Go-to gadgets for kiddos
*A version of this story ran/aired on USA Today *

This is the first time in 17 years that I don’t have a child going back to school this fall. My only daughter graduated from college in June and won’t be back in class until she starts law school in the fall of 2024. (Cue the mom-milestone sniffles…)

I admit, I kind of miss running to Target last-minute-like with a list of supplies we forgot about—only to find half a dozen other parent-friends doing the exact same thing.

Also? I’m still obsessed with finding the coolest, most helpful, and most affordable go-to gadgets and gear on the planet. It’s just that this year, I’m doing it less selfishly and more for your family than mine. That’s a good thing to do with my empty-nest angst, right?

I call these my “pretty little problem solver” gadgets and gear—with a fix for a modern family’s daily dilemmas—large and small. Let’s dive in.

Is there a portable battery charger for smartphones and laptops?

go-to gadgets that charge up all the electronics you need for back to school

Zendure’s Supermini  Price: $60


These days, a trusty portable battery charger is more important than number two pencils and glue sticks combined. I recommend one that works for smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

Yes, they exist, and they’re total lifesavers.

I look for power packs that are small and light enough to slip into a backpack or coat pocket. It also needs to fast-charge your mobile devices at least once, start to finish, before needing to get recharged again too. (Bonus points for chargers that are cute and colorful too.)

There are a few I’ve tried that meet most, if not all, my standards, including Zendure’s Supermini ($60 — I love the blue color), the Nimble Champ ($47), Einova Eggtronic Ultra Fast Power Bank ($70), and Anker’s 747 Power Bank (currently on sale for $110). What I like about all of these is that they deliver enough juice for a handful of devices and work with various connectors too.

Stay away from Apple’s $100 MagSafe battery pack. It’s handy because it sticks magnetically to the back of your iPhone, but it only adds about 30% more battery life. Very disappointing, especially for the price.

Are there charging docks to put gadgets away at night?

Putting the phones to bed in Arianna Huffington's sleep station.

Arianna Huffington’s Phone Bed Charging Station Price: $65


I never let my daughter keep her devices in her bedroom overnight, and I highly recommend that rule to other parents too. I mean, what good happens on a mobile device for a school-age child between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am? They don’t need to use their phones as an alarm — just buy a dang clock instead. (You can check out my preferred alarm here.) Also, it can seriously mess with their sleep, so why even go there?

Years ago, I created a central charging station in our house, and it’s worked wonders for all of us to unplug at dinnertime and bedtime. (Our now-grown kids thank us for it.)

I use Arianna Huffington’s Phone Bed Charging Station, because it looks like a bed, and you can tuck your gadgets in at night, so it’s funny and cute ($65).

For a more streamlined look or formal look though, you can get just about any amount of ports — from five to 50 — in nearly any material from wood to metal for prices anywhere from $25 to $150 dollars. There’s even a line of furniture now called “decortech” with chargers built-in, like this end table from iLive ($150).

Having your go-to gadgets in one central area, such as on a table by the front door, also ensures they’re charged up and ready to go when you leave the house — no more frantically running around looking for that phone (that’s in your hand)!

And, if you need to go one step further, you can get timed “lockers” to store mobile devices too. I’ve used the ySky Portable ($25) smart auto phone timer lock box during a few recent deadlines. It totally saves the struggle of trying to keep my eyes off my phone when the pressure’s on. (Of course, I use “focus” mode too, but when desperate times call for desperate measures, this sort-of ‘phone jail’ is perfect.)

Is there a video doorbell for your garage?

Go-to gadgets for back to school: MyQ Smart Garage Video Keypad

MyQ Smart Garage Video Keypad Price: $71


Video doorbells can be a great way to keep track of your kids getting home safely from school, especially if you’re still at work. But what if your child uses the garage door to come and go from your house?

Garage doors are the new “front door” for some 70% of Americans, and we just found a new gadget that lets you see and control who goes in and out of this “busiest entryway.”

The MyQ Smart Garage Video Keypad ($71) is an “eyes-on” safety gadget that offers a video doorbell for the garage. It’s a cross between a video doorbell and a garage keypad, and it’s loaded with next-gen features to help keep an eye on your next-gen little darlings too.

It took me about 10 minutes to replace my old pin pad with this new one. It’s super easy to connect to the app on my smartphone. The app is intuitive and has some cool features like setting customized codes for each family member. It can also notify you when each particular person gets home and give you real-time motion and activity alerts.

Screenfree help for younger kids who are adjusting to a new routine

Go-to gadgets for kiddos

Storypod Price: $99.99


One of the biggest problems I hear about from families this time of year is how to help kiddos transition from summertime schedules to school-year routines.

When my daughter was in elementary school, I used a DVD that had customized songs using her name. (I still sing the “Wake up Jeneva, it’s time to start your day…” song to her. She doesn’t love it now, but she sure did then.)

The 2023 version of that (but a whole lot cooler) is a small, screen-free, interactive, educational audio player called Storypod. 

