I don’t know how it started (maybe a kid wanted to) or why it started (to keep sane), but at around age 4 our kids start packing for trips themselves. For the most part, they do a pretty good job. Here are some tips to get your kids doing it too!
1. Simplify the list. The typical packing lists you can buy are way too detailed for a child, or for a family that packs light like we do. For very young kids a quantity/number with a picture works great, for example 4 and a picture of a shirt . Once they can read, change out the pictures for words, but still keep it simple. A few years ago, I made a template and I print and fill in the blanks for our kids for every trip. We go over the list and I answer all questions before they go to their rooms to start gathering their items. For example, if I write “an outfit for going out at night,” they may ask me, “What type of outfit do I mean?” Answer could be “a holiday dress, nice pants and a shirt, or a casual dress.” Because they know what I’m thinking, we usually don’t have missing items.
A good, easy to follow packing list can empower your kids to pack their own bags.
2. Give them time. We pack when life isn’t crazy. It could be one night before a trip or the weekend before, the timing doesn’t matter. The mood is what matters. If you are rushed and short with your kids when they are packing, it will lead to giant meltdowns and a job that takes twice as long as it would take if you had just done it. I give my kids their list and a time limit for getting all of their items in a pile. I pack my stuff at the same time so they know I’m not available to do it for them.
3. Double check that they have everything before it goes into the bag or suitcase. Never put some items in, assuming you will remember what needs to be added because something will be forgotten when you are helping multiple children. I would rather leave the pile of clothes with the original list than partially pack and write post it notes or sub lists. Note: I used to let my husband do this step with the children until we got to Puerto Rico and child #3 had no undies and he had no socks (he should maybe use the same list as the kids). Granted we still talk about the Puerto Rico undies, but the trip to Kmart wasn’t worth the lost pool time.
Getting the essential items laid out before one final review before packing the bag.
4. Do the final packing with them. Once everything is ready, I spend time with each child and help them get things into their backpacks. We roll our clothes and pack like we are playing Tetris to maximize our space and have certain areas in our backpacks for certain items. Because everything is ready, this only takes about 5 minutes. My oldest can now do this very well but the other three still need help with this step. My son is very happy to shove everything into his backpack and not refer to the given list. After many trips with forgotten things he is the most closely monitored.
"How To" packing video to set up your kids - and yourself- for success.
5. Re-evaluate the space in the bag. If you have space you can throw in an extra outfit or a couple more toys. If the bag is already full, take something out. It is not a good idea to leave with zero extra space.
A test run before we leave. If it feels manageable, it's good to go. If the first reaction is
"wow, this is heavy", it's time to pull some things out!
Final Thoughts: Make them carry their stuff and they will learn to pack lighter. Try to eliminate anything that you don't need. See our blog post Packing So You Can Carry Everything on Your Back For As Long as You Are Gone for more ideas.