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Unique Gear for the New School Year

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Updated on Mar 31, 2014

Another school year will be here before you know it. Sure, teachers want your kid coming to class with a stash of sharpened Number 2 pencils and a few one subject notebooks. But what other gear should you consider to round out his backpack? Never fear: we've done the shopping so you don't have to! From markers that change color with the click of a button, to USB Flash drives that channel Star Wars characters, here's the best back-to-school booty...whether your kid's heading off to kindergarten, or heading off to college.

11 Essentials for the K-12 Set

A Quirky Lunchbox : Laptop Lunch System Still spooked by the "Lunchbox Lead Scare" from a few years back? A brown paper bag may work just fine, but if you're looking for something a little bit more spiffy for your kid to cart to school, we suggest the Laptop Lunch system. Like a bento box for the elementary kid set, this kit comes with an insulated carrying case, a reusable water bottle, a set of metal utensils, and a bright rectangular box with five smaller boxes nestled inside of it. The thing is cute-- plus, for kids who don't like their applesauce mixing with their PB&J, it's practical-- picky eaters don't usually want their food touching, and the kit keeps each lunch component in its place. While the bento containers are plastic, every part is BPA, phalate, and lead-free, and you can squeeze in a small metal SIGG or Klean Kanteen thermos if you'd rather. Having so many little boxes to open adds an element of Christmas to lunchtime. Plus, there's a paperback book packed full of lunch inspiration for mom or dad, perfect for those nights when the meal muse refuses to make an appearance... (Laptop Lunch System, $34.99)

A Friendly Frog: Keroppi Pencil Case Can you still remember the thrill of a backpack full of new school supplies? We can. True, we're in a recession, and springing for a huge stash of paraphernalia may not be in the cards, but a cute pencil case is a relatively cheap indulgence. House writing instruments in style, with the Keroppi pencil case, delivered straight from Japan. Along with sushi and comics, The Land of the Rising Sun is known for its stationary supplies. This canvas offering has one of the country's most beloved animated characters, a contemporary of Hello Kitty, but one less known in America. If this winking frog doesn't bring a smile to your kid's day, we don't know what will...(Keroppi pencil case, $7.50)  

A Magical Marker: Pip-Squeak Mix 'Ems Got a kid who consistently resists the call of the crayon? Tempt him with this cool new offering that leaves wax in the dust. These washable markers mix the wonder of science, with the creativity of color. Each time kids snap a marker cap to a different base, they get a new shade: the marker and base tips exchange ink in the see-through mixing chamber, at the touch of a button. Deeper shades lighten up. Yellows and pinks explore the dark side. Then, as the marker sweeps across the page, it eventually drifts back to its original state-- moving from red, to orange, to yellow, for example. Not only will these mix-ems hone your child's creativity, but they'll work his fine motor skills, which kids need in order to become adept at writing. Even better, they'll get him muttering, "I wonder what would happen if I..." (Crayola Pip-Squeaks Mix 'Ems, 6-count package $3.99, 16-count package $9.99)

A Green Notebook: New Leaf Notebooks The paper industry is responsible for over 40% of all landfill waste in America. And even all that recycling your family may be doing doesn't make up for the fact that most paper never makes it to a second life. With these notebooks now on the market, there's no excuse not to go green. Made of 100% post-consumer paper, they've got the brightness of virgin fiber, without the guilt, because no trees are cut down to make them. Chlorine-free, with hip designs like backlit leaves, swirling branches, or retro-looking tangerine jungle birds, each one comes with an inscription on the inside cover, "Just think, in a previous life, this was probably somebody else's notebook." True enough, but once your kid gets a look at these designs, we'll wager she'll be hankering to call one her own. (New Leaf notebooks, $3.99-4.99)

A Little Organization: 7 Days of Doodle Planner This quirky little book is part planner, part sketchpad. On the bottom of each page, there's a weekly calendar, with enough room for students to write down their homework assignments. On the top, there's a doodle-rimmed area for them to add a few sketches, write longer notes, or scribble random observations. Compact, with a thick cardboard cover punctuated with hot pink cartoons, this planner is sure to help the middle school set stay organized. Plus, it's a cute way to sneak a little whimsy into your child's day... (7 Days of Doodle Planner, $14)

A Lock to Remember: Wordlocks Got a kid who rides her bike to school? Forget remembering all those pesky numbers when it’s time to crack open the bike lock. Now students can dump the digits, in favor of a new type of lock, that uses words or letter combinations instead of numbers. Whether it's their own name, a favorite word like B-I-K-E or C-A-N-D-Y, or a random group of letters-- any 4- or 5- digit combo will do the trick. And parents can rest easy because even through the locks are as simple as pie, they're secure-- each bike or locker-ready padlock has 100,000 potential word and letter combinations. Brainstorming the secret password is half the fun. Plus, they come in a great mix of attention-grabbing colors. (Wordlock padlocks $9.99, Wordlock bike locks $14.99)

