Summer’s end signals the beginning of a new school year. Before you send your kids back to class, prepare them with some daily essentials to start the school year on the right foot. Approach back-to-school shopping the same way you’d make an educated purchase for yourself, and ask these questions: How much will my child use this item? Is it well made? Does this brand have a strong reputation and offer a good value? To get a better idea of what parents are actually buying for their kids this year, we asked a couple senior staffers and contributors at Gear Patrol to share their thoughts. You’ll find quality picks for kids of every age, at price points that don’t break the bank.
Kyle Snarr, Head of Marketing
Dad to four kids: 2nd, 5th, 7th, 10th grades
Ticonderoga Wood-Cased No. 2 Pencils by Dixon $14.38 (for a box of 72)
Nothing in the world evokes the excitement and anticipation of learning more than the smell of a freshly sharpened classic Ticonderoga. It’s literally the scent of smart. Buy them in bulk and put them everywhere. They’re both aesthetically and aromatically pleasing, oh and of course… Scantron compatible.
32 oz Wide Mouth with Straw Lid by Hydro Flask $45
Having a water bottle for your children to keep at their desk is a pretty standard part of the back-to-school kit these days. So upgrade the basic lunchtime bottle to this truly insulated, wide mouth Hydro Flask with a straw. The wider opening makes it easier to load up with ice and the straw lid is a sleeker, less distracting way for your kids to wet their whistle during class.
Logowear Full-Zip Hoodie by The North Face $45
A hoodie is a perfect grab-and-go layer as the seasons start to change. But rather than a pullover, be sure to find one with a full-length zipper like this perfect example from The North Face, which provides an additional quick-change benefit when every second between classes counts.
Classic Slip-On by Vans $50
When you’re rushing out the door, trying to get everyone to school on time, there’s nothing more painful than a kid attempting bunny ears with shoelaces for the third time. For those crazy days, always keep a pair of Vans Classic Slip-Ons on hand to ease your get-out-the-door flow.
Core Pack by Topo Designs $100
The Topo Designs Core Pack is crafted with the precision of a much more technical bag, but designed for campus crawling rather than backcountry backpacking. It boasts the style and construction we’ve all grown to love from Topo, with functionality purpose-built for academic adventures.
Ali Carr Troxell, Managing Editor
Mom to two kids: preschool and nursery school
Deep Purple Trail One Piece Rain Suit by Oaki $40
Waldorf programs spend 80 percent of their time outdoors, even in Upstate New York. But, as the saying goes, “There’s no bad weather, just bad gear.” This full-piece suit—which we’ve upgraded in size every year—is successful at keeping our 4-year-old’s focus on playing, not pouting, no matter the downpour.
Nou Nou the Fuzzy Bear by Bla Bla $68
At 16 months, our littlest one’s first foray into nursery school wouldn’t be complete without a snuggly something to latch onto at nap time. We love Bla Bla’s 100 percent natural approach to their products, including the Nou Nou Fuzzy Bear, which is handmade in Peru and on our back-to-school list this year.
Base Layer Set by Ella’s Wool $69
A warm kid is a happy kid when it comes to wintery outdoor play, which makes that next-to-skin layer just as important as weather-shielding outerwear. Wool thermoregulates naturally, letting the kids lap others on the sledding hill without getting sweaty—a good a reason as any to dress both girls in Ella’s Wool this winter.
Baby Retro Pile Fleece Jacket by Patagonia $69
I’ll be buying this a size or two big so that it lasts for a few years. It’s such a classic, it hurts my heart to think they’ll each outgrow their size in one season.
Little Kid’s Targhee Waterproof Boot by Keen $70
I never knew the benefits of versatile footwear until I moved to the Northeast from Southern California. Now, after living here for three years, I get it—the weather here dictates footwear be muck-ready at almost any point in the year. The Targhee Boots are as waterproof as rain boots but with grip enough for a day on the trails—the ideal combo for forest school.
Oobr Booster Seat by Clek $200
At 16, kids head back to school excited to show off their newfound freedom via new wheels. At 4, it’s an upgrade to a booster seat that’s everything. This one is easy to transfer from car to car, making after-school playdates—and, thus, newfound freedom—more frequent.
Mid-Century Mini Desk by West Elm $399
Now that our 4-year-old is a big sister, she needs a space to work on crafts and artwork that is out of reach of even littler hands. While she doesn’t have homework yet, this will be her go-to spot once she does.
