Papers, Papers, Papers … Organizing strategies for school projects, papers and artwork

paper main

Aww, that hand-print painting your 3-year-old preschooler brought home is SO cute!  Seriously, the construction paper turkey, the one with the googly eyes, is a-dorable. And the first time she wrote her name, the handmade Mother’s Day card, and the red paper lantern she brought home after the pint-sized celebration of Chinese New Year … keepers. Add those preschool creations to all the super cute, amazingly smart and obligatory keepers your child will bring home from school over the next 12 years, and you’ll be swimming in piles of paper.

Piles of paper make me anxious. So, soon after my twins started preschool (they are now fourth graders), I started experimenting with ways to save the good stuff and discard the rest guilt free.

General School-Paper Management

Regardless of whether your child is in preschool or high school, you need to devise a way of managing all the paper that makes its way from your child’s backpack to your kitchen counter. Here’s my strategy:

Every School Day

Take care of anything needing a signature, money, etc. right away. If I don’t do it the day I see it, it risks getting lost or thrown in the trash (really). So I sign permission slips, seal field-trip money in envelopes, and place them safely back in the backpack ASAP for their return trip to school.

Add any important dates/times to the family calendar. After reading any newsletters, bulletins, etc., I add important dates and times to my Google calendar so I won’t drop the ball on any commitments (while it’s not a fool proof method, it sure increases my follow-through rate!) . Sometimes I hang the flyer on the fridge for an extra visual reminder, or I toss it in the recycling.

Sort papers, project and art into two piles: Toss and Keep. Immediately after unloading their backpacks, I sort the kids’ take-home assignments into ones that get recycled (and proceed to put them in the recycle bin)  and ones I’ll probably keep. I say probably because I allow myself the opportunity to trash it later if my “keep” pile gets too big (read on for those details).

I write the month and year on each “keeper” and stash my keep pile in a folder in an upper cabinet in my kitchen. This is convenient for me because it’s near where the kids unload their bags, and it’s easy for me to access. Where ever you keep yours, make sure its super easy to get to — otherwise those papers will just sit on your counter when you are in a hurry (and really, when aren’t we?).

Every Friday

Each Friday, go through your keep pile quickly and decide if there are any papers that no longer make the cut. Maybe a very similar assignment came home later in the week, so you decide to recycle Monday’s look-alike. I find that preschool and early elementary students bring home enough paper that doing a once over again on Fridays makes sense. However, as they’ve gotten older, my boys bring home less work, so I look through my keepers again when my folder starts getting thick — about every 2 or 3 weeks.

Every Quarter

If you’ve been diligent in reassessing your keep pile every few weeks, by the end of the quarter, you have a small stack of assignments that you plan to keep forever, or at least until your lil’ student gets married and you demand that all her bins full of keepsakes leave your attic and accompany her to her new abode.

Now’s the time to transfer the contents of your keep folder to their permanent home. There are lots of options when it comes to storing kids’ artwork, super-cute poems and clever creative writing assignments … here are some of my favorites.

School Keepsake Storage Solutions: Options for construction paper to loose leaf

I found that the method that worked best to store all these treasures changed as my boys transitioned from preschool into elementary school. While most of these solutions store school-related stuff, I also use them for swimming lesson certificates, violin awards and other extra-curricular keepsakes.

Preschool & Kindergarten

12x12 scrapbooking files hold large preschool masterpieces.

12×12 scrapbooking files hold large preschool masterpieces.

The youngest scholars bring home super-cute, and often awkwardly sized projects. My guys made 11×17 bound booklets of the seven continents, puffy Thanksgiving turkeys and framed pictures of their classmates. I needed a storage solution that would, well, organize these masterpieces (vs. a box where I stashed them in a big lump), while accommodating their size and shape.

Oversized Expanding File. A 12×12 expandable pocket file did the trick. I bought both of mine at Target, but this one on Amazon looks very similar. I fit everything I wanted to keep for six school-years worth of my twins’ little masterpieces. Wooden pilgrims to snowman thermometers – it’s all stuffed in these. I continued to use them for 1st and 2nd grade simply because I still had empty pockets. However, the binder method I describe next would have worked just as well for those early elementary years.

