keep it together, Mom (a back-to-school organizer)

Someone has the first-day jitters, but it's you, not your child. Why? Because the return of school season means the return of the why-haven't-you-brushed-your-teeth morning hustle, a barrage of paperwork, and scheduling chaos. Never fear: With the following ideas for three kid-centric areas of your home, you and your children can face the first day with a (sparkling) smile.


Welcome to the supersize equivalent of a junk drawer--a massive catchall for jackets, backpacks, shoes, and rain boots that also happens to be front and center for all to see. That's why you need an eye-pleasing system to organize the mishmash.

1. To manage incoming mail, permission slips, and more

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Toss everything on the console as soon as you walk in.

THIS YEAR: Make the most of vertical space with this sleek hanging organizer (WallyWall Organizer, $40, Designate pockets for incoming letters from school, paperwork that you can tackle while waiting to pick your child up from soccer, and items of the typical where-did-I-put-that variety (keys, cell phone, camera).

2. To corral dirty or wet shoes

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Toss them in the closet after you've already tracked muck into the house.

THIS YEAR: Use plastic serving trays to control the clutter and prevent puddles from damaging hardwood floors. is a good source for plastic trays (about $10 each).

3. To make sure your kids remember their lunch (or lunch money)

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Realize they forgot it when you get a 12 o'clock call from school.

THIS YEAR: Place a checklist of to-dos and don't-forgets on the wall. Or hole-punch the top, thread it with a ribbon, and hang it on the doorknob. Kids not readers yet? Let illustrations (a lunch box, a toothbrush) remind them of what needs to happen.

4. To organize outgoing items

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Pile them up on the kitchen counter, walk out the door, realize you forgot them, sigh, go back.

THIS YEAR: Get five magazine files and assign each a day of the school week; place any items your child needs for that day (signed permission slips, ballet slippers for after school) inside. Turn the day's file open-side out. If you're lucky enough to have a hall closet, you can apply the same principle to a five-tier hanging sweater organizer.

5. To keep track of activities

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Jot everything down (with the same permanent marker, natch) until your calendar is indecipherable.

THIS YEAR: Draw a calendar on a traditional dry-erase board. Or do it directly on your entryway wall. Similar to the ubiquitous chalk-board paint, IdeaPaint transforms almost any surface (walls, doors, desks) into a dry-erase writing area with a single application. (For $99, you get a roller and enough paint to cover a 25-square-foot space; To minimize confusion about who's where when, assign each family member a specific color marker.


The kitchen should really be called the living room. It's where your family congregates most, whether you're eating dinner, putting together a science project, or hosting pantry-raiding friends. Here, five ideas for your home's command central.

1. To keep track of invitations

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Stick them haphazardly on the refrigerator door.

THIS YEAR: Display them in chronological order. That way, a quick glance will tell you what's coming up next (and who needs a gift). Hang a bulletin board on the door using heavy-duty double-sided tape, or tack up invitations using super-strong Herculittles magnets ($8 for eight;, which will prevent heavy-stock cards from sliding southward.

2. To motivate kids to get dressed fast

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Remind them, oh, umpteen times that they need to suit up.

THIS YEAR: Establish a new rule: The first person who is fully clothed and in the kitchen gets to choose breakfast for the whole family. Write three or four basic breakfast options (cereal, oatmeal, eggs) on sticky notes and let the winning kid decide everyone's plate fate.

3. To get those tiny teeth brushed

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Send her all the way back to her bathroom when you realize she hasn't brushed after breakfast.

THIS YEAR: Stash an extra set of toothbrushes in the kitchen or the hall bathroom to save valuable early-morning minutes.

4. To divvy up chores fairly

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Create a chart that falls to the wayside when you run out of gold stars.

THIS YEAR: Add an element of surprise by playing spin-the-jar. Write chores on cards and toss them into a wide-mouthed container. To assign tasks, pull a card from the vessel and spin. Whoever the lid points to has to perform the chore. The remaining family members take turns until everyone has a task. If you're still gung ho on a chart, lets you assign a "how hard is it" rating to each task, ensuring everyone a fair share.

5. To minimize mealtime mess

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Leave the crumbs on the counter until you get home.

THIS YEAR: Let a roll of drawing paper play double duty as a countertop place mat (Mala roll, $5, and Mala dispenser, $6: Ikea stores). Kids can eat breakfast at the counter, and you can ball up the paper when they're finished. Bonus: You have a space to jot down last-minute reminders ("Buy milk"), and they can doodle.


In the not-too-distant future, your child will become a teen and post the obligatory NO PARENTS ALLOWED sign on his bedroom door. For now, you still have access to his sleeping quarters, which is why you should seize the opportunity to streamline his routine.

1. To help your kids grasp the concept of time

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Repeatedly remind them that they have "15 more minutes" to do this and do that.

THIS YEAR: Create a morning playlist. Is it your goal to be en route to school within an hour? Then create an iPod mix that's exactly 60 minutes. Pretty soon, your kids will know that their teeth need to be brushed by the time the Jonas Brothers come on, or that their backpacks should be zipped up by the time Hannah Montana starts singing.

2. To make room for new school clothes

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Hit the mall for new duds before addressing the old.

THIS YEAR: Strike a deal. You won't take him shopping until he first chooses at least 5 to 10 pieces to part with. Another strategy (that admittedly works better with daughters): Create a try-on pile of old clothes and shoes, map out a "runway" using masking tape, then turn on some music and play the role of the judge as she channels her inner Heidi Klum. Outfits deemed keepers stay in the rotation; those that get a thumbs-down are donated or consigned.

3. To save buying an 18th bottle of Elmer's Glue

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Purchase--you guessed it--an 18th bottle of Elmer's Glue.

THIS YEAR: Send your kids on a treasure hunt. Before school begins, assign each child a bag or a pillowcase and give them, say, 10 minutes to track down as many school supplies as possible--rubber cement, scissors, and so on. Give the winner a respite from chores for the week.

4. To avoid getting-dressed drama

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Explain to your child that this is the fifth grade, not the Oscars.

THIS YEAR: Let her pick out a week's worth of clothes on Sunday night; hang the outfits on hangers that have been assigned days of the week.

5. To manage the influx of artwork

WHAT YOU NORMALLY DO: Stick a few gems on the refrigerator (and feel like the World's Worst Mom when you toss the others).

THIS YEAR: Transform a child's wall into a museum gallery. Frame creations in clear frames (assorted acrylic frames, $4 to $25, and change the exhibition weekly. Save carefully selected keepers in a Schoolfolio ($28,, a UV-resistant, acid-free colorful plastic suitcase for safeguarding artwork. But before you pack up those pieces for posterity, play archivist and mark them with the date.

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