Zach Mader, Vice President, Advertising & Partnerships
Dad to one kid: preschool
State Mini Kane Backpack, Monogrammed $70
Our kid loves the idea of carrying his own backpack, though it gets too heavy after walking about a block! (Idea is the operative word here). This holds everything he needs, is durable and good-looking, and for every bag you buy they donate one to a child in need.
Klean Kanteen 12oz stainless sport bottle in Farm House Red $18
Another thing 3-year-olds are into? Their favorite color! Ours loves red, so pretty much any red thing I buy is beloved. Red sweatpants, red LEGOs and this handy red water bottle all fit the bill. This one is indestructible and can be left at preschool all week.
Gap Kids Quilted Flight Jacket
I’ve got my eye on this for fall too. A nice fleecy jacket for chilly mornings, with pockets for little trucks and other necessities. Gap sizing tends to run a bit big and boxy, too, which is great for layering (and for knowing it will likely fit all season!)
Vans Sk8 Mid Sneakers $70
We’ve been buying these since our son was a baby, just sizing up when needed. They can’t wear laced shoes to school so I’m always looking for great Velcro options. These are super easy to put on your toddler, and my son is pretty pleased with his ability to take them off himself (so am I!). They’re durable and “unisex” enough that our daughter (who hasn’t even been born yet) will be wearing them someday too.
OOLY Chunkies Paint Sticks
THESE. I can’t recommend these enough, they are SO much fun. To be honest, our son isn’t that interested in arts and crafts, but everyone loves these things. My sister described drawing with them thusly: “it’s like getting to color with lipstick!” (That’s a fantasy we share, I guess — think oil pastels, but with less mess) The velvety texture and vibrant colors are awesome. This is my go-to birthday gift for kids of all ages too.
Eric Adams, GP Contributor
Dad to two kids: 8th and 11th grades
Microsoft Surface Go $549
The compact and lightweight laptop-ish Windows tablet is in many ways a perfect first computing option for kids. It’s affordable, built to Microsoft’s high standards of durability and quality, and it has versatile 2-in-1 functionality when you attach the magnetic keyboard to the bottom of the tablet. (A kickstand keeps it upright, then flips flat when they want to prop it up on their knees while watching YouTube videos in bed. That’s actually all my kids do—watch YouTube videos in bed.) Plus, it provides students with the basic functionality they need—word processing, web browsing, photo editing, video and audio streaming, etc.—even if the app universe is a bit more sparse than with Apple products. Finally, it’s just 1.15 pounds, meaning even my light-traveling 13-year-old won’t hesitate to bring it along.
Makeblock mBot $85
Most of us tend to think our kids are tech-savvy just because they set up their grandmother’s new iPhone in three minutes flat. That won’t get them in Stanford, though. Give your kids a jump on STEM learning—or even just logical thinking—with this easy-to-build but endlessly versatile little robot. Students can code it via an iOS or Android app and instruct it to complete missions, follow lines, avoid obstacles, and other robotic functions, all while learning about sensors, electronics, and computer programming. Expansion packs are also available if this thing really takes off among your budding computer science nerds.
Fjallraven Kanken 15-inch Laptop Backpack $115
Most kids trundle off to school with basic backpacks found in the mall somewhere. Giving my daughters this contemporary classic backpack from Sweden is probably the one legitimately cool thing I’ve ever done for them. The simple but highly functional 18-liter bag has a large main compartment with room for a laptop, top handles for easy toting, and a zippered pouch in the front for smartphone cables and miscellaneous youth accessories. Looks fantastic for kids at any age.
Rylo 360 Camera $498
School means football games, field trips and clubs. (Oh, and learning, too.) While they’ll all be packing their smartphones ready to record the action, this clever camera will come in handy for those times they’re trying to capture the chaos but still be a part of the fun. The Rylo records in full 4K at 360 degrees, meaning you can fire it up and it’ll grab everything regardless of whether or not they’re paying a ton of attention to what they’re doing. My own little party animal and budding auteur learned in a snap how to edit the footage in the app—having it follow specific targets, pan, follow, etc.—in either 360 or a stabilized 1080p for traditional HD viewing. The final product is ready for immediate uploading, sharing, and liking.
Panasonic ErgoFit Earbuds $8
Earbuds are the umbrellas of technology—doomed to be left in random places by kids and replaced five times per year. Don’t squander their college savings plans trying to keep up. These ultra-affordable buds rate highly among reviewers—all things considered—and among Amazon buyers. Just order a dozen of and keep them in a handy dispenser in the kitchen. (We put ours next to the big stack of cheapo charging cables.) One day, we hope they’ll appreciate the value of truly great earbuds and not actually lose them on a daily basis. Until then, Panasonic to the rescue.