Older Grades

When the kids started bringing home fewer huge construction-paper art projects and cotton-ball themed crafts, I found that I no longer needed the large accordion file.

Sturdy binders smartly store big-kid work.

Sturdy binders smartly store big-kid work.

3-Ring Binder. A 3-inch 3-ring binder and a box of top-loading page protectors fits the bill for storing older kids’ school projects. Most of what my boys brought home from 1st grade and beyond was on standard 8.5×11 sheets of paper. I simply slip the project into a page protector that is secured in the binder. If I do get an over-sized sheet every now and then, I simply fold it, and into the page protector it goes. When I want to remember something in particular about an assignment, I write a note on a post-it, stick it on the paper, and secure it inside the page protector.

The first page of each grade displays a first-day-school-picture, and the last page holds their report cards, standardized test scores, and related items. While you can choose to use one page for each report card, etc., I simply use the page protector like a pocket and slip them in all together.

I love that the binder is sturdier and easier to store than the expandable file. I have a binder for each boy. At this point, our binders hold only 3rd grade mementos. If they continue to bring home similar amounts of “keepers,”  these binders should hold their papers through middle school, and maybe beyond.

Really Big Projects

Okay, so what do we do with the science fair projects and other monster-sized Nobel Peace Prize worthy achievements? If you have the space and want to store the actual project in your basement, garage or attic — more power to you. I don’t.

I take pictures of large projects and add them to our family's annual photobooks.

I take pictures of large projects and add them to our family’s annual photobooks.

Take a Picture. Literally. Take a picture of the diorama, life-sized paper-mache tiger, or whatever, then put the picture in your 3-ring binder with a description of the project. Or include the picture in your family photo album. If you’re super-techy,  use an app like Artkive. Take a picture, tag and organize it, and create a book or other keepsake right from the app — pretty cool.  Either way, the essence of the project is captured for eternity without taking up valuable real estate in your attic.

Experiment with these options and see what works best for you, your kids and your home. But whatever you do — control the paper, Momma! Having some sort of organizational strategy helps keep the chaos at bay while preserving keepsakes you and your kiddos will appreciate years down the road.


We Were on TV Talking About Making Super Easy Homemade Toys

I’m loving these TV spots! The hosts are super fun, and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to share ways to create inexpensive and developmentally appropriate play for kids. This was my third appearance on Fox6 Real Milwaukee (here are links to our other two if you are interested: This time I talked about how to make homemade toys out of common household objects. I have SO many toys that fit the bill, that it was hard to narrow my ideas down to what would fit into a five minute segment.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, some of these will be familiar. But, I also added a few I haven’t written about yet (but will). Just click the picture below to view the segment. Enjoy!


Of course, at Jax in the Box, we stock lots of ready-made toys (no hot glue guns required). So click on over and browse our selection. You’re bound to find toys that will mix things up in your playroom without breaking the bank.

10 Lessons I Hope My Boys Learn From Their Dad

Kids are amazing observers … little eyes and ears soaking up everything around them. Which is sometimes hard to believe, like when your 8-year old insists he didn’t hear even one of your three requests that he clear his plate from the table. But they hear us, and, even more importantly, they see us. At the youngest ages, we are their role models. As they grow older and become better critical thinkers, they decide to what extent they want to be like us and what things, because they watched us, they will do differently.

I am a mom to three boys, twins aged 8 and a 20-month old, and the wife of an amazing husband.  At this young, tender point in their lives, he is their role model, their super hero. Truth is, he’s my hero too. No, he’s not perfect. Nobody is. As my boys grow into young men then adults, I pray that their observations of their dad and their experiences as his sons, will inspire them to make parts of this amazing man their own. What follows is a letter to my boys sharing 10 things I hope they are learning from their dad.

