One thing about school kids in our culture is that they make a lot of stuff. I am a parent of two boys and I’m also an avowed archivist. Over the years, I’ve developed some practices for managing and storing the stuff kids make, collect, and earn over the course of childhood.
Since my oldest child is 18 and is graduating from high school next month, I’ve looked back at the archives for him and his brother (who is 16), and I thought I’d share the exact materials and methods I’ve used.
Let’s start with some basic learnings
- Format is destiny. I’ve learned to use the smallest vessel possible. This also enforces a certain thematic cohesion. For example, you won’t see 9 x 12 art sheet projects coming home much past 6th grade. Grouping items of similar shape and size makes more sense through time than you’d think
- Chronological order is best order. I just flow all objects through to the archive w/o regard to what grade they’re in, what class it is, and so on. This allows you to see it all at once, flip through fast, and see your own themes rather than something imposed by the archivist
- Annotate everything. Everything seems obvious in the moment, but as time passes, you may wonder who made what, what grade it was, and so on. A simple notation on the back of every item— name, grade, month, year— eliminates all the guessing
- Focus on the child. This means if you have more than one child, make sure you make their archive 100% about them, with separate and distinct portfolios/ boxes/ whatever for them. If also means that each object should relate to them rather than you & them, their teacher & them, their sibling & them— whatever. The idea is that this is a collection that will be theirs someday— something uniquely about and for them
- Don’t bog down the child with the past. There is a danger here in glorifying the past and / or force-feeding a whole shelf-full of crap that they don’t want in their lives. I rarely talk about their archives and we don’t make a show about going through it— I just quietly build it. As they’ve gotten older, and I am less intrusive when it comes to digging through their schoolbags for material, they make sure to give me things they want to keep for them. Having said that, I couldn’t care less if one day they incinerated their entire collection. Nostalgia is death
- Focus on output and documentation rather than achievement and excellence. Certainly there are way more “A” papers in the archive than “D” tests, but I don’t shy away from putting in things like artwork that cast me in a less-than-great light (“this is how dad swears when he’s mad” doodle in 2nd grade). It’s also easy to make judgements about their work— and I do plenty of that in the normal course of parenting, tryna get them to do their best. But it’s important not to use an archive as yet another way to mess up your child about the pending doom of high school or college acceptance. That stuff is whack
- Decide what you care about and collect for that. This is where one has to decide what’s wheat and what’s chafe. For me, I focused on original expression— writing, drawing, essays. That means I throw away standardized tests and worksheets, no matter how well they did on them, and I optimize handwritten, hand-drawn items. I want them to look back and see themselves
- Never stop collecting, never stop winnowing. In order for this to work, you can’t let there be huge gaps. The good thing is that it sort of fits in with the overall need, as a parent, to pay attention to what your kid is doing. Go through their bag and make your piles. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to the pile, as long as the pile is there. I’d say I would keep 10% of what comes home in the pile-making stage, and throw away maybe 50% of that in the winnowing stage
Here’s pictures of the entire end result
Basically one shelf-full for each kid and a sliver of a closest for the posterboard-sized stuff (the large portfolio at the top holds material for both kids— it’s the only vessel shared between them). It’s really not a whole lot of stuff, when you think about the enormous amount of material we generate.