How to Battle Back-to-School Busy

For my family, the long, lazy days of summer are anything but boring. We stay busy during these warm months, camping and traveling and working on yard projects to say the least.

But compared to the controlled chaos of the school year, summer can seem downright chill. At least, as a family, we’re all on the same page in June, July, and August. Or in the same car. Or even in the same room. That’s not how it is goes once school starts up again. Come September, we all scatter off in different directions from morning until night, and it requires some major tactical planning for us all to stay connected and on track with each other.

File_000 (10)Let me tell you about the recent horrible, no good, very bad semester when I nearly lost my mind and learned a valuable lesson about maintaining my family’s busy schedules. It was early spring, when you just naturally want to be more active after a winter’s hibernation, and neither of my teens were driving yet. My son was dual enrolled at the local community college, with an odd mix of early morning and late night classes. He was also taking a driver’s ed course, volunteering at the food bank AND the library, working on his Eagle Scout project, and tutoring part-time. Meanwhile, my daughter was appearing in two separate theater productions, crewing for a third, involved with three afterschool clubs, volunteering at the library, taking voice and dance lessons, selling Girl Scout cookies, and had recently begun a regular workout schedule at the gym. On top of all that, believe it or not, my wife and I actually had our own work and leisure activities. The hectic and erratic nature of our four schedules was not new, but the sheer number of people, places, and things I had to keep track of was at an unprecedented level for me. It came as a surprise, but luckily I had habits and resources in place to help me settle in, even if it did scare me for a few weeks.

Surviving the busy work and school schedules of your family members takes some simple strategizing. I’ve found that a mixture of old and new technologies can bring everyone together so that nobody feels left out or lost.

Whiteboard
A centrally-located dry erase whiteboard is a must. If you don’t have one of these, of any size, on the wall of your kitchen, you’re missing out on an extremely effective means of family communication. We’ve been through several, some featuring a weekly or monthly calendar, some with attached bulletin board and magnets. In the end, a simple large blank white board with 2 or 3 different colored ink pens does the job perfectly, whether it’s for daily reminders or ongoing shopping lists. The board gives every member of your family pause to read or write a message that is important for all to see.

Calendar
A family calendar is also a must-have item for the wall of your house, if only to serve as a reminder that the days and weeks ahead are going to be busy ones. We use Google Calendar on our phones far more often to plan and coordinate events, but the old-fashioned paper calendar is an important back-up. Also, you get monthly pictures of kittens or Disney princesses.

Going Digital
The old-fashioned techniques still work well, but you absolutely have to bring your entire family into the digital age in order to stay connected these days. And that means everybody gets a smartphone. Sorry, there’s no debate about this. If you have a school-aged child involved in multiple extracurricular activities, and you want to remain sane, get them a phone for voice, messaging, and a synced calendar.

My family has a simple set-up. We each have our own Google account for email, calendar, and online storage. Each of our calendars is synced to the others and color-coordinated, so it only takes a glance to see where everyone is and what they should be doing. We also agreed to use one messaging service, iMessage, for family communication. My teens use other services, like Snapchat, to talk with their friends. Last, we use a locator app, Find My Friends, to find each other on a map. This comes in handy when my daughter is wondering how close I am to picking her up, but I can’t text while I’m driving to let her know.

Smartphones
For several years now, practically everything involving the management of the family schedule has gone through our phones. It’s one aspect of the omnipresent screen that I heartily welcome. Of course, one thing that isn’t so welcome is the huge wireless bill when you have a family of four constantly texting, emailing, locating, and communicating with each other all day long.

If a family-sized wireless bill is stopping you from getting everyone’s schedules sorted, there’s good news from Straight Talk Wireless. They offer easy, inexpensive, family-friendly phone plans. Just in time for school, Straight Talk has added more high-speed data to its unlimited $45 and $55 plans. Now you can get unlimited talk, text and the first 8GB of high-speed data then 2G* for $45 or bump it up to 12GB of high-speed data then 2G* for $55. There’s a reason that Straight Talk Wireless is the nation’s leading no-contract wireless carrier. They simply offer the best phones on the best networks for less. There are no contracts, no credit checks, and no mystery fees.

ST_WIRELESS_LOGOWalk into any Walmart store, or visit StraightTalk.com, for more information and ways to save on your family phone plan. You can set your family up with the latest smartphones if you want, including the Samsung Galaxy S8. Maybe start your younger kids out with something simpler, but don’t leave them out of the family connectivity. Get them used to communicating their activities now, and it will pay dividends later, especially during the teen years when kids seem to have trouble sharing much of anything.