Lesson from Dad

1. Listen First

I mean really listen. It’s easy to hear words, but strive to understand their meaning. Only then do you succeed in really hearing them. Instead of thinking about what you are going to say next, pay close attention to what the other person is saying to you. Your dad listens. He listens for the thoughts and feelings in your words.  And only when he thinks he’s heard you does he respond. You might not always like what he has to say, but most of the time you know you’ve been heard. Becoming a good listener takes practice; your dad practiced too. But, you will have better relationships if you follow your dad’s lead and listen first.

2. Come Home For Dinner

Work can be hard. Work can be demanding. When you have your own wife and kids, sometimes making money and following through on your work responsibilities can compete with your family for your time. Dad comes home for dinner whenever he can. Sure, there are days he has evening meetings, but he is home at least twice each week to sit down, eat with us and talk about our days. In fact, you may not know this but he sometimes goes back to work after you go to bed so he can spend time with you around the dinner table. I know this matters to you because I see the disappointment in your eyes when, after asking if Dad will be home for dinner, I respond no. It’ll matter to your kids too.

3. Put Integrity Before Personal Gain

People who lie, cheat and steal to make money or otherwise get ahead in life are always found out eventually. While being honest might seem like the toughest choice in the short term, truthfulness will always be rewarded in the long run. Being honest and doing what you know is right teaches other people to trust you. And trustworthiness is one of the greatest gifts you can give your friends, the people you will work with, and eventually your wife and children. Your dad has incredible integrity — he is truthful, even when telling the truth is hard. This is one of the reasons why he is successful in his career, why I love him so much, and why our family is so strong.

4. Lead With Your Values

Figure out what is important to you, what really matters in your life, and let that guide your decisions. Your Dad loves God and uses his faith as a compass for his behavior — it tells him which direction to go next. There will be times when you don’t have people you trust to ask what you should do, and other people pressuring you to do things you know you shouldn’t. Use your values, what you know is right and what’s wrong, as your compass. Life hands us some tough choices, and without a value system to weigh your options against, you have little guidance helping you decide which way to go.

5. Bring Your Wife Coffee in the Morning

If she doesn’t like coffee, do something for her you know she loves — first thing in the morning everyday.  I love coffee. And when your dad brews the coffee and brings a hot cup to my bedside every morning, the first thing I think about is how much he loves and care for me. I couldn’t think of a better way to start my day.

6. Admit When You’re Wrong.

Your dad will be the first to tell you that real men admit when they make mistakes.  When dad says something he shouldn’t have, or doesn’t do something he promised he would, he tells you he’s wrong and asks for your forgiveness. I imagine this has taught you to respect him and trust him. We all screw up. But it’s what we do after that matters most. Admitting you are wrong teaches other people to trust you — they learn to depend on you and know that you will come forward if something goes wrong.

7. Don’t Forget How to Play

As a grownup, don’t get so bogged down in being an adult that you don’t make time to play. Dad plays with you — he did since you were itty-bitty boys. He played next to you on the floor when you stacked your first blocks, ran beside you when you took off your training wheels, and taught you how to pitch a baseball. One of the reasons you are so good at sports and such confident players is because Dad takes time to play. There will always be more work at the office, a lawn to care for, and things to fix in your house. But when you’re a dad, your kids will only be in your care for a short time. While they are young, make time to play.

8. Make Memories

Your annual excursions to the Boundary Waters camping and canoeing and to Lac Vieux Desert to ice fish — you look forward to these trips more than any other. Your dad intentionally makes great memories with you. They aren’t expensive, elaborate vacations. He chooses activities he knows you and he both love, and makes them special. He chooses activities that allow you to spend real time together — talking, laughing and learning. When you’re a dad, make memories with your kids when they are young. They’ll do the same with their kids and the tradition will live on.

9. Expect Your Best

This is what your dad has written on his desk at work: What do the best in the world do? What do we do? Where’s the gap? And how do we close it? While he could say that the city he runs is small and settle for less, he strives for better. He sets his goals on the best. Your dad is successful and is able to provide for us because he expects the best of himself. While emptying the dishwasher and your homework seem like small potatoes, he expects your best. He knows that making a habit of giving your all now will ensure you won’t settle for the status quo later when the stakes are higher.