A Tall Drink of Water: Klean Kanteens When it comes to hydrating your kids, you want something that's good for them and good for the planet. Forget plastic. With studies showing that it can leach hazardous chemicals like BPA, which are especially dangerous for growing bodies, we say break out the heavy metal! We like Kleen Kanteen's 12-oz stainless steel water bottle. Lightweight and available in a variety of funky colors-- from bright orange to electric blue, the bottles come with a choice of four different caps, from flat top to sports sipper. The sports caps are plastic, not metal, but they're made from polypropylene #5, which has no known leaching characteristics, and a steel screw-on lid is available for parents who'd like to avoid plastic altogether. Bottoms up! (Klean Kanteen water bottles, 12 oz-$14.95, 18 oz-$16.45, 27 oz-$17.95)

A Great Gadget: Mimobots Who says storage needs to be boring? These 2-inch USB Flash drives can hold all the music, pictures, documents, and presentations students can throw at them, but they come in cool cartoon packages. From pop art, to pirates, the wacky looking drives bring major fun to functional. Whether it's moving data from home to school and back again, or porting information for a joint-project, at under 2 ounces and just a few inches tall, these little guys can easily fit in a pocket (let alone a backpack!) Available in 512MB, 1GB, 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB capacities, each mimobot also comes preloaded with extras, like wallpaper, screensavers, avatars, and games-- fun add-ons that can be removed easily if your kid wants extra space. Our top picks? The whimsical Fairybit, or our favorite intergalactic golden boy, C3PO. Just beware, if these minis catch your fancy, be sure to order soon. Each bot is produced in limited editions-- so like the Chewbocca and R2D2 that came before them, once they're gone, they're gone. (Mimobot USB  drive, prices range from $35-110, depending on style and capacity)

The Perfect Backpack Nothing says back-to-school like a brand new bag, and yet finding the right backpack can seem like long division. Ergonomic or solar, snaps or zippers, pockets or pouches, the choices can be overwhelming. But, we've got the goods on what's fun and functional for the start of the school year. Here are three we love:

  • Help your little kid make a big splash this back-to-school season, with a backpack she creates herself! This comic caper scene, stitched on a canvas bag, needs your child's coloring expertise. It arrives in black-and-white mode, just like a coloring book, and comes with six permanent markers so your kid can bring the images to life. Recommended for lower to mid- elementary school grades. (Color a Comic Backpack, $26.00)
  • Medical professionals advise that kids carry no more than 10-15% of their body weight on their backs. Unfortunately, most students are hauling home a lot more than that. This backpack, developed by orthopedic professionals, helps to lighten the load, with an inflatable cushion for the lower back and wide foam-cushioned shoulder straps that are adjustable for correct ergonomic support. On the outside, they look like any other pack you'd see on the school bus, but behind the scenes, they're engineered to make sure your kid doesn't get stooped before his time...(Airpacks, $45-60) 
  • By the time kids hit middle and high school, there's a lot to organize. Unfortunately, sometimes their bag doesn't offer much help. For students with a tendency towards the Black Hole Backpack Syndrome, these packs may be just the solution. Armed to the teeth with practical details like deluxe organizer panels with special pockets for everything from pencils to magazines, file dividers, fleece lined digital media pockets, insulated water bottle sleeves, and neoprene grab handles, they're also flush with cool design details like padded side-entry laptop protection systems, satin or fleece linings, and special sleeves to keep magazines crisp and sunglasses scratch-free. Whether your kid wants to strap on the Legend bag, designed by renowned skater Christian Hosoi (no need to leave the skateboard at home, there are special straps to make hauling it to school a piece of cake) or stick to something more sleek and modern, like the Newby, Hauler, or Epic, there are lots of designs to choose from here. A good place to start when you've got a kid who wants to strap on something a little different. (Ogio backpacks, bags range in price from about $45-80)

Great Gear for the College Bound Got a kid heading off to college for the first time? More likely than not, she's got been packing the family car in her head for months now. But beyond the tapestry she plans to hang from her ceiling, and the computer she's been loading with pictures and MP3 files, there are some extras that just might make the road to college a little smoother, and a little more fun. From gadgets to gear, here are eight items sure to put a smile on her face, as she unpacks her things this September...

A Surrogate Parent: Pocket Mom and Pocket Dad With mom and dad far away, most college Freshmen will be happy to be free of all those pesky reminders to "take a coat" or "finish your vegetables." But they may be ill-equipped to take up the torch for all those other tasks parents take care of behind the scenes. This year, as your child heads off to college for the first time, arm him with tips and advice straight from the people who know best...parents. From how to make a budget, to how to iron a shirt, mending a broken heart to trussing a chicken, fixing a clogged drain to changing a flat tire, these two books are full of practical advice and how-to details. Sure, no one can replace the real mom and dad, but for those times when the phone is busy, or your kid is just too embarrassed to ask, this is the next best thing...(Pocket Mom by Dina Fayer and Pocket Dad by Dina and Bob Fayer, published by Quirk Books, each book $12.95)

A Steady Stream of Mail: College Student Care Package of the Month Club You’ve probably heard of the Wine-of-the-Month Club or the Coffee-of-the-Month Club. Well, for parents who want to give a gift that keeps on giving, without hopping their kids up on caffeine, or giving them alcohol when they’re clearly underage, there’s a new kid in town: the College Student Care Package of the Month Club. Designed especially with the newbie college student in mind, membership guarantees a monthly package delivered direct to your kid’s dorm stoop. From a Housewarming Kit that includes enough toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and laundry detergent to get students started until they manage a trip to Target, all the way through to a box full of College Finals Brain Food, the monthly packages may not be quite as good as homemade cookies or a hand-knitted scarf, but they’ll come like clockwork—no remembering required… (College Student Care Package Of the Month Club, $150 for a school year subscription, including shipping).

