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How to Teach Your Kids to Pack for Themselves

Like reading, putting on your own pants, and drinking without spilling, packing is a skill you hone over time. Over the years, I’ve traveled with plenty of people who have nailed the reading and the drinking parts, but still haven’t quite figured out packing. Maybe they’re chronic overpackers or borderline packing hoarders. Or they forget key items every time, or don’t pack the right gear for the trip.

And then I look at my kids, ages two and four, as they dump water down their shirts like I’ve stocked our kitchen with novelty dribble glasses, and I think, “I’ve got to teach these kids how to pack.”

An Illustrated Packing List for Kids

So now, whenever we’re preparing for a trip, I bust out the Sharpie and draw them a packing list. I stopped evolving as an artist when I was six years old, but even I can draw a recognizable pair of pants and get the basic outline of a shirt down. Next to each illustrated clothing item I mark the target number—four shirts for a two-day trip (see earlier note about learning to drink without spilling), three pairs of pants, and so on.

This method not only helps my kids learn packing basics, it also guarantees that I’m not going to guess (wrongly) what my kids will be willing to wear on vacation. Yes, I think the nautical-striped shirt is an awesome choice for our trip to the beach, but my son makes it clear that it’s his My Neighbor Totoro T-shirt or nothing. I can accept that, and then we’re not wasting precious packing space on something he wouldn’t wear anyway.

As I hang back, they take turns rummaging through the closet with the illustrated list in hand, making a pile of the clothes they want. Bonus: The list seems to help even the two-year-old manage that universal urge to pack her entire closet, you know, just in case.

A Packing Method Made for Kids

My children are still in the freestyle-crumple stage of folding, so after they’ve created their piles of clothing to bring, we employ the most child-friendly packing technique: rolling. “Roll it like a burrito,” they say to themselves as they hunch over each item. Depending on the length of the trip, they may lose interest at some point during the rolling process, and that’s when I dramatically reveal the suitcase, which tends to reengage them long enough to complete the task.

Choose, roll, pack—these three surprisingly kid-friendly steps give kids the chance to practice both the planning and the doing parts of packing. And, I’m hoping, it will eventually help them become the next generation of great packers.

The Cool Side Effect: Vacation Anticipation

Kids are notoriously hazy on abstract concepts and time. My two-year-old calls every day Wednesday (which can really make a week feel long) and the four-year-old asks for between a thousand and a billion pancakes every morning. So even when I tell them that we’re leaving for vacation in a month or a week, they just know it will happen sometime that’s not now.

Since it usually happens within a day of leaving for a trip, this packing exercise helps root the reality of vacation in time for them. If we’re packing, it means we’re actually leaving soon, not just in some abstract future that may not roll around for 835 days (my son’s estimate).

Once they’re packed, they know we’re in the vacation zone. And it’s contagious. As I rush around trying to remember all the last-minute things we’ll carry with us on our adventure, it’s a privilege to be able to look over and see them dancing around their suitcases, ready to go.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Christine Sarkis on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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