Rebecca Miller Wilson wants her three children to look forward to the first day of school, so she makes a celebration of it.
She hangs signs outside their rooms, prepares special foods and takes lots of photos. The traditions ease the transition back to school and give the kids a reason to be excited.
“I want to set them up for enjoying school,” said Wilson, of Phoenix. The first day should “set the tone for how the school year should go.”
For years, Marian Gates of Rapid City and her children gave the school year a sweet start with their annual back-to-school s’mores feed.
“It started with a picnic at Spring Creek picnic area along Sheridan Lake Road with four neighborhood families the night before the first day of school,” she wrote. “Over the years, we’ve settled at Canyon Lake Park because it was more convenient as our party grew to include other friends and co-workers. The night’s finale was having the s’mores.
“One year it was very wet, so we had to have our picnic in a friend’s backyard. We roasted our marshmallows with a blow torch.
Now that our boys are in college, we’ve given up the practice, but it has become a treasured memory,” she wrote.
Back-to-school traditions at home can help children adjust to the changes a new year brings, said Tim Sullivan, founder of School Family Media, which focuses on increasing parental involvement in schools.
“Anything that encourages the thought that school is a special time is a good thing,” Sullivan said from his office in Wrenthem, Mass.
Parents who make a fuss about the first day back also are sending the important message that “school’s a priority in our family,” he added.
Although Heidi Henriksen’s children have been out of high school for several years now, she still misses making the first week of school special.
“We started by picking out the outfits for each day of the first week, stacked everything (shorts, shirts, socks, etc.) together and rolled into a roll. This way, the morning was easier; all my child had to do was pick one roll of clothes out. Everything matched and was in one spot,” wrote Henriksen, of Rapid City.
Each evening before bed, the children got their choice of a back rub or a foot massage, and each child got to pick a favorite breakfast menu one morning during the first week, cooked by Henriksen’s husband.
And finally, the traditional first-day-of-school picture was taken on the front step before they boarded the bus.
“My kids were always excited about the new year and the new beginning for them in a new grade at school,” she wrote.
Jessica Fisher of San Diego serves her six children homemade apple pie for breakfast on the first day of school. It’s a sweet way to signal their return to their home-school schedule.
“It helps to mark that shift and make it really fun — not something they dread,” said Fisher, who started the tradition four years ago.
The pie does lessen the pain of returning to school, said her 8-year-old son, Calvary.
“The first day of school is both good and bad,” he said. “It’s the end of summer vacation, which makes it bad, but we get pie for breakfast so that makes it good.”
Keeping the traditions simple makes it easier to do them year after year, said Alanna Stang, executive editor of Martha Stewart Living magazine.
“Simple and thoughtful is always the best,” she said. Small gestures “show kids someone is thinking about me.”
Having first-day-of-school traditions also gives parents the opportunity to mark milestones in children’s lives that might otherwise get overlooked, Stang said.
“In our fast-paced lives, the meaning of the moment can get lost in the shuffle,” she said.
She suggests finding a mix of traditions that involve small surprises for the children, and projects that parents and kids can work on together.
In addition to preparing treats, Wilson takes her children shopping and lets them each pick out a new backpack. She takes photos of the kids with the new bags, which often reflect their developing personalities or interests.
“It’s fun to see some of the choices they’ve made,” she said.
Shopping for school supplies has already become a tradition for Summer Werchowski of Dublin, Ohio, and her 4-year-old son, Miles. When he was preparing for preschool last year, they bought supplies for him and some of his friends. They passed out the supplies at a back-to-school party, which they plan to throw again this year.
Werchowski also created a way to help Miles, who couldn’t wait for school to start, count down the days. About a month before school began, she placed enough pieces of candy in a jar that he could have one a day until school started.
“It saved my sanity because he could physically see it was getting closer and closer,” she said. “It stopped him from asking every two minutes.”
She plans to fill the jar for many years to come. She also is continuing a tradition her own mother started: taking yearly photos in the morning and in the afternoon on the first day of school.
“I looked all cute in the beginning,” she said. By the end of the day, “I just looked like I had been through a war.”
She hopes the photos and activities will create lifelong memories for Miles.
“Looking back on my childhood, that’s what I remember — all the special traditions we had,” said Werchowski. “That’s where my memories lie. I’m hoping it will be the same for him.”