Nothing is quite as thrilling — or challenging — as the beginning of the school year. While your kids are excited about new friends, new teachers, and new discoveries, you're caught up in the tasks of keeping organized, calming jitters, and staying on schedule.
To help you and your family focus on the fun stuff and steer clear of the stresses, we've assembled a collection of back-to-school tips from the experts: our readers and staff. Try a few of these morning strategies, homework helpers, lunch solutions, and easy organizing ideas, and you just might move to the head of the class.
GET A HEAD START ON MAKING FRIENDS To ease her daughter Allison's transition into first grade last year, Amy Lane Grant arranged a series of late-summer school playground gatherings. She invited just a few of Allison's friends and their parents for the first playdate, then for the next one, she included a few more. "We did this for three weeks," says the Selkirk, New York, mom, "with the last session being quite large as word of our get-togethers spread. Not only did it allow my daughter to spend time with kids who would be at her new school, but many of the parents were able to meet as well."
DON'T FORGET A THING There's a lot to remember at the start of the school year, from new phone numbers and e-mails to school supply lists and special dates. Our mini reminder book makes it easy to keep track of it all. Assembled using craft foam, paper, Velcro, and elastic cord, it clips to a zipper pull so that it's always on hand for jotting things down.
1/4-inch-wide pieces of adhesive-backed Velcro
12 inches of elastic cord
Adhesive-backed craft foam
Copy paper cut to fit, center-stapled, and backed with cardboard
2-1/2- by 6-inch rectangle of craft foam
Cut, stack, and staple the paper, fold it inside the cardboard-lined craft foam cover, then bind the book with cord. The pencil tucks inside, held in place with Velcro.
HELP KIDS KEEP TRACK OF TIME Whether you're trying to speed your kids up (to get them out the door, say) or slow them down (as they practice an instrument), these two clever devices could come in handy. The straightforward Time Timer (timetimer.com, $35) features a 60-minute clock face with a shrinking red wedge that shows little ones the minutes ebbing away. Recommended by readers, Time Tracker Visual Timer & Clock (learningresources.com, $40) works like a tabletop stoplight, changing from green to yellow to red (with sound if you wish) as the allotted time runs out. It requires some setup, but then it's a cinch to use.
CRAFT A CAN'T-MISS REMINDER After delivering her second-grader's forgotten lunch to school a few too many times, Alisson Clark came up with a trick for reminding Owen, now 10, to get it from the fridge. She wrote Lunch on one side of a wood clothespin and clipped it to his backpack. This simple solution worked so well that the Gainesville, Florida, mom penned additional clips for other often-overlooked items. Make a changeable reminder clip like the one shown here by gluing a pad of mini sticky notes to a clothespin. Then you can tear off sheets and switch the "don't forget" message from day to day.
GET OUT OF BED WITH A STRETCH To help her little sleepyheads get in gear, Marsha Wenig, founder of YogaKids International, had them do a few simple stretches. The combination of breathing and movement wakes up the whole body, she says, and offers inspiration for the day ahead. Here are some morning moves your kids can try:
Butterfly with Antennae Sit up straight. Bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together. Bend your elbows out to the side and make butterfly antennae with your pointer fingers. Wiggle your antennae and flap your arms and legs like wings until you're ready to take flight from bed.
Reach for the Sun Stand up tall. Breathe in as you reach up high with one of your hands and grab a piece of sunshine. Pull it down to your belly as you exhale and say, "hah." Repeat several times, alternating hands.
Shake like Jelly This one's simple: just wiggle and jiggle your whole body from head to toe.
Stork Stand with your feet together. Lift and bend your right leg so that the foot is beside your left knee. Bend your left arm at the elbow, palm facing down. Balance your body and mind for five seconds as you make a wish for the day. Repeat on the other side.
Volcano Stand tall with your feet together and fingertips touching in front of your chest. Jump your feet and arms apart, then bring your palms together. Breathe in and watch your hands as you raise them over your head, then breathe out as you explode your arms outward and lower them to your sides. Continue erupting, raising your arms on an inhale and lowering them on an exhale, several times.
