camp. It will get used, abused, and stuffed with sand, dirt, and who knows what else. Go out (again, well ahead of time) and buy an inexpensive bag that can get beat up because it will.

Similar to the Re-Pack list recommended for sleep-away camp, make a daily checklist for your child’s backpack/bag. Again, laminate the list so that you can write special daily items on it as reminders (like a plain white t-shirt for tie-dyeing one day) in addition to the regular things.

If swimming is a regular part of the camp, pack a large zip-top bag. Get the biggest one you can find so wet swimsuits and towels can be stored away from other items in the bag.

If you or your children regularly attended or attend summer camp, what additional tips would you share to keep kids organized? Feel welcome to leave them in the comments.

Want organized kids? Reward acts of bravery

As a parent, I want my kids to be successful in all they do. I also want them to be safe. Fortunately, I recently learned an important lesson on this, which came from my wife:

“Reward all acts of bravery.”

Let’s take a moment to define bravery. To me, bravery is a reaction to fear, not its absence. Also, the fear needn’t be life-or-death; any event that elicits adequate fear is an opportunity for bravery.

Lately, my kids have been showing much bravery, which has prompted me to hesitantly do the same.

Part of my job as a parent is to lay the groundwork that will produce productive, happy, and fulfilled members of adult society. I hope they’ll be organized, contributing adults with a sense of independence and satisfaction. That starts small and I’m not so hot at letting it happen. Here are a few examples.

My daughter, 12, has taken an interest in cooking. This is great, as it’s precisely the type of life skill I’ve got in mind. She recently made brownies, and I was in the kitchen supervising. I made sure she used pot holders, prepared the mix well, buttered the pan, set the timer correctly, and read the recipe thoroughly. When the task was finished, I told my wife, “Look, she made brownies.”

“No,” my wife said, “you made brownies.”

As a person who must make an effort to stay organized and productive, I assume others do, too. When those “others” are the people I care about most, I’m compelled to make an extra effort to ensure their success. However, I’m seeing, that effort can be more of a hindrance than a help. I’m not letting them actually learn how to do it. If I want them to learn to make brownies, I must let them … make brownies. Not be hovering over them. Yes, the first couple times they do something instruction is involved, but not after they know how to do it.

Brownie-adjacent is not making brownies.

The same goes for keeping a tidy room, putting laundry away, or staying on top of end-of-school projects and responsibilities. When you’re 10 and 12, taking any of this on solo is an act of bravery, especially when they know exactly what to do. It’s time for them to step up and dad to step back.

Instruct, make sure the skills have transferred, and then give your child the opportunity to practice the skills you’ve taught them so they can take ownership of them.

Keeping essential home work supplies on hand

As spring approaches and winter thaws (it will eventually thaw, right?), my family and I have found ourselves in that dreaded time of the elementary school year: projects. It’s like a perfect storm, when everyone’s energy levels are low, the cold and dark days have all of us down, no one feels like completing anything requiring a great deal of mental effort, and certainly no one wants to doing anything that involves creative depths, pasteboard, stencils, or Papier-mâché.

This is also the time of year that supplies start to run low around the house. None of the pencils have sharp points or erasers. Lined paper is at a minimum, and I assure you the teacher won’t accept a paragraph written on the envelope from the water bill, no matter how neatly it’s written. With that in mind, the following is a list of items you can grab to restock, organize, and survive the second-half of the school year.

Pencils. My kids, at nine and eleven, are not yet to be trusted to complete homework in pen. So, we buy pencils in bulk and store then in mason jars right at their desks. Doing this sure beats the nightly search for a pencil. Speaking of…

An electric pencil sharpener. Spend some money on a heavy-duty sharpener that’s going to last a long time. Remember that hand-crank job that was probably screwed into the wall of your elementary school classroom? Don’t put that nightmare in your house because it will only cause a mess. And please avoid those little handheld jobs that deposit pencil shaving all over the floor. Instead, look for an electric sharpener with a heavy base for one-handed sharpening. We have a Bostitch model at home and it’s dependable.

Erasers. By now, all of our pencil erasers have been worn to mere shadows of their former existence. A large box of pink erasers is a great alternate when erasers detach from their pencils. Divvy them up among your kids’ work spaces and never hear “Does anyone have a pencil with an eraser?” again. Similar to pencils, erasers can be stored in jars, and inside desk drawers in a drawer organizer.

Index cards. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I still think index cards are fantastic homework aides. I use them as flash cards, of course, but their usefulness extends way beyond that. For example, I have the kids use them as to-do lists for larger projects. When attached to all related papers with an office clip, you get a handy, mobile reference packet. They’re also good for scratch paper when working out math problems or outlines. They’re a high utility tool for all offices. Wrap the index cards in a rubber band and store them on top of the spare paper and notebooks mentioned in the next item.

Lined paper and notebooks. We’ve been in the situation in our house where the only available paper is a sketch pad, and that doesn’t pass muster with a teacher. Keep the paper and notebooks (and the index cards mentioned above) in a traditional office desk inbox to keep them organized.

A designated homework zone. A space dedicated to doing homework will help prevent papers, supplies, and assignments from migrating to the kitchen table. And, as is the case in our house, the kitchen table is where homework quickly transforms into clutter.

With these essentials on hand and organized so they’re at the ready, you’re prepared to take on any big, winter projects teachers assign.

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

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

Younger tykes

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

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

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

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

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

Older kids/teens

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

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

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

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

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

Updating the kids’ school stuff landing area

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

Making changes

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

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

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

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

Three more wall hooks hold sweatshirts and jackets.

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

Some things stay the same

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

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

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

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.