10.  Let the People You Love Know They Matter

You, your brothers and I all know that dad loves us. Sure, his hard work and the time he spends with us show his love. But, he also tells us. He says, “I love you” lots. He also tells us that we are important to him. And he gives us compliments and hugs. He tells you how proud he is of your hard work in school and sports. He tells me how much he appreciates what I do for our family. He says these things a lot. These positive messages are like muscle juice for your heart and your spirit. You are stronger when tempted with bad choices because of the positive messages your dad uses to build you up. Don’t assume people know how much they matter to you. Tell them, and tell them often. It makes them stronger.

Love, Mom.

I don’t know when I’ll pass this letter along. I swear my twins were born older —but then again their dad was too. Old souls from day one. But today is probably too early. One day, they will seem mature enough and I’ll slip this under their pillow, or perhaps use it to replace the bookmark in whatever they are currently reading. And we’ll talk about it. We’ll talk about their dad, and discussing these things out loud will hopefully make them more likely to apply these things in their day-to-day lives. Because these lessons their dad models everyday are too important to leave to chance.

Jax-Proofing Our Abode: Baby proofing tips and tricks

Baby proofing mainA professional baby proofer (yes, they exist) once told me that if your wee one won’t die or be seriously injured as a consequence of not baby proofing something in your home, it’s not worth spending the money. So, that’s basically been my kid-proofing philosophy.  But even with that criteria, there are plenty of potential dangers lurking under your roof from which to protect Jr. And seeing as September is National Baby Safety Month, I thought it a prime opportunity to share some of my favorite baby-proofing products.

But keeping kids safe isn’t the only reason to baby proof your home. Children develop a greater sense of self-confidence and security if they can explore their home without hearing “no” every five seconds. Kids who are constantly told “don’t touch this” and “don’t open that” learn that curiosity is “bad”. Of course, this isn’t the intent of the parent. But, think about it. If every time you tried a new approach at work you were given the feedback that you shouldn’t to that, it’s an inconvenience to your boss, etc., you would stick to the way things were always done and stop thinking of new, innovative approaches. Children’s work is play, and an important part of play is exploring their environment. Giving them a safe home to explore within limits contributes to the development of creative, thinking kids.

So, when I baby proof something that doesn’t pose a life-threatening risk, it’s because I want to give Jax freedom without me having to hover over him so he doesn’t pull all the spices out of my spice cabinet 50 times a day (because he would if I let him, and putting them away would render me with little time to do anything else). Of course, teaching your little one to avoid a couple things (the DVD player buttons) is just fine. It’s when so many things are off limits that it begins to feel oppressive — I trust you get my drift.


Keep your kitchen safe from little explorers.

Keep your kitchen safe from little explorers.

Danger, danger! The kitchen probably poses the greatest danger to youngsters. And because you probably spend most of your time there, you little gal does too. Here are some of my favorite baby-proofing gadgets for the kitchen (all products are linked to Jax in the Box if we have it in stock, or if we don’t).

TotShield Stove Guard.  We have a gas stove with front knobs. I needed a solution that 1) prevented Jax from igniting the gas burners (turning the knobs), and 2) stopped him from reaching to touch the pretty, glowing blue flame when the burners are on. The TotShield has proven the perfect solution. It was a cinch to install, and easily removes when opening and closing the oven door. The downsides are: 1) it is large and prevents us from opening drawers directly next to the stove if the shield is shifted too far in one direction, 2) it’s a pain to wipe clean. But, it’s the only gadget I’ve tried that actually solves my two issues, so it’s a definite keeper and one that I would readily recommend.

Oven Lock. The lock prevents curious kids from opening a hot oven. Unless you plan to stand guard for the entire afternoon while your roast cooks, I highly suggest this investment.

