by James Rada, Jr.
As Carroll County students head back to school, their backpacks covered in wild patterns, colorful superheroes, and Disney princesses will soon be filled with heavy textbooks, bulky binders, and sloshing water bottles.
It can be a lot for students to bear…literally.
Just how much that load will become apparent on Sept. 20. That is School Backpack Awareness Day, a nationwide event to raise that awareness, including weighing students’ backpacks. Not all schools in Carroll County participate in this event, but some have in the past.
“The goal is to raise awareness of how heavy the loads are that children carry in their backpacks,” says Katie Riley with the American Occupational Therapy Association.
Heavy backpacks can cause back pain, shoulder pains, and poor posture in students.
While it is all right for backpacks to get heavier as students age, limits should be considered.
“We recommend that a backpack be no more than 10 percent of a child’s weight,” says Riley
So load up child’s books in a backpack and weigh it on a bathroom scale. For a 100 pound child, the backpack should weigh no more than 10 pounds. If it does, look for ways to lighten the load.
Getting the weight down may require some coordination between teachers and parents. It may even create some inconvenience for students who have to make more frequent trips to their lockers. It beats the alternative.
“For students who have back problems in school, typically those problems will follow them into adulthood,” says Karen Jacobs, a professor at Boston University who created School Backpack Awareness Day.
Carroll County students seem to be lucky in this regard. Kimberly Dolch, Director of High Schools with the Carroll County Board of Education, said the principals in the school system are not hearing complaints from parents about backpacks being too heavy.
Of course, backpacks have also become a fashion statement. Some are themed, such as Star Wars, while others have interesting fabric colors and patterns. Students also decorate them with a variety of items that can be clipped onto the straps. “Don’t be swayed because your child wants a superhero on his backpack or a certain color,” says Jacobs. “It needs to fit.”
The straps should be well padded and around two inches wide. Jacobs also recommends that the backpack is padded wherever it comes in contact with the wearer’s body.
The material should be lightweight but sturdy. Leather backpacks are nice, but they add weight. NOTE: Two safety precautions to consider with backpacks. 1) The material should be reflective for times when a student is walking to a bus stop on a dark winter morning. 2) There should be no initials or names on the backpack.
The backpack should have a chest strap and hip straps. Jacobs says that some students balk at wearing the chest strap, but these straps, in particular, the hip straps, allow more weight to be carried without pain to the shoulders and neck. It is what hikers use to carry their loaded backpacks safely.
“’Pack it light. Wear it tight’ is something we like to teach students,” Jacobs said.
It wouldn’t hurt to make sure it has plenty of pockets for your child to stow different items he or she might need during the school day. However, don’t try to carry a laptop or band instrument in the backpack. It is safer for those items and better for your child if they are carried in a case with a handle.
To ensure that the backpack doesn’t get loaded down with a lot of unnecessary items, buy the smallest one that you can. That way, your child will have to consider how much he or she carries around.
A rolling backpack is an option but check with your school first. Some schools don’t allow them because they can become a tripping hazard in a crowded hallway. They are also difficult to manage on stairs and buses.
If only it were as easy to lose body weight as it is to lose backpack weight.
The easiest way to reduce backpack weight is for your child to only carry the books needed for morning classes in the morning and then switch the load to afternoon class books during the lunch period. Also, only bring home the books needed for homework and studying.
Dolch said that in the elementary schools, “Schools keep backpacks lighter by not sending students home with textbooks most of the time. They usually only have folders and composition books.”
In the middle schools, students are required to keep their backpacks in their lockers during the day so they aren’t lugging them around except to and from school. Manchester Valley, Francis Scott Key, Winters Mill, and Liberty High Schools also have this same policy.
Many schools are adding online textbooks to a student’s options. If your student is comfortable reading online and an online text is available, you might be able to get rid of a textbook entirely. For instance, novels that are being read for an English class can be purchased and read on a smartphone or tablet computer.
“We do use electronic resources for instructional purposes but not because students’ backpacks are too heavy,” Dolch said.
Regularly clean out your backpack and get rid of unneeded items and papers.
“Students can also wait to fill up water bottles until after they walk to school,” Jacobs said. “This will help reduce the weight.”
It may be easier to shrug off a backpack if you only wear it on one shoulder, but you are increasing your chances of back pain. Some other tips include:
Storing the heaviest items lowest in the backpack and keeping them distributed evenly.
Keep the straps snug enough so that the backpack is above your waist and below your skull.
Don’t lean forward while walking. If you find it necessary, then the backpack is too heavy.
School Backpack Awareness Day
School Backpack Awareness Day formally started 16 years ago. This year it will be held on September 20 as students are returning to school, being assigned textbooks, and buying school supplies.
Jacobs says that she helps at the same school near her work annually. “We’re seeing students remember how to pack a backpack and how to wear it properly,” she says.
For more information about the event or additional tips on lightening the load in student backpacks, visit the American Occupational Therapy Association website at www.aota.org.