With the first day of school on the horizon, there’s no time like the present to stock up on gear for your young scholar.
Back-to-school shopping “is like a rite of passage,” says Elizabeth Thorp, editor of the comedy site PYPO and founder of Poshbrood, a blog that features mom-tested travel spots.
But figuring out what to buy can be time-consuming and stressful, not to mention expensive. This year, the National Retail Federation predicts that back-to-school spending in the United States will total $75.8 billion, up from last year’s $68 billion.
To help you get started, we enlisted five parenting gurus to pick must-have items for kids of all ages, from preschoolers to college-bound teens.
Joy Cho, the designer and lifestyle blogger behind Oh Joy!, says it’s never too early to start prepping your pint-size pupil for learning. “This is the age where children are transitioning from being toddlers, where you have to help them with everything, to being ‘big kids,’ ” she says. They’re forming distinct personalities and preferences (exciting!) but still require parents to do most of the selecting. Because Cho’s 5-year-old daughter, Ruby, is so little and doesn’t always like to choose all her things, “I get stuff knowing that we need it or as I come across things,” Cho says. “I do a lot of shopping online, as opposed to the massive, ‘Let’s get all this stuff all in one day!’ route.”
Cho’s preferred brown-bag alternative is Packit ($20, packit.com), a freezable lunch cooler that keeps food fresh for nearly 10 hours. “It makes you feel a little more at ease, knowing that their lunch is going to remain cold until the time they need to eat it,” she says.
To help kids get used to putting on their own shoes, Cho recommends a pair of cute Velcro or slip-on shoes, such as this nautical pair of espadrilles from the shoe company Toms ($36, toms.com). “Those have been a great one for us, because the Velcro is only one strap [and] easy to slip on,” she says. “Preschool kids can figure it out.”
For busy parents, Cho likes the idea behind Rockets of Awesome, a new clothing subscription service that sends on-trend, seasonal kids’ clothes directly to your home. The boys and girls collections, offered in sizes 2 to 14, feature clothes from $12 to $36 (rocketsofawesome.com).
Nature Play’s jumbo crayons are a hit with Ruby ($4 for a set of 12, store.natureplayart.com). “The triangular ones, for me, are key,” Cho says. The easy-to-grasp crayons are fashioned for little kids’ fingers and, as a bonus, their shape prevents them from rolling off tables and desks, saving parents (or teachers) the extra cleanup. “I’ll also stick several in my bag and have them ready for when we are out in public spaces,” she says.
Cuts and scraped knees are no fun at any age, but bright, patterned Band-Aids make the healing process a little more colorful. Cho’s whimsical Oh Joy! bandages are part of her collaboration with Target ($3, target.com). “Kids love them, but millennial moms are also excited to use them, because they’re not cartoon characters or over-the-top kid-like,” Cho says.
It’s Simon Isaacs’s job, as co-founder and chief executive of Fatherly, a fast-growing parenting website, to have his finger on the pulse of millennial parents and, by extension, their kids. For our roundup, he selected five fun, gender-neutral items that can inspire — and stand up to — busy grade-schoolers.
Mix Legos with electronics, and you’ll get the LittleBits STEAM student set ($300, amazon.com), an educational tool kit designed to help kids get excited about science, technology, engineering, art/design and math (STEAM) subjects through hands-on activities. Isaacs says it’s great “for after-school play” and “an easy way to get kids into STEAM education without necessarily being behind a screen.”
One of Isaacs’s top choices for the next school year is the OmieBox ($39.50, omielife.com). A product of a successful Kickstarter campaign, this lunchbox, designed for little ones, includes a durable, dual-insulation system that keeps compartments temperature-controlled (hot or cold) for roughly four hours — perfect for kids’ lunchtime. The set is dishwasher-friendly and includes several removable dividers to allow it to fit all types of food. “There’s a million different ways to configure it, depending on what foods and types of things you are packing,” he says.
Look beyond the school-supply aisles when putting together your children’s pencil boxes. Yoobi’s latest back-to-school collaboration with Pharrell Williams’s brand, I Am Other, features pens and other products with messages that promote confidence and creativity and celebrate “otherness” ($10 for bundle of pens, pencils and highlighters, yoobi.com). Bonus: With every Yoobi product purchased, one is donated to a classroom in need. “Think of it as Toms shoes meets Staples,” he says.