Tot Lok Cabinet Locks. We had these in our Texas home and loved them, so we installed them when moving into our Wisconsin house. I like them because 1) you cannot see them when the cabinets are closed, 2)  children do not learn to open the cabinet unlike with spring-action locks, 3) they are easier to unlock than external sliding locks, and 4) you can deactivate the locks (without removing them) when you no longer need to secure the cabinet. However, we learned that they don’t work equally well on all cabinets and drawers. While they work beautifully on our cabinet doors, the drawers in our current home have thicker lips than our TX ones, so the standard Tot Lok magnet isn’t strong enough to unlatch the lock. So, we ended up using safety straps on our knife and “junk” (with super glue, tacks, wire cutters, etc.) drawers. Not beautiful, but they do the trick.

Securing the cabinets where you house your knives and cleaning supplies is a must. Beyond that, it’s up to you. When Jax was 12-18 mos. I also secured several cabinets that had glass bowls, jelly roll pans, etc., because I didn’t want to supervise him with these items when cooking. I left ones with plastic containers and pots and pans open. Now that he’s 21 months, I’ve disengaged the locks on the other cabinets (except cleaning supplies and knives). I’m fine with him moving around my bowls, measuring cups, cooling racks, etc. now that he has the control to hold them without dropping them. And if he does, well, so be it. I’ll just clean it up and move on. Just know yourself and the limits of your patience. If missing measuring cups and a broken glass bowl would drive you nuts, then keep the cabinet secure (and wait until you have baby #3).


Cabinets. Instead of locking my bathroom cabinet doors and drawers, I simply moved any cleaning supplies and other dangers up high. I

keep toilet paper, tissue boxes, and the like down low. But, lock your cabinets if you keep toilet bowl cleaner and other tempting toddler drinks under your sink.

The result of keeping certain things accessible to Jax while Mom's in the shower.

The result of keeping certain things accessible to Jax while Mom’s in the shower.

Toilet Seat Lid Lock. Young walkers are top heavy (big heads, little bodies) and can fall head first into the toilet when peering inside — I’m not kidding. And if you can picture that scene, you know that they probably can’t position themselves right-side up without assistance. Bottom line, an open toilet is a drowning hazard. Plus, Matchbox cars and sewer systems are poor bedfellows. Locking your toilets will likely save yourself a hefty bill from your plumber.

We’ve tried this fancier toilet seat lock, but it breaks easily. We went through two of them before we gave up and bought the Mommy’s Helper version.  While it is a hassle to clean, we find that it stands up to the abuse our family of five dishes out.

Keep little bodies and toys out of your toilet.

Keep little bodies and toys out of your toilet.

Baby’s Bedroom

Gear to keep baby safe and sound at night.

Gear to keep baby safe and sound at night.

Your little one is unsupervised the most in this room, so it’s important it’s safe. The place that houses the most danger is his crib.

Breathable Baby Bumper. You probably know that traditional crib bumpers, while cute and O’ so cozy looking, are dangerous. In fact their sale is outlawed in select US cities and states (like Chicago and Maryland) and in whole countries. Babies risk suffocation and toddlers use them as a step stool to climb out of the crib. Granted climbing isn’t all that risky, but suffocation is.

We chose not to use bumpers of any sort with our older twins. We had them in sleeping sacs, so the risk of legs getting caught in the rails was minimal. They didn’t use pacifiers, so we didn’t have the hassle of them falling to the ground.

But Jax uses a paci. In fact, we can see him on our video monitor wake at night, search for a paci, pop it in, and fall back asleep. Beautiful. When the paci’s (all three, four or five of them) would fall through the rails, he had nothing to sooth himself back to sleep. Upon noticing this problem, we quickly ran to the store and bought a Breathable Baby Bumper. Now we all sleep through the night (mostly).

Sleeping Bags. We think these are genius. I was first introduced to them by my best friend from the Netherlands more than 12 years ago, long before they were commonly available in the U.S. In fact, I ordered them from Europe when my twins were born because I couldn’t find cozy, warm ones here. Now, however, we have lots of options right here in the States.

