When it comes to staying organized, papers, in general, are a
nightmare hassle. The papers that kids bring home from school can pose a special challenge. They tend to have more hands on them (teacher, parents, and child) plus more back and forth travel. My first few years of teaching, I was totally overwhelmed by papers, but I think that helped prepare and develop strategies for the avalanche of papers that I’d be seeing as a parent.
I remember the first time my older son came home from school with something that he created. Not something copied or pasted, but a sentence that came out of his own head written down by his own little hand. For a minute, I stood in the kitchen thinking about how at one time he wasn’t in this world, then he was inside me, then he was out in the world, and now he was adding content to the world. It blew.my.mind. How could I ever discard anything that was the product of that miracle of a thought turning into a thing?
Super easily, I learned. My cousin has kids a little older than mine, and when I started to feel overwhelmed by the papers coming home, I asked her for her strategy for dealing with kids’ work. Without blinking she answered, “Recycle them.” She was right of course, like anything, kids’ work needs curation.
The How-To for Tossing
I’ve heard some advice that says you should toss your child’s work when they aren’t around to avoid hurt feelings. I actually make a point of involving the kids in deciding what to keep and what to recycle. I always want the kids to know that the work and effort they put into something is just as (or more) important than the finished product.
There have been times when I, as an adult, have worked for hours, days, or weeks on a project and the end result turns out to be super-crap. I feel frustrated when that happens, but it’s not soul crushing when I remember that progress is being made inside of me. Maybe I’ve only learned how not to do something. Maybe I have some insight into a strength or weakness. Regardless of what has been developed or exercised, internal progress can never be taken away and that, to me, has real value.
The same is true for kids, and I want mine to be continuously reminded of that. Each afternoon, the kids and I go through all the papers they bring home. We spend a few minutes going over what they did well and what they need to work on. Then they throw their papers in the recycling bin. They’re rarely attached to the finished product because they know that it’s served its purpose in helping them to develop. The value of the work has been transferred to the child, and the paper isn’t meaningful anymore.
What to Keep
That’s not to say that we don’t keep anything. There are a few artifacts that are so reflective of that moment in a child’s life that we want to preserve them. The work we keep, tends to fit into these categories:
- Shows Growth – When I was teaching, one of the most encouraging things I found for frustrated kids was to show them evidence of their growth. From a child’s point of view, learning and development can happen so gradually that they don’t even realize how far they’ve come. I like to save a few work samples, so if the kids ever get overwhelmed by learning something new, I can pull it out and say, “Remember when this was hard for you? And now it’s easy. If you keep pushing through this tough thing, someday this will be easy for you too.”
- Shows Mastery – Similarly, I’d save work that is evidence of overcoming a challenge. Let’s say a child has been struggling with spelling all year, but after working hard and studying, they do great on a spelling test. I’d save that test with a little note reminding us of why we saved it. Again, this would be a great thing to pull out when they’re feeling discouraged, saying, “I know you feel like you can’t do this, but you’ve felt that way before. And then you did it.”
- Reflection of the child – Occasionally, kids produce work that provides a laserlike focus on who they are as human beings at that time. If it’s “so them” – I always keep it. If there’s any doubt that I’ll remember why I’m saving it, I write a note on the back saying something like, “Sam has been obsessed with black holes for a year. This picture is of a black hole doing battle with a hero who has a magical mohawk that shoots out lightning bolts.” So Sam.
- Artwork – Artwork is hard because some kids make so much of it. That’s awesome because they naturally understand and enjoy the value of creating. I really only save the artwork that the boys have put a lot of energy or effort into or things that they specifically want to save. In our case, that hasn’t been much at all. But I know some kids that are much more prolific artists and also more attached to their work, so more on that below.
How to Keep It
This is probably overkill for some people, but it feels like the right balance for us, for now. For each of the boys I bought a several of these bins. They have one bin to hold momentos from birth through preschool. When they began kindergarten, I started a bin for each grade level because they were making and doing a lot more things. Besides special school work and art we also keep special objects. I saved one baby outfit for each them, sports jerseys, and birthday cards. Sam broke his arm when he was three and even though it makes me sad, he loves his cast, so we saved it – along with anything that was exceptionally meaningful to them at that time in their lives.
I keep the bins for the current year under my desk in the playroom where I usually am when we go through papers. That way it’s easy to toss things in as the year goes along. Before a new school year begins, I close up the box and put it in a big storage tote that we keep in the attic for each of the boys. When they move out someday, they’ll have one tote of memories that will be organized by year. Hopefully, it will be easy for them to go through and decide what they want to get rid of or to keep.
For artwork, I have a few spots around the house where the kids can pin up their work – a magnetic board in the playroom, a chalkboard in the bedroom, and a corkboard in the living room. I don’t think our oldest has hung up work once. The youngest does it continuously. After having work on display for awhile, I ask him if he wants to keep it or recycle it. So far, he’s always said to recycle it, but if he ever says he wants to keep it, it would go into his memory box.
If you have a child that really likes to hold onto their a lot of their work, I’ve found it helpful to get a storage container from the dollar store and tell them they can keep whatever they’d like in it, but it can’t be overflowing. If the container is full and they want to add something to it, they have to get rid of some things first. We don’t use this method for papers because our kids don’t care to save much, but we do use it for little prizes they get with kids’ meals and birthday parties and it works really well. I also like that it gets them in the habit of going through their things every once in awhile and getting rid of what they don’t want or need.
This is so hard. Ideally, both parents would have total knowledge of what is going on at school. Ben (my husband) and I try so hard to be equally involved and invested in the kids’ education, but honestly sometimes that’s more confusing than just having one of us take the lead.
No joke, in the middle of writing this post, I saw that Sam’s completed homework packet (due today!) was left on the coffee table. After he’d finished it last night, I checked over it, and put it on top of his folder so he would have to be responsible for putting it away. Ben saw it, thought it was last week’s homework and moved it. And Sam (shockingly) never checked his folder to make sure that his homework was there. Lessons learned all around.The point is, it’s probably easier to have one adult in charge of the back and forth correspondence with school and then brief the other parent about what is going on.
Ben and I each have a Google Calendar account where we add appointments, meetings, special events, etc. having to do with the kids. It doesn’t seem like it would be difficult to keep track of the schedules of a five and eight year old, but I think we’d forget about most things that don’t have a digital reminder attached.
We always keep longer term projects and homework in the same place so they don’t get lost. I don’t think it matters where you put it, as long as it’s a consistent spot that everyone knows about and sticks with. We avoid putting school reminders on the refrigerator because it seems like it gets too cluttered and then we’d forget about it. Benny (our third grader) just got an assignment for a larger scale science project. He put the packet on the magnet board in the play room (where they do homework) and then I added the due dates to my calendar so it doesn’t sneak up on him (or us).
Each of the boys has a little bin where they keep their bookbags and anything else they might need for school. When they’re not reading the books from the school library, they go in the bin. It’s also nice have a designated place to put extra things, like a when they can bring a stuffed animal to school, for example. The less opportunity we have for school stuff to be spread throughout the house, the smoother our days go.
Of course, no system is perfect, and as evidenced by the homework that got left behind, life will still get in the way. But I hope that you’ve found something to be helpful here and I’d love to hear how you keep on top of the things your children bring into your life!