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Minimize Stress, Maximize Adventure

Melissa Roja Lawlor
June 13, 2012

Dirt & Noise blogger Ilina Ewen shares how to minimize back-to-school stress as part of the Care.com Interview Series

Mom blogger Ilina Ewen, who shares stories about life with her husband, two boys, and a dog over at her aptly named blog Dirt & Noise, is a bit of a self-proclaimed "oddball" -- not only in how she handles her family's busy schedules during the school year, but also in how she uses, among other things, a "Summer Adventure List" to keep her boys' brains working during the summer months. She shares with us how she deftly handles the summer to school bedtime transition, and how preparing for the first day of school can be a lot less hectic than you think.

How do your kids generally feel about school?

My sons love school and have been blessed with truly remarkable teachers. More importantly, they love learning. They are very curious creatures and have the good fortune to take electives in elementary school about everything from kitchen chemistry to ecology to the Wild West. They also take German (my third grader) and Chinese (my first grader). I am not nearly as fun as school so they lament having to stay home.

Over the summer months, how do you keep their brains working?

  1. Read. Read. Read.
  2. Travel! The boys take lots of photos, draw, and write in their travel journals.
  3. Each of my sons goes to one camp a month, so they balance learning and playtime. This year they have camps that sound like a blast to me - lacrosse, architecture, Harry Potter, art, and piano rocks (where my older son will learn about composing and playing rock & roll on the piano).
  4. We have a "Summer Adventure" list that takes us to various museums, parks, battleships, and quirky spots that are day trips away.
  5. As we get closer to the start of the school year, the boys will do some workbook pages from books they choose at the local teacher supply store. They also play games online at various educational sites (like Discovery Kids and Cool Math).
  6. We cook, dig, garden, do science experiments, take walks, and simply play. Learning through play, versus a structured environment, is a marvelous thing.

What do you worry about most when you send your children back to school?

I worry more about if they will make friends and adjust with their new teacher and classroom. One son is bossy while the other is so docile and sensitive. Both personalities have their pros and cons. I also worry about school becoming rote and not fun anymore. I think elementary school needs to set the stage for our children to learn to love learning and develop inquisitive, open minds.

What are some essential items your child must have before the first day of school?

I am a sucker for school supplies. I loved my Trapper Keeper. We always buy a new lunchbox and BPA-free containers and water bottles. Little kids' lunchboxes are grody [sic] so sometimes we buy more than one to take us through the school year.

What are some organizational tricks you use to help yourself get the kids ready to go back to school?

Everyone cleans off/out his desk. I do the same to set a good example. We sharpen pencils and put them in a cup and stack clean notebooks and writing paper in a cubby on the desk in the kitchen. I try to get them into the habit of laying out their clothes the night before, but some days in the summer we are lazy bones and eat lunch in our pajamas, so this is not always a relevant task.

What are your kids' lunchbox favorites?

Peanut butter and banana rolled in a whole wheat tortilla, homemade macaroni and cheese, pita bread stuffed with cream cheese and cucumbers, and a mini antipasta plate with proscuitto, cheese, olives, and pickles.

What healthy things are surefire hits in your kids' lunchboxes?

They only get healthy food in their lunchboxes and have nothing but disdain for the look and smell of school lunch.

Have you ever had to deal with any issues at school, either with your child's teacher or another student and his/her parents? How have you handled it?

This year my younger son told us several times, "My teacher never pays attention to me." As you can imagine, this broke my heart. He's the one who is quiet and sensitive. He's smart, very well-behaved, and never causes a stir, making it easy to overlook him. I mentioned this to our principal, and all I got was, "Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that." We felt we weren't being heard and that we don't know what's best for our kid. We are praying for a better year next year. If not, heads will roll this time.

As you approach the first day of school, what are some specific things you do to mentally (and emotionally) prepare your children for the big day?

Crazy as it sounds, I do nothing. I don't like to count down the days or do anything to make them stress about going back to school. We play at the school playground a lot over the summer so they never stray far from the scene anyway. We are also sticklers for bedtime, even when the sun is out so early bedtime is no big deal. We tell the boys, "You go to bed based on the clock, not the sun." I'm sure this sucks for them as they fall asleep to the sounds of kids playing outside. But hey, they fall asleep and sleep a solid 11 or 12 hours so they need, and get, their rest.

How do you handle the logistical transition from summer back to school? How does child care change? What are your schedules like?

I am lucky to work from home and have flexible hours since I work for myself. I tend to work a lot at night [so] I am always there to drive them to and from school, volunteer in the classroom, chaperone field trips, and help with homework. Our schedule isn't rushed, and I don't take that for granted. I hire babysitters to cobble together time to work in the summer, but mostly I put my job on hold while the boys are out of school. It's a luxury indeed.

Multiple kids can mean multiple activities, carpools, parent-teacher meetings, and sometimes even multiple schools. What are some tricks you use to stay on top of it all?

First of all, I don't over-schedule my sons. They each have one activity at a time. We know kids who do swimming, tennis, gymnastics, choir, violin, scouts, art classes, and tutoring. Children are way over-scheduled these days and just need time to play, be creative, use their imaginations, read, lounge, and relish the luxury of being bored.

That being said, I use a paper wall calendar in the mudroom that is color coded for everyone in the family. At a glance you can tell who has a busy week.

What tips can you give parents who might be struggling with the transition to going back to school?

Make it fun. Don't over plan. Revel in lazy days before school starts. Let your kids have more say in how you spend your time as a family, and don't book anything the week before school so you can all enjoy some time when you don't have to be anywhere (or even get dressed for that matter! But I do recommend brushing your teeth.). I also find telling stories about my own experiences in school make my sons want to tell me more about their days. They love hearing about what I was like at their age. So far my eight-year old has classified me as an "oddball." He's not too far off the mark.

Ilina Ewen is the author of Dirt & Noise, a blog about life with her family of four. She is a progressive, left-leaning mom of two with a soft spot for kids and animals who believes in good manners, home-cooked food, and spending money on experiences, not things. You can find Ilina on Twitter and Facebook.

For more great ideas on getting ready to go back to school, visit the Care.com Interview Series: Secrets to Back to School Success. »

Photo used with permission from Ilina Ewen.

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