Life in Stereo: The iMainGo 2 Portable Speaker System Sure, teens these days are plugged straight into their music from earbud to iPod, but college is all about social interaction, and getting your music out in the open is the name of the game. The iMainGo 2 is just the ticket for mobile music, with its portable size, powerful speaker, and zippy convenience. Just open the case, nestle your MP3 player inside (the iMainGo 2 fits all iPods, the iPhone, Zune, SanDisk, Zen, and most other MP3 players), and zip closed. A front window allows for easy access to controls, leaving the speaker on the back to rock the house, with impressive range, power, and bass for such a small device. Great for popping into a backpack or whipping out on the quad, the iMainGo 2 is the ideal MP3 speaker for students on the go. (iMainGo 2 Portable Speaker System, $49.99) A

Cool Carryall: Chrome Messenger Bag If book bags came in an all-terrain model, the Chrome Messenger bag would fit the bill. Devised for bike messengers on the long haul and designed to withstand the wear and tear of life in the bike lane, these messenger bags are the real deal for the student who needs durability, comfort, ample space, and that intangible element of cool. A hardy weatherproof liner keep books safe from rain, snow, and mud, while a roomy interior fits enough binders and notes to last a study session 'til morning. Throw in a seat-buckle styled chest strap, and you've got a self-assured student who's ready for everything. (Chrome Messenger Bag, comes in small, medium, large, and extra large, $104 and up)

PC Protection: Stuffitbag Laptop Sleeve For the laptop lover who refuses to confine her shiny new computer to a stiff black case, these padded cuties are like stylish little sleeping bags-- stuffed just enough to keep your little Mac or Dell cozy and scratch-free. Light, affordable, and stylish, there are plenty of quirky prints to choose from and they're all handmade in Canada, so there's no need for your kid to sweat the idea of her new favorite "It"-item coming from a sweatshop. Stuffit bags fit easily into a backpack or briefcase, and each comes with a name tag, so when your kid's friends start clamoring for their own, no one snags the wrong computer by mistake. Eight stylish designs, ranging from funky stripes, to groovy waves, to oh-so-mod, these sleeves are designed by a college entrepreneur, and high on the hip factor. (Stuffitbag laptop sleeve, $25.00)

A Mini-Movie Theater: Epson MovieMate 50 Turn your kid's room into the hip dorm hangout spot, with The Epson Moviemate 50. This projector has a DVD player already built into it, so there's no need to hook it up to a computer, making it user-friendly and easily portable. It has a Dolby Digital sound system, but even if you've got an audiophile who isn't thrilled with the sound quality, there's a fully accessible jack for a separate set of speakers. Though super-lightweight, the Moviemate projects images up to 8 times larger than a 40-inch widescreen TV. All you need is a flat, light-colored wall with a smooth surface. The projector can also be used to show a looping slideshow of digital photos, and works with MP3 players and iPods, PC or Mac. Now if that's not a call for a night in, we don't know what is! (Epson Moviemate 50, $799)

The Perfect Party Mix(er): Merkury Innovations DJ Mixer for iPod Nothing cools a roommate relationship faster than a fight over music. Help your kid get things off on the right foot, with this fun gadget. Whether it's basic mixing for a party in the dorm room, or just a little scratching to take a break between study sessions, this set-up allows for easy collaboration between two iPods, and it's an affordable entry into the world of DJ-- so your kid can mix her Rihanna with her roommate's Lucinda Williams. While many hardware and software competitors on the market take hours to figure out, this little guy takes a scant five minutes to set up. In other words, she'll be cue-ing, mixing, and fading her new buddies' music before you have a chance to say, "Homework done?" (Merkury Innovations DJ Mixer for iPod, $99.99)

An End to Kinkos Runs: HP Photosmart C4480 Printer If your college student wants to avoid crowds in front of the printer five minutes before his essay is due, long lines at the copier, and high prices at the local photoshop, he may want to invest in a printer-copier that is reliable and compact. In this case, the HP Photosmart is just the ticket. Easy to use and small enough for a desk top, the HP Photosmart will print your kid's essays in laser-quality, and it also scans and copies regular and color documents, so there's no need to waste those laundry quarters on the library copy machine. Plus, by popping in the memory card, students can get high-quality photos in minutes. Though the printer is a steal at $99, your kid will pay a hefty price for all those scanned library books and snazzy holiday cards: HP cartridges are notoriously expensive. But, they also make great stocking stuffers! (HP Photosmart C4480 All-in-One Series, $99.99)

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