Kids can use the included “Craftie” — a cute little yarn character that children set on the top of a softball-sized device — to play a set of songs or stories around a theme. They can also collect Crafties (my favorite is Frida Kahlo), or use the company’s additional paired items such as books, tiles, and trivia cards.

The superpower of this particular kids’ go-to gadget, though, is that parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and anyone with the Storypod app on their phone, can record and share a customized message. Parents can then download that message onto a book, photo frame, or just about anything really,  through a special Storypod sticker.

I tested this out by having my dad tell my daughter about his first day of school, then paired it with the Owl iCraftie. Even though she’s much older now, the idea of hearing her grandpa tell stories really moved her. And best of all,  those recordings can be preserved and last for her own children to listen to. 

Finally! Something to keep our schedules straight!

go-to gadgets: The skylight calendar

Skylight Calendar Price: 15-inch/$300


Here’s one I’ve been wanting for years! The Skylight Calendar (15-inch/$300) solves one of the biggest problems I have in my own household — juggling everyone’s schedules!

It’s a smart, all-in-one family calendar that lets each person synchronize their lives in one place, on one main screen, at home. Plus, it tracks everyone’s chores, so you don’t have to ask your kids a million times if they’ve done the dishes yet.

It comes in two sizes, but the smaller of the two, the 10-inch model, feels a little cheap to me, so I went for the larger one. Onboarding all of my Google, Outlook, iOS, and Yahoo calendars was not easy or intuitive, and I wish the app interface was less clunky overall.

I admit though, my old calendar system—which included a paper planner and pin-up calendar—in addition to my digital calendars—was much worse!

Once you get it all set up, it really does work like a charm, and the company is super responsive helping you out if you have any problems with it. What I like most about the Skylight Calendar is the massive potential it has to really streamline our modern lives. 

A versatile LaptopI mean TabletI mean clamshellI mean all of the above!

Lenovo slim pro 7

Lenovo Slim Pro 7, $915 


The Lenovo Slim Pro 7 is kind of perfect for schoolwork. It’s a 2-in-1 laptop with a premium look & feel. It works as a traditional clamshell and transforms into a tablet via the central rotating soundbar and hinge. A lot of portable power here for taking notes, writing essays, researching, and the occasional foray into streaming videos and social media. 

For content creators who want to take their videos to the next level

Pretty Little problem solver gadgets the pivo pod

Pivo Pod Lite ($80)


Pivo Pod Lite is an auto-tracking smartphone mount-up. Pair it with the companion app and it uses AI motion tracking to follow you around and keep you in frame. Features include 360-degree-panning, and super fun editing modes in the companion app, like the “Many Me” feature that lets you clone yourself! All kinds of fun effects for live casting!

For those of us who sometimes need an extra charge…

iwalk charger attached to an iphone as girl checks her hair

 iWalk chargers  ($25)


iWALK LinkPod Pattern Small Portable Chargers are a super easy way to keep your phone juiced.  It takes them about 30 mins to charge an iPhone 14 from 20% to 60% with a full charge taking only 1.5 hours. Their small size makes them easy to throw in a bag or pocket and their LED display shows current power left…so no more guessing whether need to charge it or not.

A simple way to take a break from your phone

The ySky Auto Phone Lockbox

Smart Phone Timer Lockbox ($24)


If “Focus” mode doesn’t slow you down, a cheap phone lockbox could be just what the doctor ordered! The ySky Auto Phone Lockbox is a timer-based lockbox that has several cutouts in the lid and the sides to allow for the phone to be minimally used. The lockbox itself needs to be charged for four hours through either Lightning or USB-C when first purchased. ySky claims that each charge lasts 90 days, and after 180 days of use, it’s apparent that charging is not frequently needed.

Quench your thirst with a table-top smart water dispenser

table top water dispenser

Desktop Water Bottle Dispenser ($16.99)


This sleek tabletop water dispenser is super popular with the TikTok crowd, probably for its smart design, easy interface, and low price point. Hey, staying hydrated is cool. 


Old fashioned flip phone

The TCL Flip 2 ($30)


Flip phones are cool again…especially among the college crowd who opting for more simplicity and cost-savings. We get it. The “old” way to use phones is maybe a bit healthier and more balanced overall. And for less than $30 per month, you can grab a Tracfone. The TCL Flip 2 is available for a special price from August 1 to September 3. These guys even have plans starting as low as 10 bucks a month and any unused minutes on your data roll over to the next month.

A trustworthy, kid-friendly tablet

Amazon Fire 7 kids best summer learning gadgets for kids

Amazon’s Fire 7 Kids Edition (2022), 16GB for children ages three-to-seven 


For millions of kids, a tablet is one of the first devices they use to explore the digital world, but it can be a real double-edged sword too. Rather than just hand them your shared adult iPad and hope for the best, invest $200 or less on a tablet built from the wires-up just for kids. 

My favorites are Amazon’s Fire 7 Kids Edition (2022), 16GB for children ages three to seven. 

For older kids, ages 7-12, I like the next step up Fire HD 10 Kids Pro 32 (2021) GB. ($150)

Read Jennifer’s latest columns at USAToday.com/tech or follow her @JennJolly on Instagram