As a parent, it’s extremely satisfying to watch your children pursue their interests, even if it seems like they’re going in a dozen different directions at once. An important part of childhood is trying things out, learning what works and what doesn’t, and developing confidence in favored pursuits. And an important part of parenthood is keeping track of it all. With a few simple techniques, you can save yourself a lot of stress and confusion in dealing with your family’s comings and goings. Most importantly, keep your family members connected with a reliable phone plan, like the ones offered by Straight Talk Wireless. There is no better way to stay in touch and on schedule.

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I have partnered with Life of Dad and Straight Talk Wireless for this post.

*At 2G speeds, the functionality of some data applications, such as streaming audio or video may be affected. Please refer always to the latest Terms and Conditions of Service at StraightTalk.com.

10 Cool Things For Kids In North Idaho

It’s that time of year to start thinking about road trips and family travels for the coming spring and summer. There are few better places to find fun with your kids than North Idaho.

The northern panhandle of Idaho is my family’s stomping ground. Over the years, we’ve discovered a great number of cool and exciting places to take the kids. So, when people ask what there is to do around here, I always have a ready list of sights and activities that will make any family vacation a memorable one.

Ten Cool Things For Kids In North Idaho

1. World’s Longest Gondola Ride

Silver Mountain Gondola

In the town of Kellogg, you can board the longest gondola in the world for a 20 minute ride to the Mountain Haus terminal at the top of Silver Mountain, a climb of 3400 vertical feet. In the winter, you’ll find some of the best ski runs around, but in the summer you can hike the nature trails, go mountain biking, or ride the chair lifts for more scenic beauty even higher up the mountain. Continue reading

10 Cool Things For Kids in Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is the crown jewel of our National Park System. It was the first of its kind, and remains the most unique and diverse wilderness experience that you will find in this country.

It’s also an extremely cool place for kids.

But with almost 3500 square miles of lakes, geysers, canyons, and hot springs, there’s too much to see in one short stay. So, after four visits to Yellowstone, and consultation with my own children, I have compiled the following list of park sights and activities that will make your family trip an especially memorable one.

Ten Cool Things For Kids (and Grown-Ups) in Yellowstone National Park:

1. Dragon’s Mouth Spring

Dragon's Mouth Spring

How can you resist telling your kids that a dragon lives in a cave near a mud volcano? It doesn’t take much imagination to think that this cavern, with its growls and thumps, and spitting steam, might just hold a real dragon.

2. Fishing Cone

Yellowstone Fishing Cone

It’s probably just a tall tale, but the story goes that the early trappers and explorers would catch fish in Yellowstone Lake, swing them directly into the Fishing Cone geyser just off shore, and have a meal of boiled fish in just minutes. “Hook and cook,” they called it. Like the dragon cave, another cool sight that will fire up the imagination.

3. Old Faithful Inn

Old Faithful Inn lobby as seen from Bat's Alley; Jim Peaco; October 2003

What kid won’t love the largest log hotel in the world? Just walk inside the 100-year-old Inn’s lobby, with its four stories of lodgepole pine balconies and 500-ton stone fireplace, and your kids might just want to sit for awhile. Preferably in one of the many handmade wood rocking chairs. Better yet, stay in one of the Inn’s rooms. Prices are reasonable, and the food in the dining room is first-class.
Continue reading

Time Travel

It’s January, but my mind’s on June.

We have to make our summer travel plans now because my wife’s work schedule for the next eight months will be set in stone by March. For the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing various family vacation options. It always seems odd to be planning out most of the summer a full six months ahead of time.

It’s not just the days off that have to be reserved. If we have any hope of getting a decent hotel at a popular destination, then bookings have to be made now. At National Parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, and Olympic, the best accomodations are pretty much gone by the end of February. I’ve already discovered that Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn and Cabins are sold out through September.

So, in addition to everything else I have on my mind these days, I’m also flipping through maps, studying travel websites, talking to travel agents, and highlighting specific days and weeks on the calendar.

It’s like a military campaign. Even our spontaneous day trips will be planned in advance!

Last summer we missed out on an out-of-state family wedding because of short notice. My wife couldn’t make the last-minute changes to her schedule and we were sadly absent from the event. We’ve always told people, if you’re going to get married, or have a baby, or plan a family reunion, we’d better hear about it six months beforehand so the date can go on a vacation request form.

The nice thing about all of this is that I can stop worrying about it in a few weeks. Our summer travel plans will be set and I can get back to the winter and spring projects that seem to be occupying every minute of my free time. By June I’ll need a vacation!