With the school year under way, countertops across the country are disappearing under mounds of school papers, quizzes, art projects and permission slips. The carefully plotted strategy of organized backpacks and tidy refrigerator magnets is in shambles. And these are just skirmishes. The true battle lies ahead when the deluge of holiday crafts rains down. Fear not. The battle against paper clutter can be won. Start with these 10 tips:
1 Prepare the battleground. It is much easier to stay organized when everything has a proper place. Designate one place where every piece of paper goes after school and prevent the early morning permission-slip chase. It can be the back hall or the dining room table, as long as it’s the same place every day. This central clearinghouse gives you and your kids a starting ground from which to sort. If you have a place where homework gets done and backpacks are stored, that’s a good place to start.
2 Sort daily. This is the key—miss a day and the whole system can fall apart. Sit down with your child to sort through his backpack at the end of each school day. Consider this your role model moment—you’re teaching him how to set priorities and make decisions, not to mention learning to stay organized. You’ll also have the chance to talk about the school day.
Employ that standard paper-managing technique: Touch each piece of paper only once. Decide immediately what to recycle, keep or return. Returns are those papers that need to be signed (permission slips), filled out (order forms) or sent back with a check. Deal with these immediately and return them to the backpack. You’ve reduced the "to-do" pile. As far as what to keep, each family, and each child, has different ideas about what’s important. Making those decisions together is a good learning process for everyone.
3 Create a resource area. Sally Prescott, Creative Memories consultant and mother of five from Oak Park, has a three-ring binder in her kitchen. This book holds information she needs to reference throughout the school year. "I have a color-coded tab for each of my kids with their class schedules, school contact numbers and field trip information. When these kinds of papers come home from school, I slip them easily in the binder and access information whenever I need it."
4 Delegate responsibility. Prescott makes sure all of her children have their own spaces to maintain and organize. "Each of my kids has a cubby where he or she can store long-term school projects or class phone lists. Each child is responsible for putting things back where they belong after each use. This way I’m not tracking down objects five times a day." Whether it’s a cubby or a plastic box, this space needs to be finite, not just an endless catch-all. Younger students may need some help staying on track.
5 Display it. We want our kids to take pride in a job well done. Burying tests in piles of paper doesn’t do much to instill pride. Showing off "A" papers and art projects is a better way to build confidence. But these displays can overwhelm your space quickly, especially if you have more than one child. Try one refrigerator magnet per child. Your son’s perfect spelling test can hang neatly next to your daughter’s preschool noodle art for a week or so. By limiting every person to one object a time, you force your children to make a choice. Together, you can decide when to replace an item with something new. For more kids, consider hanging a twine or string along a bare wall. Give each child a clothespin or two and let them choose which papers to pin up for temporary display.
6 Create a family gallery. Diane Sammarco, mother of two in Western Springs, loved all her kids’ art work but didn’t have space to keep it all. She and her sons chose their favorite pieces, which she then matted and framed. She arranged eight pieces artfully on the dining room wall where they now serve as a one-of-a-kind gallery. This can be done on any scale, with inexpensive Plexiglas or plastic frames available in many sizes. The frames hang in one spot while the artwork can be rotated or replaced. You may be surprised how quickly simple black frames turn finger paints into great art.
7 Photograph it. No matter how proud we are of the work our kids do at school, it’s just not possible to keep or display it all. Intricate three-dimensional science projects just may not fit with your home décor. Photographs are a great way to celebrate your child’s hard work and achievement. A picture of your daughter standing proudly next to her work has the added benefit of capturing how she looks at that exact moment in time and holds the work in its purest form, before it’s wrecked by disintegration. Photos can be displayed for a while and then kept in a keepsake album or scrapbook.
8 Recycle it. Art projects, especially young children’s abstract art, can be reused in a variety of ways. Large finger paintings make great gift wrap. Kids get a kick out of using something they’ve created. Plus, it’s cheaper, better for the environment and more personal than anything you could buy. Smaller pieces can be made into cards, gift tags, even envelopes. An 8½-by-11-inch piece of artwork folded in half with a birthday message written inside may be its own gift for grandma.
9 File it away. While not every piece of paper is meant for display, some are meant to be saved. Important tests, reports and projects should be filed away in a special place for each child. If you have space for a file cabinet, create a hanging file for each child. Otherwise, individual file boxes are available in all sorts of shapes and styles. Keep in mind they should be sturdy enough to withstand the test of time.
When determining what to save long term, Prescott asks herself, "Will this matter to him in 20 years?" This seems like a tough barometer, but there’s no sense in wasting space on every single history test or spelling quiz. What will matter to you and your children long term are papers, which are personal or symbolic of a certain age or grade. For example, keep your daughter’s first big essay written in cursive about her career dreams. This will be a treasure for both of you in years to come.
10 Purge frequently. What seems priceless and important in October may lose its luster by January. Spend time with your child going through his file, deciding what he can toss. Letting go is difficult for many people, but it is an important life lesson. Besides, sitting down together and sifting through papers provides a great opportunity to relive school memories and talk about how far he’s come, even just since the beginning of the school year.
Alena Murguia is the mom of three boys and works part-time for Chicago Parent.