Young kids, especially elementary school students, have a tendency to put a lot of wear and tear on their backpacks. The durable, water-resistant Patagonia Kids’ Bonsai Backpack ($59, patagonia.com) will withstand the elements and the toughest schoolyard dragging. “It’s a really rugged, great pack,” Isaacs says.
Nothing says the start of school like a fresh pair of sneakers. Isaacs recommends the Los Angeles-based, unisex shoe brand AKID ($80, shop.nordstrom.com ). The fashion-forward kicks, which feature fun prints such as pineapples and tie-dye, are super-rugged, Isaacs says, and great for keeping up with the kids at recess. “Your kid will probably be the only one on the playground with it,” he says.
Jessica McFadden has back-to-school shopping down to a fine art. It all begins two weeks before the first day of school, says the mother of three and writer behind the popular blog A Parent in Silver Spring. “We go through the kids’ school-supplies lists first, then tackle their closets and then go through their hand-me-downs from other siblings,” McFadden says. That being said, there are always things that don’t make school-supply lists that you’ll want to stock up on before the school year starts.
“Kids tend to really put value in their tennis shoes,” McFadden says. “Or, as they call it, their ‘shoe game.’ ” She recommends a pair of low-top mesh sneakers from the Nike Roshe series ($65-$160, nike.com) or Adidas Bounce series ($65-$135, adidas.com), which are often on sale online. They are colorful, on-trend and breathable, which helps prevent stinky preteen feet.
No more lost-and-found mishaps with these custom name labels from Minted ($16 for 72 labels, minted.com). “They are so much more effective than just writing your kids’ names with a Sharpie on the label,” says McFadden, who uses them on her three children’s clothing. “They last through multiple washes and are really small but very easy to read.” They are especially helpful for kids who wear uniforms.
Middle school is a popular time for parents to send their kids to school with a cellphone for the first time. McFadden recommends investing in a waterproof, drop-resistant case, such as the LifeProof Fre ($50-$90, lifeproof.com).
Embrace your kids’ personal interests with a shirt from SnorgTees ($12-$20, snorgtees.com). McFadden says kids love the site’s quirky and pop-culture-inspired tees, which riff off popular TV series such as “Gilmore Girls” and “Doctor Who” and are silly and ironic while still being appropriate for school. It’s great for “when you’re in that no man’s land, between being a kid and a teenager” and “still want to embrace your childhood but not look too babyish at the same time,” she says. SnorgTees are always at the top of her teen’s drawer.
A game-changer for her 12-year-old son was the Mighty Zip Tab by Case It ($22, caseit.com). “I bought him a standard three-ring binder in a cool color, per the school list, but after two months it was falling apart,” McFadden says. Her middle-schooler took a cue from the older students and requested a zip-around three-ring binder with a strap. “It’s so much more convenient to lug around and keeps things in place,” she says.
Before Elizabeth Thorp, the PYPO editor, commits to big back-to-school purchases, she scopes Basket, a price-comparison app, to find the best and closest deal. “You just search what you want, be it pens, pencils, even sauvignon blanc, and it will pull up all the stores that are near you and tell you which stores offer the cheapest price,” she says.
Another of her tricks is to purchase certain school supplies while vacationing in another state, if that state’s sales tax is lower. “In Maine, things are a lot cheaper, compared to Washington, so I’ve started stocking the kids up on the core items, like Number 2 pencils,” Thorp says.
As for apparel, she suggests waiting a week or two after school starts before making big purchases. Teens “go to school and notice what the other kids are wearing that they didn’t know about” and inevitably want.
Teens are on their phones. A lot. Whether it be Snapchat or Pokémon Go that’s draining their battery, it’s a good idea to invest in a case that doubles as a backup battery pack, such as Mophie’s Juice Pack Reserve case ($60, mophie.com). “In my era, the 1980s, I had to find a payphone. Now, you can just throw the case in your backpack and recharge it throughout your day,” Thorp says. “ ‘Oh, my battery ran out’ is no longer an excuse.”
