Backpacks and loose-leaf binders are sliding into the seasonal aisles of your favorite retail chains as back-to-school season approaches again. Millions of parents across the country look forward enthusiastically to their kids being in the classroom after the strangest year in most of their lifetimes.
If you’re one of them, there are adjustments you can make to your home that can help support this overdue transition to normalcy. “Sitting in front of a computer was exceptionally hard for most children and teens with constantly being stuck at home as an additional stressor,” declares Connecticut-based child psychologist and the author of It’s Gonna Be OK: Proven Ways to Improve Your Child’s Mental Health, Roseann Capanna-Hodge.
San Diego-based interior designer Susan Wintersteen has years of experience creating healthy homes for families. Both professionals weigh in with wellness design tips from their unique perspectives for helping your students adjust to an unprecedented new school year.
1. Reorganize and Update
“Freshening up or creating new spaces for learning and play time is a great way to kick off the new school year,” suggests Capanna-Hodge. “Thinking about what activities they will be doing while learning and then what spaces they need is a great place to start.” Maybe it’s a redesigned homework area or a closet redone for new school clothes, the psychologist notes, “Going back to school means we should also think about what our spaces need to help our kids be ready to learn.”
2. Support Healthy Sleep
Kids need even more sleep than adults do, and with stress, excitement and electronics, many don’t get enough. Wintersteen observes, “Making kids’ rooms more sleep-friendly is about good light control.” She recommends adding dimmers to their bedroom lighting to ease sleep and waking up. (A smart home system could also work in this regard.) She also points out the need for blocking outside light from beaming into the space. “Window coverings that provide room darkening create opportunities to rest and allow light in when opened.”
3. Create Kid-Friendly Kitchen Space
Capanna-Hodge has seen an uptick in emotional eating by kids since the pandemic began, she reports. “When it comes to stress eating, that not only means making changes to what, when, and how much we are eating, it means changing how the kitchen is set up. Removing easy access to snack foods and having more healthy options readily available can be a start.” She suggests creating what could be called a kid-friendly kitchen zone. (For safety’s sake, this should be positioned out of the work aisles, like the one between the sink and cooking surface; the outside or end of an island are often ideal spots.) “Having space for kids to prepare their food increases mindfulness around eating and boosts self-esteem,” the psychologist notes, adding, “How your kitchen is set up can encourage not only healthy eating but children taking charge of their own health.”
4. Personalize Their Spaces
Children should have input into the design of their spaces, Wintersteen advises, which can include their kitchen-based kid zones, bedrooms, bathrooms, play and study areas. “Surrounding ourselves with things that bring us joy and comfort can be beautiful and functional. Adding elements of colors they like, textures they appreciate and allowing them to be a part of the design process is important,” the designer comments. This is easier with children old enough to communicate their preferences, she points out. For younger family members, she suggests using visual cues like photos to help them identify their choices. From there, parents and designers can create functional, kid-friendly, welcoming spaces for them that will embrace their personalities.
5. Create Safe Spaces
Most of us have experienced some level of emotional stress during the pandemic, as have the nation’s children and teens. “The biggest stressor for parents and children as they reenter school is the fear that we will have another quarantine and all the strides we have made will be lost,” shares Capanna-Hodge. “Making our homes a haven is a way to give kids and their parents control in a time when the world feels so out of control,” she suggests. This can include device-free zones that center on mindful activities like arts and crafts, yoga, prayer, and meditation. (Exercise and sports would be another option.) “Whether it is a room or a space devoted to an activity that helps to regulate and calm the nervous system, having children help create these spaces and using them as a family makes self-care a priority that hopefully your child will continue on their own,” she adds.
6. Help Kids Declutter
Mental health professionals say clutter can create stress, and designer Wintersteen agrees. “Clutter in children’s rooms – and let’s face it, they default to clutter – is additional stress on their minds and eyes.” The designer points out how difficult it can be for children to organize themselves without a system set up for them to do so. “Typically, a child craves a place for everything, where to find their books and see the titles, where to put their laundry, and a place for their favorite toys.” Getting this established before school starts can be helpful in their readjustment.
7. Foster Independence
Capanna-Hodge recommends that you rethink your space to help your kids be more autonomous. “Think about what needs to be modified to help kids independently manage their tasks and ‘stuff.’ Do you need to rework the mudroom or the desk in the kitchen so they have a place for their things without having to ‘nag’ them?” Since they’ve been away from a regular school schedule for a long time, getting back into routines isn’t going to be automatic, she predicts. Posted checklists, schedules and timers are great tools, she suggests. “When the environment is set up in a visual and logical way, kids can learn to follow routines on their own without a ton of prompting from their parents, which helps reduce friction and definitely builds self-confidence.”
8. Address Physical Health
Millions of children have allergies, asthma and other serious illnesses. The pandemic has been especially difficult for their families. If yours is one of them, consider what you can add to your child’s bedroom to support his or her health. “If I were asked to work on a room for an immunocompromised child to make it back-to-school friendly, I would start with the larger areas and how they might play into allergies, light control and ventilation,” shares Wintersteen, who offers her services for free to such families through her Savvy Giving by Design nonprofit. The designer points to floor coverings: “Do we need to replace the carpet with a green-certified solid surface floor?” She then considers indoor air quality issues: “Do we have good ventilation in the room, with nothing blocking the windows? Do we have an air purifier installed?” Lighting is another concern: “Is there adequate task lighting to reduce eye strain for reading? Do we have overall ambient light to wake up in early mornings as the days get shorter, or light up the room at night in the fall to get ready for bed without danger of bumping into items?” Looking through this list, it’s easy to see that these tips can also benefit family members without existing health issues to help prevent future problems.
Even if your household isn’t positioned to remodel, rethinking, reorganizing and re-inspiring your children’s home spaces for a new school year can all have wellness benefits.
Author’s Note: Wintersteen and Capanna-Hodge will be sharing wellness design insights and answering related back-to-school questions in a July 21 (4 PM Eastern/1 PM Pacific) Wellness Wednesdays event on Clubhouse.