Starting a new school year feels like such a big deal when you’re a kid. I still remember the excitement of laying out my first-day outfit down to the exact “tech vest” and mini-skirt combo I wore for sixth grade. But periods of transitions can also be stressful, making it tempting to just want to rush and get them over with. If you don’t take a minute to slow down and mark the passage of time, these milestones can slip through your fingers without realizing it.
Below are some ideas for fun family traditions to make the first day of school feel special—that don’t take a lot of time or money.
Before the Big Day
1. Eat Outdoors for a Lunch Box Test Run
Consider packing their lunch box for an outdoor picnic before school begins. This can essentially be like a trial run for the school lunchroom (or classroom) for kids attending school for the first time. You can observe whether they struggle with their lunch boxes, water bottles, or anything else and help them practice being as self-sufficient as possible. Your child’s teacher will probably thank you, too. BONUS: If you’re able to, have the picnic near the playground at school!
2. Write a Note to Their Teacher
Most of us probably remember the day the class lists came out when we were in school— and hoping to be with our besties and get the teacher we wanted. It’s the same for our kiddos. Everyone wants to have a friend and a teacher they like. Once your child knows who their teacher is, encourage them to draw a picture or write a note they can deliver on the first day of school. And don’t forget about hardworking bus drivers, counselors, admin support, custodians, and cafeteria workers, who rarely get recognition.
The gesture also gives children an opportunity to practice introducing themselves to different adults in a positive, low-pressure way. If they’re into crafts, they can decorate their notes with hand-drawn pictures or stickers.
3. Make School Supply Labeling an Event
No one wants their stuff ending up in the lost and found week after week. Instead, make labeling the school supplies a fun way to get ready for the year. There are so many cute waterproof name sticker labels available—or go old school and help them practice writing their name with permanent markers.
4. Let Them Pick a Back-to-School Outfit
As a kid, I remember that buying shoes during back-to-school shopping was a big deal. We’d go to the Stride Rite store and pick out a pair of kicks to (hopefully) last through the school year. In addition to shoes, allow them to show off their style in their first day of school outfit. Even if you’re homeschooling and your kids could probably wear their PJs and slippers all day, it could be fun to pick out some new play clothes (or new pajamas) to note the transition to the school year.
5. Plan First Day of School Pics
Whether you’re a parent who loves to craft a cute pennant flag, make a letterboard sign, or just want to capture your kid(s) right now, you’ll never regret taking photos on the first day of school. Gather your supplies and props now—and include your kids in the crafting—so you’ll be all set when that first school day arrives.
Celebrate “Back-to-School Eve”
6. Memorialize Summer
The beginning of school also marks the end of summer, making it a good time to make a ritual of reminiscing. Research has shown that regularly recalling good memories gives people a greater sense of well-being and meaning. It’ll also help your kids remember what they did, which could come in handy when people ask them about it at school. Some activities to do this include:
- Take turns sharing your favorite summer memories over dinner
- Prompt your kids to write down what they want to remember in a journal or scrapbook
- Make a family time capsule by putting mementos in a shoebox
- Make a video montage or photo slideshow using iMovie or another editing app
- If you’re feeling extra motivated, a few weeks before school starts, make a photo book and present it to your children as a gift on the last day of summer
7. Mark the Milestone
Many cultures use the lighting of candles to represent significant occasions (with birthdays being an obvious example). Starting a new grade is a big milestone for a kid, and lighting a candle with a sense of ceremony can be one way to mirror the importance of what they may be feeling. You could light it before dinner and have them blow it out before bedtime while setting an intention for their school year. Alternatively, some people like to track their kids’ growth each fall by measuring their heights or making handprints with paint.
8. Read a Book Together About School
Reading can help kids get excited about school at any age. For very young children, it’ll help them understand what school will be like, especially if they’re just starting out. Check out sweet back-to-school books like Lola Goes to School, School Time!, and The Day You Begin. For kids old enough to read longer books, you could revisit a chapter that centers on the school season, like the early sections of the Harry Potter books.
9. Prepare for the Big Day
There’s a lot to remember when you’re getting into a new routine. Ease into it by taking your time preparing as a family the night before school. Methodically pack backpacks, prep lunches, and review schedules and logistics so no one is freaking out in the morning. While you’re doing these things, you can chat about the changes, giving your kids space to be open about any fears or concerns. Just hearing their thoughts can go a long way in easing first-day jitters.
10. Capture Their Thoughts About the Year Ahead
Ask your kids how they’re feeling about school. What are they looking forward to? What are their wishes for the year? Who are they excited to see? What worries do they have about school? You could capture their thoughts on a chalkboard sign, on paper, or in a video interview. Plus, it’s always fun to include fun facts like their teacher’s name, their height, and what they want to be when they grow up.
Make the First Day Meaningful
11. Turn Up the Speakers
Nothing gets people moving (and out of bed) like blasting some upbeat music, especially if it’s something you can sing or dance to. You could go with a children’s song like Cocomelon’s “First Day of School” or some thematic oldies like Chuck Berry’s “School Days.”
12. Make a Special Breakfast
In traditional German culture, children are given a Schultüte, a paper cone filled with treats like candy, to mark their first day at school. While you probably don’t want your kids pumping themselves full of sugar first thing in the morning, including something a little indulgent in their breakfast will make it feel like a mini holiday. You could try a new recipe like egg muffin cups or banana bread baked oatmeal, or put a spin on a classic by forming their initials in chocolate chips in a pancake.
13. Challenge Them To Do One Kind Thing
My kindergarten teacher had the cutest tradition of keeping a “Warm Fuzzy Jar” filled with those puff balls you get at craft stores with googly eyes glued on them. Whenever a student did something kind, she added a “Warm Fuzzy” to the jar. While you might not want to do something that elaborate, just asking kids to do something nice for someone else, like sharing a snack or inviting someone who is alone to their table, reminds them that they’re capable of impacting other peoples’ feelings in a positive way, which can be an empowering realization. It’s also a distraction from their own anxieties. You can let them know you’ll be excited to hear about what they did when you see them after school.
14. If All Else Fails, Go Out for Ice Cream
If you didn’t have the energy to do anything festive the night before or the morning of school, you could still make it a special night after their first day. Have a pizza party, go out for ice cream, talk about the highs and lows of the day, and give your kids (and yourself!) a big metaphorical gold star for making it through a big day and kicking off a new year.