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No Backpacks: Preschool Essentials

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When my daughter started preschool, I was both intimidated by my first school shopping experience and very excited because I love office supplies the way some people love shoes.

I totally marked myself as a first-time parent when, during the classroom orientation, I asked the teacher where I could find the supply list so I knew what to buy. It turns out that we didn’t really need to buy any supplies.

It’s not like you send the kid to school empty-handed, though, so here’s a list of things to consider purchasing/providing for your preschooler. (Also, it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: check with your individual program. My experience is based on a half-day cooperative program with a twice-weekly lunch option.)

preschool girl with art behind her

Tote Bag

Notice that I did not say “backpack.” Do not buy a backpack unless you want to be the enemy of every volunteer or staff person in your school. Kids are constantly bringing home art, Scholastic mailers, and flyers; these things are incredibly difficult to stuff into tiny preschool backpacks and sometimes they don’t fit at all.

Buy an open-top tote that is at least large enough to hold an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. If you insist on a zip-top (I do, because spill-proof!) make sure the bag is unzipped when you leave it at school. My school sells an inexpensive reusable tote with the school’s log on it, although I prefer my L.L. Bean tote. Some parents simply use reusable grocery bags with the child’s favorite character on them. Just remember: open top.

Waterproof Bag and Change of Clothes

Your waterproof bag can be a simple Ziploc or something more environmentally friendly like a small or medium Planet Wise wet bag.

In your bag should be a complete change of seasonally appropriate clothes: top, bottom, socks, shoes, and (if appropriate) underpants. Mine has the most recently outgrown pair of shoes—you know, the ones that are small enough that you’ve gotten a new pair, but not so small that they’re painful or totally unwearable—and a cheap pair of leggings with a cheap t-shirt.

Bonus tip: I keep a similar kit, minus the shoes, in both my vehicles. The $30 spent on three Circo outfits that almost never get worn has been worth it.


If your child is in diapers, you should have another waterproof bag with some extra diapers in it. We used a hybrid cloth diaper system, but to make things easier for the preschool we used disposable diapers for the two mornings a week my daughter attended. (We didn’t want to have to teach all the co-oping parents and the staff about how the system worked; cloth diapers seem to intimidate people who aren’t familiar with them.)

If you’re using bags that aren’t see-through, use painters’ tape to label which one has diapers and which one has clothes.

Clothes You Don’t Care About

We heard this one from both experienced parents and our teacher at orientation: DO NOT dress your child in twee, Instagram-worthy ensembles for preschool. They don’t always use washable paint there, just FYI.

Really, though, your kids are going to be doing arts and crafts, playing outside in all kinds of weather, crawling around on the floor to practice gross motor skills, cooking, and eating without a bib. Dress them for the occasion.

On the days when I’ve wanted to dress my little one in something special (think Halloween and school picture day), my daughter’s teachers have planned neat activities and/or offered to help with a change of clothes.

Water Bottle

You’ll definitely want this if your child eats lunch at school, or if it’s required as part of providing your child’s snack, but it’s something you should think about even if that’s not the case. My daughter’s preschool has water available all day, but the kids use open cups or the water fountain.

Even with all-day water access, she’s always thirsty when I pick her up, so I keep a water bottle in her bag. I love Thermos’s Foogo vacuum-sealed straw bottles, which I’ve found keep water cool for 24 hours.

If you prefer a larger bottle, Thermos also has the FUNtainer line in 12-ounce and 16-ounce sizes; I don’t find that it keeps things cold as long, but it’s still leak-proof like the Foogo.

Lunch Box/Bag

If your child has to provide their own snack daily, or your program has a lunch option, you’ll want a nice lunchbox or bag. We love Skip Hop’s Zoo Lunchies. They’re not too pricey, so we’re a) not sad if the lunchbox ends up lost or damaged and b) able to collect them all! They are also just the right size to hold my daughter’s Foogo and her Yumbox (more on that handy little box is next.)

Food Storage

Look for something your child can open on their own. I’m a huge fan of Yumbox because they’re leak-proof and all one piece—no lids or pieces to lose! There’s a sandwich-style box, a more traditional bento box, and a small snack box.


Label your stuff: Tote bag, wet bag, child’s coat, lunch box, food storage containers, water bottle, you name it. I love Mabel’s Labels, which can be ordered as personalized items from their website and are also available as write-on labels from Amazon.


Stay in touch with your child’s teacher to see if things like shoe boxes, toilet paper tubes, and empty paper towel rolls are useful to hang on to. It seems weird, but that’s all stuff that can—and does—get repurposed into craft projects. And I always feel like the request for the item comes just after recycling pick-up, so I try to be proactive now.

So there you go! All set for preschool. Go get ‘em, tiger!

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