Back-to-school routines are better with Alexa and Google

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This week, my children went back to school. For most parents, that means a weekend spent shopping for composition notebooks and Ticonderoga pencils and digging up moldy lunch boxes from last year’s schoolbag (just me?). In my household, that also means reactivating all my smart home routines for back to school.

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

(One caveat to all of this: I use these gadgets, routines, and automations to help our household run smoothly and buy us time, not as an alternative to parenting.)

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

For me, the morning routine is key. Getting everyone up and out the door within a one hour time window is a tall order. Having a few digital assistants that help us keep track of time reduces the potential for raised voices and helps them be a little more self-sufficient with their morning ablutions. (You can do it with just one, but I like different aspects of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant routines and alarms, so I’ve got both going).

I have a lamp in each of our rooms with a Philips Hue bulb inside. Starting around 5:30 a.m., they all turn on low and gradually brighten over 30 minutes. I set it up in the Hue app using its built-in Wake-Up automation feature, replicating the wake-up-with-light feature of a sunrise alarm clock. It’s a nice and gentle way to start our body through the laborious process of waking up.

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

Then an Amazon Alexa routine starts from the Echo Show 8 on my 11 year old daughter’s bedside table. It starts by saying “Hello, sunshine!”, reporting the weather, then playing a radio station (we currently use BBC Radio 2). 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 dislike for the Beatles. In the interest of continuing his musical training, we now go with the chance of radio.

The routine also opens the room’s smart blinds and turns on the ceiling fan and its ceiling light, which are connected to Alexa via a Bond Bridge controller.

Next door, in my 14-year-old son’s bedroom, a similar routine from an Echo Show 5 opens its blinds, turns on the lights, and tells him the weather. But instead of a radio station – which he sleeps through – an Alexa alarm featuring the trio of The Grand Tour shouting obnoxiously 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 having breakfast, another Alexa routine reads our family calendar for the day, so we can chat and make sure we have everything we need. When it’s time to go, a family bell from the Nest Hub Max in our living room – yes, I have plenty of smart speakers; it’s part of the job — letting my daughter and I 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 this useful when we were forced to homeschool. It’s like an alarm, except it tells you what to do rather than just making a sound. It also starts with a nice jingle, and you can configure it to space out different actions during your morning routine. For example, it can say “Good morning” and 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 kids it’s a great alternative to mum or dad screaming on the stairs.

Since I work from home, I can’t always walk away when my son arrives on the school bus. But the Nest Doorbell Wired announces and shows me its arrival via a Nest Hub in my home office, so I know it’s home safe. He can also enter by typing in a code or using his fingerprint to unlock the smart door lock (currently a Eufy Touch smart lock).

My daughter needs to be picked up from her bus stop and I get a ping on my iPhone using Apple’s Find My Recurring Location notification feature that her Apple Watch has left her school (not yet phone for her). She has to approve the notification the first time it’s set up, but she notifies me every time, so I know I need to start heading to her bus stop to pick her up. It’s more reliable than her remembering to text me when they leave.

While I’m still working, the kids start their homework, aided by a program that pauses Wi-Fi on 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 ability to control Wi-Fi access to specific devices right on your smartphone. I 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 images from a video doorbell, so I can see when my son comes home.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy/The Verge

When dinnertime rolls around, I trigger a routine by telling the smart speaker in my kitchen, “Alexa, it’s dinnertime.” It makes a “Dinner is ready” announcement on all the Echo devices in the house, then starts a relaxing playlist at the bottom. As bedtime approaches, the blinds and lights in each room are set to lower and turn on respectively, one hour after sunset. Then, a Hue automation gradually dims the bedroom lights for 30 minutes.

Shortly before that, the Apple Screen Time settings on my son’s iPhone and my daughter’s iPad are turned on, which cuts off access to most apps while allowing them to listen to music or a Audible book while they relax.

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

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