Going back to school is hard — make your smart home do the work

This week, my kids headed back to school. For most parents, that means a weekend spent buying composition notebooks and Ticonderoga pencils and unearthing moldy lunchboxes from last year’s book bag (just me?). In my household, it also means reenabling all my back-to-school smart home routines.

I’ve been using my smart home as an extra pair of parental eyes and ears for years now, and I think all parents need some home automation in their lives. The little things the smart home does well — lights that turn on when you walk into a room, a TV you can shut down with just your voice, a doorbell that shows you who’s there — are so much more useful when you are also juggling little people and their various demands.

(A caveat to all this: I use these gadgets, routines, and automations to help our household run smoothly and give us back some time, not as an alternative to actually parenting.)

My children are now 11 and 14, going into middle school and high school, so instead of finding fun ways to encourage my children to stay in bed until it’s time to get up (the green light for go, which you can easily set up on the Echo Glow light, is a classic), I’ve had to devise systems that help me get them out of bed.

For me, the morning routine is the key one. Getting everyone up and out the door in a one-hour time window is a serious challenge. Having a couple of digital assistants helping us keep track of time cuts down on the potential for raised voices and helps them be a bit more autonomous with their morning ablutions. (You could do this with just one, but I like different aspects of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant’s routines and alarms, so I have both going).

The morning routine

I have one lamp in each of our bedrooms with a Philips Hue light bulb inside. Starting around 5:30AM, they all turn on low and gradually brighten over 30 minutes. I set this up in the Hue App using its built-in Wake-Up automations feature, replicating the wake-with-light feature of a sunrise alarm clock. This is a nice, gentle way to start our bodies along in the laborious process of waking up.

An Echo Show 5 makes a good bedside clock. We use Echo devices mainly because we can play Audible books on them, and they make a good home intercom system.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Next, an Amazon Alexa Routine kicks off from the Echo Show 8 on my 11-year-old daughter’s nightstand. It starts by saying, “Good morning, sunshine!”, reporting the weather, then playing a radio station (we’re using BBC Radio 2 at the moment). I used to add a song to the Routine to wake her up, but after a year of Here Comes the Sun, she developed a visceral aversion to The Beatles. In the interest of furthering her musical education, we’re now going with the randomness of the radio.

The Routine also opens the smart shades in the room and turns on the ceiling fan and its overhead light, which are hooked into Alexa via a Bond Bridge controller.

Next door, in my 14-year-old son’s room, a similar routine from an Echo Show 5 opens his shades, turns lights on, and tells him the weather. But instead of a radio station — which he sleeps right through — an Alexa alarm featuring the trio from The Grand Tour obnoxiously shouting at him seems to get him out of bed the quickest. (He loves cars, and I’m British, so it seemed like a good choice!)

Google’s Family Bell feature helps get my kids to the bus stop on time.
Image: Google

Once everyone is downstairs eating breakfast, another Alexa Routine reads out our family calendar for the day, so we can discuss and make sure we have everything we need. When it’s time to leave, a Family Bell from the Nest Hub Max in our living room — yes, I have a lot of smart speakers; it’s part of the job — lets me and my daughter know when it’s time to drive to the bus stop.

Family Bell is a Google Assistant feature that rolled out during the pandemic. We found it helpful when we were forced to do school at home. It’s like an alarm, only it tells you what you need to do rather than just making a sound. It also starts with a nice jingle, and you can set it to space out different actions during your morning routine. For example, it can say “Good morning,” then, five minutes later, remind you to make your bed or brush your teeth. My kids don’t really need that much prompting now, but for younger ones, it’s a nice alternative to mum or dad shouting up the stairs.

The evening routine

Since I work from home, I’m not always able to get away when my son arrives on the school bus. But the Nest Doorbell Wired both announces and shows his arrival to me through a Nest Hub in my home office, so I know he’s home safely. He can also let himself in by typing a code or using his fingerprint to unlock the smart door lock (currently a Eufy Touch smart lock).

My daughter has to be collected from her bus stop, and I get a ping on my iPhone using Apple’s Find My Recurring Location notification feature that tells me her Apple Watch has left her school (no phone for her yet). She has to approve the notification the first time it’s set up, but then it pings me every time, so I know to start heading to her bus stop to collect her. It’s more reliable than her remembering to text me when they leave.

While I’m still working, the kids get started on their homework, helped along by a schedule that pauses Wi-Fi to their personal devices for an hour. We set this up through the Eero app, which is the mesh Wi-Fi system I currently have. Many Wi-Fi routers now have the option to control Wi-Fi access to specific devices right on your smartphone. I’ve also used the Smart Home Manager App for AT&T and the Xfinity app for Comcast internet to do the same.

The Nest Hub can stream footage from a video doorbell, so I can see when my son comes home.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

When dinner time rolls around, I trigger a routine by telling the smart speaker in my kitchen, “Alexa, it’s dinnertime.” This makes a “Dinner is ready” announcement on all the Echo devices in the house, then starts a relaxing playlist downstairs. As bedtime nears, the shades and lights in each room are set to lower and turn on respectively, an hour after sunset. Then, a Hue automation gradually fades the bedroom lights over 30 minutes.

A little before this, Apple Screen Time settings on my son’s iPhone and daughter’s iPad kick in, which shuts off access to most apps while still letting them listen to music or an Audible book while they wind down.

Finally, I collect their devices and put them in their dedicated charging spots downstairs. They can then listen to sleep sounds, music, or an Audible book on their Echo Show to help them drift off to sleepy town.

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