BAKE A MAKE-AHEAD BREAKFAST Don't have time for a sit-down meal in the morning? Bake and freeze a batch of our scrumptious make-ahead muffins. Besides banana and chocolate chips, our recipe uses whole wheat flour and has a larger yield than many (18 muffins). When the morning routine has slowed to a crawl, kids can quickly microwave a muffin to go.
Make your next PB&J a cut above the rest by using Puzzle Bites Crustless Sandwich Cutter (Mom Invented, $4), a slicer that trims away crusts and turns your child's sandwich into an edible puzzle.
DIP INTO SOMETHING DIFFERENT Switch your child's usual sandwich for a delicious lunch alternative like Very Veggie Dip.
ALSO TRY Apricot Yogurt Dip.
SHAPE UP BROWN BAG FARE Stamping cheese or deli slices into shapes is a whimsical way to dress up a dull lunch, one that might even coax your child into eating more of her meal. We like mini alphabet fondant cutters (Wilton, $16 for a set) for sending short, sweet messages atop salads, pastas, or soups. You may need a toothpick to pry some pieces from the cutters, but the result is worth the effort.
GIVE PAPERWORK A PLACE TO HANG OUT The Tungetts of Rochester, Illinois, stay organized thanks to a set of four clipboards — one per family member — hanging from screws on their kitchen wall. Order forms, field trip information, invitations, recipes, and other papers for Matt, age 10, Amelia, 5, mom Michele, and dad Mike are added as soon as they're received. "I can't tell you what a difference it has made," says Michele. No more forgotten forms — and when she needs something, she knows exactly where to look.
SERVE LUNCH ON A STICK Eating fruit, cheese, or deli meat on a stick is far more fun than eating it out of a plain old plastic bag. These mini bamboo skewers (pickonus.com, $10 for 100-200) are topped with everything from diamonds to dolphins.
START THE DAY WITH A MASTERPIECE If you're like us, your enthusiasm for your kids' art is matched only by your bewilderment at what to do with all their creations. Here's a simple solution: tape kids' artwork to the back of cereal boxes. Family members can admire it while they munch on breakfast, and when a box is empty, you can recycle the gallery, artwork and all, without guilt.
PUT ART ON DIGITAL DISPLAY Danielle Wagner has a high-tech solution to the decidedly low-tech problem of kids' art clutter. It came to her at the end of son Martin's first year in preschool. "I had a pile of projects that I wanted to preserve, but didn't want to just throw them in a box," recalls the Toms River, New Jersey, mom. "I started taking photos of them and realized we could enjoy them a lot longer if I put them in a digital frame." She chose one that lets her upload pictures directly from her computer. Now a treasure trove of 5-year-old Martin's masterpieces are on continuous display in the living room. The frame is also perfect for showing off 3-D works.
FIND A NEW HAVEN FOR HOMEWORK TIME Who says homework has to be done at a desk? Spark fresh enthusiasm in your kids for the task by having them study in a new spot. First, on a set of index cards or identical pieces of card stock, have them draw pictures of places around the house where they'd like to study. Maybe it's in a backyard tent, in a dry bathtub with pillows, or under the dining room table; the locale can be quirky or conventional. Then, when the homework doldrums strike, invite them to pick a card … any card.
STOCK A HOMEWORK BOX Anna Burch and son Lucas, age 6, created a simple homework box — a plastic scrapbooking bin filled with frequently used items. "Having the box tucked away on the counter or in a corner keeps everything handy," says Anna. Lucas's box holds pencils, paper, tape, and all the other things he needs to complete his work.
TRY THESE ART DISPLAY CLASSICS
Still have more art than you can archive? Don't forget these ideas:
Tape creations inside kitchen cabinets or in basement stairwells
Turn them into greeting cards or wrapping paper
Save seasonal works and use them as holiday decorations
Donate them to a local nursing home or senior center