Sleeping bags offer so many benefits: 1) Along with putting babies to sleep on their backs, they reduce the risk of SIDS, 2) They keep babies warm all night long because they can’t kick them off, and 3) They postpone toddlers’ ability to climb out of their cribs. It’s hard to lift your leg over the railing when you’re in a bag. Granted, one of my twins eventually did, but by that time he was almost three and plenty capable of landing safely.

Guardian Angel Window Guards. Young kids really do fall out of upper story windows. All it’ll take is a Google search and reading the heartbreaking stories to convince you that it’s well worth the time and expense to install window guards. We have them in both the twins’ and Jax’s second story rooms. They are expensive, so try to find them used (we did).

Tamper-Resistant Nightlight. Okay, this isn’t a life or death issue, but all my kids sleep with a night light. The trick is finding one that toddler’s can’t yank out of the socket. Safety 1st used to make one that screwed into the outlet and offered a swivel second outlet, but I can’t find it anywhere. So, this option is the next best thing. You still have to put an outlet plug into the second socket, but we love that it’s permanently fixed and that the light is operated via a sensor.

Other Danger Zones

Stairs. If you have babies or toddlers and stairs, you need gates. We like KidCo brand the best. We opted for a cheaper brand in our current

Top and bottom stair gates.

Top and bottom stair gates.

home, and, while they are just as safe, they are not as easy to use. Do not be tempted to use a pressure-mounted gate. They are easier to install to be sure, but they can come dislodged from the wall, and you and baby can trip over the floor bar.

If you have an oddly shaped stair opening, we love the Retract-A-Gate. It retracts into itself when not in use, and easily adapts to funky angles. The only downside is that you have to remember to extend it in order for it to keep your babe safe. Eight-year old twin brothers do not always remember to secure this type of gate. By the way, there are cheaper brands. We bought it for our patio stairs in the backyard. But is doesn’t offer the quality of Retract-A-Gate.

Lofts in second story homes (where you have a stair rail overlooking the first level) require a Banister Rail Guard. The clear material prevents the “we have a baby” look, while ensuring arms, legs, balls and other items stay on the second story.

Outlet Covers. You need to cover your outlets or toddlers carrying forks will try to

Swivel covers and power strip covers keep fingers and more out of sockets.

Swivel covers and power strip covers keep fingers and more out of sockets.

stick them in the holes, because toddlers try to stick everything into any available opening. There are outlet covers for just about any outlet situation you face. We love swivel covers because they keep tiny fingers out, but allow adults easy access to often-used outlets (say for vacuums). Let’s face it, outlet plugs are so good, they are often adult proof!  We love double touch outlet covers for things like lamps that are always plugged in. You don’t need ready access to these outlets, and you don’t want Jr. to unplug them. Similar, but larger, covers are available for appliances with adapter plugs.

We have power strips by our computer and TV areas. Power strip covers keep little fingers from exploring the super-cool looking plugs lined up on the power strips. They are expandable, and while a bit of a hassle to open and close (because, isn’t that the point?) we seldom have a need to dig inside.

Furniture Straps.  These easy-to-install straps ensure that heavy furniture doesn’t fall on top of curious, climbing toddlers. Imagine a 50+ lbs shelf or dresser falling on top of a 20 lbs baby – it happens more often than you think. Straps are inexpensive and an easy, preventative step to ensuring your tall furniture items stay upright.

So, there you have it. My must-have baby proofing items. I’ve field tested all of these (and plenty I haven’t listed and don’t make my cut). If you only have one kiddo, you might get away with monitoring his every move (but probably not). But, if you’re a mom to multiple kids, you know you can’t be always be there to prevent a disaster. Bread flour spilled all over the kitchen floor is one type of disaster, but a toddler falling through a second story window screen is quite another.

We’ve all heard moms of adults roll their eyes and comment that their kids are just fine, and they never did any baby proofing. In fact, they let Jr. sit on the floor boards while driving cross country. Well, they were lucky. There are hundreds of kids every year that aren’t.

A few dollars and a couple of hours can deliver piece of mind and prevent life threatening injury.