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.

Kids’ backpack essentials

Clutter has a way of accumulating in unexpected places, and my kids’ backpacks are one such surprising place.

This past weekend, I went into my daughter’s bag to find a study guide and pulled out all sorts of interesting things: random pencils, a penguin eraser, box tops, and more. After prompting her to clean it out, I mentally compiled a list of what should be in there, and what shouldn’t.

I should note that my kids are in a public elementary school. An older or younger student might carry around different things. And, a child in an alternative learning environment might have different supplies. Think of the following list as a starting point and adapt as necessary for you or your child’s specific needs.

Both of my kids are now carrying a small pack of tissues in their bags. The weather is still brutally cold here in the northeast, and that means runny noses. Their classrooms have tissues, of course, but they could run out or need one while on the bus. As any parent knows, a kid’s go-to tissue alternative is the sleeve.

A daily calendar is also a good idea. We’re fortunate in that our school provides the kids with an organizer at the beginning of the school year. It’s sorted by subject, and the teachers require the students to write down any assignments that are due in each subject’s slot. I love that they can look at that and know, at a glance, what they’ve got to do each night for homework or review.

If you’re shopping for a planner not issued by the school, bring Jr. along. I tried giving one of my beloved Field Notes notebooks to the kids, but they didn’t take. However, my daughter fell in love with One Direction-themed school supplies. If they love it, they’ll use it.

A good pencil case is another fine idea. My kids have plenty of pencils and erasers, but they were swimming around on the bottom of the bag.

You may or may not want to put emergency information in your child’s bag. For example, if Jr. carries an Epi-Pen, a short note regarding its use might be helpful to those who don’t know your child well, like substitute teachers or field trip chaperones. A non-specific Gmail address you’ve created for the family might be good to write inside the backpack in case it is lost.

Many students keep a refillable water bottle in their school bags, but we found out the hard way how that is not always a good idea. If your child’s bag has an exterior pocket, this might be the safer storage place than in the actual backpack.

Finally, school books and homework storage are all your children likely need. Since Trapper Keepers aren’t cool any longer, nice sturdy pocket folders are great for ensuring work makes it back to the teacher in a decent condition.

2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide: Gifts for helping kids be organized

Maybe it’s me, but I get as much enjoyment from buying and imagining my kids’ reactions to opening gifts as I get from witnessing the unwrapping itself. As a result, Erin assigned me the task for putting together the shopping guide for kids for this year. I’ve collected a number of gift ideas for kids of various ages and interest, from toddlers to teens. And, each of these gifts has a special organizing slant, of course.

  1. Foldie T-shirts. I am flat-out in love with these. The Foldie “educational” tee is very cute. The shirts feature adorable graphics and they have a secret. Specifically, they teach kids how to fold shirts in a very clever way. Flip it over and bring the sleeves together, and the image on the back becomes a whole new picture. Fold it again, bringing the bottom to the top, and a third image is created. It’s utterly delightful. I tried one out with my own kids and, not only did they love it, the lesson generalized to non-Foldie shirts. Perfect.
  2. The Swoop Bag. The fantastic swoop bag serves three purposes. First, it’s a play surface. When fully opened, this sturdy bag makes a great area for playing with LEGO bricks, wooden blocks, and so on. Second, it’s fantastic for storage. When playtime’s over, just zip! It’s closed. Use the built-in straps to close or hang it up. Finally, it’s super for transportation. My son has a mind-bending number of Skylanders figures which he brings to his buddy’s house. The Swoop Bag is a great way to transport them.
  3. Rainbow Loom. It’s a clever little device that lets kids make all sorts of bracelets with elastics. My kids sure love it, and that means I find tiny rubber bands all over the place. Keep them tidy with a multi-compartment container. It also helps kids more easily transport their “loom gear” to their friends’ houses.
  4. A can of chalkboard paint. Stay with me here. Last Christmas, we gave a pint of chalkboard paint to the kids, whose initial reaction was hesitant. A year later, they absolutely love it. My son is always changing the “art” on his wall, while my daughter has taken to using her wall as a calendar. She’ll note down what’s happening on a given day, like “ballet” or “play practice.” She draws goofy faces, too, but that’s the fun. Slap some on the wall, hand them a box of fresh, colorful chalk, and let them go wild without any paper mess cluttering up their spaces.
  5. Activity bags are great for older kids. Val Jacobs makes super dance bags, from multi-pocketed duffels to hanging solutions that can accommodate costumes, makeup, and more. CCM makes a very nice hockey bag that’s suitable for other sports, too. (While we’re on the subject, here’s how to keep odor out of sports equipment bags.)
  6. The chalkboard laptop. Seriously, how adorable is this? This handmade, wooden “laptop” features a chalkboard screen and keyboard, plus a slot for chalk where the trackpad is on mom and dad’s laptop. The whole thing folds up for easily for travel and storage, just like its computer counterpart.
  7. The crayon bandolier is adorable and handy. First of all, it’s super cute. And, secondly, it keeps crayons ready to go and not all over the table or floor.
  8. The Doodle Tablecloth. Since you’ve got the crayons out, break out the Doodle Tablecloth to complete the set. This lined tablecloth is machine washable and ships with a pack of eight washable markers. If you’re not willing to subject your entire tablecloth to Jr.’s artistic endeavors, consider the Doodle placemat set.

Want more gift-giving ideas? Explore Unclutterer’s full 2013 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.

Easing out of daylight saving time

As a child, I had an eccentric uncle who collected clocks. Every room had at least five or six, all ticking away. As you could imagine, the end of daylight saving time was an adventure. Uncle Mike would start adjusting their time one week in advance. Each day he’d change a handful of clocks, and leave the rest for the following day. It drove my poor aunt crazy. “For one week each year,” she’d say, “I have no idea what time it is.”

If you’re in the U.S., don’t let the change from daylight saving time (DST) this weekend stress you out (even if you collect clocks). With some careful preparation, you can get through it relatively unscathed.

Most people dislike the change to their sleeping habits that comes with the return to standard time. According to WebMD, it’s best to ease into it. Nicholas Rummo, MD, director of the Center for Sleep at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., recommends going to sleep a little bit earlier each night leading up to the changeover. For example, going to sleep 10 minutes earlier each night for six nights will help quite a bit.

This is especially helpful for the kids, who often struggle with the change. In fact, this is the same thing my wife and I do as we make the transition from summer vacation to the school year. It works pretty well.

WebMD also suggests exposing yourself to sunlight as early as you can. Have breakfast near a window or even walk outdoors for a bit, if you can. This will help reset your internal clock.

Back to the kids. The time change can be difficult for school-age children, and downright miserable for toddlers (and their parents). One thing you can do to ease the pain for everyone is stick to an established routine. Dr. Jodi Mindell, author of Sleeping Through the Night, believes this is the way to go. “You want to stick by the clock and stick to the bedtime rules,” she said. “Another piece that is key is wake them up at their normal times–don’t let them sleep later to ‘make up’ for lost sleep from the night before.”

But really, the best advice I can give here is be prepared. The kids are going to get less sleep then they’re used to, so try to be patient and prepared.

Besides sleeping changes, what else is there to do? First of all, confirm that your clocks — both electronic and analog — make the change. Some will do so automatically, like your cable box, computer, smartphone or tablet. Others will need a little help. I always forget about the clock in the car (as well as how to change it). Our microwave oven also spends a few days displaying the wrong time.

Also, this is a good time to make sure your home’s smoke detectors are working and replace batteries in your flashlights. The end of DST also marks the start of hurricane season here in New England, so I make a review of our storm food and related supplies each October/early November.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say, “Happy Halloween!”