Hand sanitizer. USB flash drive. Magenta Sharpie. Clean socks. Quick — what do they have in common?
Answer: They're probably going to be in your kid's pencil case when fall comes around.
Long home to an unchanging bunch of yellow No. 2 pencils and thick pink erasers, the pencil case has gotten a makeover. Thanks to the onslaught of kid-focused marketing and the growing presence of technology in children's lives, those perennial favorites have become so last semester.
School-supply basics face competition from a growing array of products tricked out in bright colors and camo prints or plastered with the likeness of everyone from Spider-Man to those ubiquitous kids from "High School Musical."
The function of these supplies hasn't changed. Kids need to write and have things to write upon. They need to transport work to and from home. And they need tools for creative projects. But where the pencil case itself was once the canvas for self-expression and coolness, today the tools inside play that same fetish-object role.
"It's fair to say there will always be room for a No. 2 pencil," says Target spokesman Joshua Thomas. "But what's happening is that these classic back-to-school supplies are evolving."
In addition, the list of supplies considered vital has grown, says Barb Kapinus, senior policy analyst for the National Education Association. Items that didn't exist when most of today's parents were climbing aboard school buses — tiny, portable hard drives and scented hand-sanitizer — now make the list in many places.
Whether teachers send home exhaustive wish lists or ask only for simple supplies, shopping lists have grown in school districts around the country, says Jennifer Olsen, assistant professor of education at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., and mother of two school-agers. Retailers add further fuel by offering their own exhaustive back-to-school shopping lists, broken down by age group from preschool through college.
Here are some items that will probably be tucked inside pencil cases (which now come in an eco-friendly variety made from recycled juice boxes) across the country this fall:
Writing tools: Pens and No. 2 pencils come in a mind-numbing variety of styles aimed at school-age kids (think pencils emblazoned with motivational phrases like "Great Job!" and pens topped with tiny screens that scroll through images of Hannah Montana). They may also need washable crayons, colored pencils, washable markers, highlighters, dry erase markers and permanent markers.
Even those utilitarian Sharpies, long used by moms to write kids' names in their gym shorts, have become cool — now endorsed by soccer god David Beckham, Sharpies in shades such as lime or magenta can be personalized with a student's name, catchphrase or clip art.
- Cut and paste: Classic bottles of Elmer's Glue are still popular, but glue sticks are also in demand. Scissors are still a must, but they've gotten a facelift, too. Now, says Olsen, "they have left handed or other special scissors to help kids master cutting." Some, such as the pair shown from Fiskars, have handles that serve as anti-bacterial protection.
- Doing the numbers: Calculators, restricted by some schools, come in a huge range of styles and capabilities, from cute pink ones for basic math to graphing calculators for trigonometry. Compasses, protractors and rulers are still around. But even those have been tweaked — Office Depot offers a flexible ruler and protractors come in vivid hues.
Texas Instruments has unveiled the TI-Nspire (shown above, $150), which boasts two interchangeable keypads (including one for graphing) to increase capability and comes with software that matches the handheld's features. Added bonus for high-schoolers: This model is approved for use on the SATs.
- Data devices: Spiral notebooks and loose-leaf paper aren't the only methods for recording information and transporting work to and from school anymore. Flash drives (also known as jump drives) and CDs can be a necessity for older students. Index cards and post-it notes also make many must-have lists.
- Germ battling: Are schools more germy than they were a generation ago? Parents seem to think so — or marketers have convinced them it's better to be safe than sorry. Hand sanitizer, hand wipes and packages of tissues are now standard issue.
Unusual elements like clean socks (for erasing white boards) and zip-top plastic bags (for bringing things home) make many lists as well.
It's hard to know whether the trendiest school supplies will help kids focus on their work or serve as a distraction. Some districts advise against anything but the plainest supplies. But the NEA's Kapinus believes in using "this whole celebration of starting a new school year" with new school supplies to reinforce the importance of learning.
What is clear is that the pressure on parents to buy a slew of slickly designed supplies shows no sign of lagging, despite difficult economic times nationwide. In the back-to-school area at Target, says Thomas, "literally, it seems limitless what you can find, what you can do with a pencil box."
Bill Jackson, president of the nonprofit parents' advisory group GreatSchools.net, says parents struggling with lengthy lists "shouldn't feel the pressure to have to keep up with the Joneses with this stuff. ... Whether they bring the brand name pencil or crayon is less important than whether they bring their kid generally prepared for school."