For girls, Thorp recommends the Girl Crush 17-month agenda ($20, bando.com) for the new school year. It fits “this recent movement of girl power,” Thorp says, “like the United State of Women convention and Michelle Obama’s amazing speech” at the Democratic National Convention. It also keeps teens accountable and prepared for when they have to handle their own appointments. “It’s hardcover, affordable and includes upbeat, positive messages,” Thorp says. “Think of it like an assignment notebook mixed with a diary.”
Backpacks can be a way for teens to express their personalities. Thorp recommends JanSport High Stakes backpacks ($40, jansport.com), which feature wraparound, attention-grabbing graphics, such as graffiti art, American flags and beachscapes. “When I was growing up, I had a plain red backpack,” she says. “Here, there’s a bag for every personality.” The packs are teen-tested and parent-approved. “We’ve used ours a bunch of times, and they are still in great condition,” Thorp says.
To encourage teens to stay hydrated, Thorp likes the stylish, metallic 17-ounce reusable bottles from S’well ($42, swellbottle.com). Offered in a variety of sizes and customizable from the cap down, the bottles “look good, are environmentally friendly and encourage kids to drink water, whether they’re at sports games or in between classes,” she says.
Keychains aren’t just for little kids any more. This cute leather tassel from Urban Outfitters ($26, urbanoutfitters.com) includes a concealed USB charging cord for an iPhone. “High school kids can clip it on their keys, purse or backpack and have it with them, wherever they go,” Thorp says. “It’s leather, cute and expensive-looking.”
Lisa Heffernan, co-founder of the popular parenting blog Grown & Flown, is well versed in all things college. She and her business partner, Mary Dell Harrington, were inspired to create the site, geared toward parents of kids ages 15 to 25, in 2005 after sending their eldest off to college. “We were dealing with a lot of issues surrounding this age group that we were not seeing touched on anywhere,” Heffernan says.
When it comes to outfitting a college freshman, one thing to keep in mind, Heffernan warns, is that it is simply going to be more expensive than previous years. Many students need laptops, mini-fridges and other dorm furnishings. “We like to call it ‘the mother of all back-to-school shopping trips,’ ” Heffernan jokes.
To keep costs under control, make a budget and figure out with your teen which items are necessary and which are splurges. That being said, it’s okay if your teen doesn’t have every single thing upon move-in. “Only buy the things that you know 100 percent they’re going to use,” Heffernan says. “It’s not 1984. As teens get used to their living situation, have them order things online that they need.”
Heffernan recommends an ultra-compact personal safety device, such as a ROBOCOPP personal alarm ($15-$20, robocopp.com), as added security for teens’ late-night walks home from the library or elsewhere. This tiny device can be attached to a keychain or backpack and can make as much noise as an ambulance when activated. “One of the biggest issues that is really making college parents nervous right now is the notion of sexual assault,” Heffernan says. “While there is nothing that can 100 percent ensure against it, these devices might help in some circumstances.”
Ask your teen to lock away prescription medicine, passports, emergency cash, jewelry and other valuables. “You just don’t want those kinds of things sitting around, getting lost or getting lifted,” she says. Her pick is the First Alert Deluxe Digital Security Box ($50, firstalertstore.com), a small, flat steel box that can fit inside a desk drawer. The device also boasts an emergency override system, in case your teen forgets the passcode.
A sturdy backpack is a staple for college students, who are often lugging laptops and textbooks long distances. “In high school, kids jump out of a car and run straight into a building that has covered walkways,” Heffernan says. “In college, that’s not going to happen. Teens are going to walk across campus in the pouring rain.” The Herschel Supply Co. Pop Quiz Backpack ($90, shop.herschelsupply.com) is trendy and water-resistant and was designed with students in mind, with features such as a padded laptop sleeve.
Phones are the No. 1 safety device. “Kids are on the go all day, and you do not want them having a dead phone,” Heffernan says. She prefers the compact, affordable external charger from Jackery ($30, amazon.com), which can easily be thrown into a backpack or purse.
“Dorm rooms are noisy and can make it impossible to study and sleep,” Heffernan says. A solution to escape the chaos — without leaving the bedroom — is a pair of Bluetooth headphones from Urbanears ($99-$119, urbanears.com). Offered in a selection of colors, they provide up to 14 hours of solid play time before a charge is needed.