The best backpacks for toddlers and preschoolers should be sized to fit their small bodies and have a fun design so kids want to pack them up and go.
Parents love how well Skip Hop Zoo Packs (*Est. $20) fit their young children, but the 16 brightly colored animal designs are what appeal to kids. Expert and customer reviewers say youngsters can't wait until it's time to grab their favorite animal friend and go bye-bye. Options include cat, dog, dinosaur, penguin, zebra, giraffe and monkey designs.
The Skip Hop Zoo Pack has one large compartment and a smaller, insulated snack compartment. There's a nametag inside the main compartment, and parents say the color doesn't bleed when you write on it. Parents say the zippers are sturdy and easy for even small fingers to work. The fabric is phthalate- and BPA-free, and reviewers say they can be tossed in the washing machine and hung to dry.
The only real downside to these packs is they're too small to fit a full-size folder or notebook, so once your child hits kindergarten and those items are added to the list of required school supplies, you'll need to upgrade. The Zoo Packs last for years, so you can always hang onto them as a toy bag, overnight bag, to pass along to a younger sibling.
Stephen Joseph Quilted Backpacks (Est. $20) come in 37 cute designs, ranging from trucks to animals to ballerinas, and reviewers say they're just as adorable as the Skip Hop Zoo Packs, albeit slightly smaller. Stephen Joseph backpacks have one large drawstring compartment with a magnetic closure to keep the top down, and a small zippered compartment. It's large enough to hold a small notebook and a change of clothes and snack. They also can be monogrammed.
Parents love the Stephen Joseph Quilted Backpack's super-soft construction, which one parent says is plush enough to use as a pillow. They're easy to clean, too: just toss them in the washing machine and hang to dry. A few parents complain of the strap or zipper breaking and one parent bemoans how easy it is to pull out the drawstring, she says to be sure it's double-knotted.
Kids from kindergarten through middle school need a backpack with more carrying capacity -- but not so large that they end up overloaded.
The JanSport SuperBreak (Est. $35) has been around for decades, and its 50 different colors and prints are still a hot selling point for kids. It's built simply -- one large compartment and a smaller front compartment -- but it has plenty of room in its 1,550 cubic inches for a three-ring binder, notebooks, textbooks, school supplies and a lunch bag. Students say they are often surprised by just how much they can fit into the SuperBreak. They love how light it is (12 ounces), and they say the thick, supportive straps help them carry any load comfortably. A few reviewers say they wish it had more pockets for a higher level of organization, however.
The SuperBreak also stands out for its durability. Some parents say the fabric in the newer versions doesn't feel quite as sturdy as the fabric from decades past, but it still stands up to years of rough use and overpacking, and it looks great after repeated machine washings. One parent calls the zippers "indestructible." Quite a few reviewers use it as a hiking daypack as well. It's machine washable and comes with a lifetime warranty.
There isn't a lot of customer feedback on the Pottery Barn Kids Mackenzie (Est.$30 and up) , however, because it's sold only through Pottery Barn and they don't have a forum for customer reviews. However it appears on virtually every expert roundup of the best backpacks for kids from preschool to high school.
There are four sizes to choose from -- mini, small, large and wheeled -- so there's one to fit your child at any stage. They're particularly praised for their stylish colors and designs, but they're nothing but workhorses when it comes to organization. These backpacks feature three exterior and one exterior pocket, two exterior water bottle holders, an MP3 holder and openings for headphones (the mini does not have the latter feature).
The Pottery Barn Kids Mackenzie is well padded with ergonomic straps, a sternum strap, and outer loops for a lunch box -- matching lunch boxes are available -- so that lunch doesn't get smashed in the pack.
The only complaint we found was about the rolling backpack. It's wheels and handle are flimsy, owners say. Otherwise, this is a great, durable choice, albeit at a slightly higher price than the JanSport.