THE LOAD OF BACKPACKS

New teachers, required reading, and diving into a regimented routine – there are plenty of things our kids are burdened with during the back to school season. Luckily, the fun stuff that comes with getting back into the groove always seems to quickly alleviate those end-of-summer blues. However, there’s one weight that only seems to get heavier as the school year goes on: your child’s backpack.

You’ve probably been there. Your kid gets home, plops the pack on the ground, and hops off to another room. You go to retrieve it, so the bag is ready at the homework battle station and, oof, “What are you carrying in here, bricks?!”

Not only do bulky backpacks garner complaints from the kids who carry them, but they can be dangerous for their musculoskeletal health, too.

Why do children’s backpacks seem to be getting heavier? It’s because they probably are. While the popularity of online textbooks and school-issued iPads have increased, other factors interrupt that progress. Due to space issues and security, many students go without lockers to hold the materials they do need. Rolling backpacks had their heyday; however, many schools have banned them, citing them as hallway and stair hazards, and in Minnesota, they’re a nightmare on snowy sidewalks in the winter.

Another query: do kids have more homework these days? According to CBS Minnesota, the answer is yes and no. For older kids in high school, it has remained about the same. However, the younger the student in question is, the more assignments and homework have increased from decades past.

This isn’t to say older kids aren’t lugging around too much, and teenagers who make extra pursuits are even more impacted. With AP classes, band and sports come even more books, instruments and athletic uniforms.

A kid’s complaint about their heavy load is no joke. Shelley Goodgold, professor of physical therapy at Simmons College in Boston, found that one-third of students experience regular back pain. Heavy packs cause straining in the back and neck. In children who have scoliosis, heavy backpacks can increase the existing curve in the spine.

A child’s posture can also suffer. Chronic forward leaning to compensate for the weight on the shoulders can throw off a child’s equilibrium even when they aren’t wearing their pack, as it weakens the muscles in the lower back that allow us to stand straight and tall. This combined with hunching over the kitchen table during homework time, and seated activities like video games and cruising the internet offer a double whammy of a 24/7 incorrect pelvic tilt.

How heavy is too heavy? A good rule of thumb is that backpacks shouldn’t be heavier than 10% of a child’s weight. A 2012 survey done by Consumer Reports found that by sixth grade, the average student’s backpack weighed 18 to 30 pounds. Clearly, for most students, that isn’t correct.

So, is your kid’s backpack to weight ratio not adding up? You certainly aren’t alone. Here are some tips to even the scales for your child’s health:

  • Go through his or her backpack together, weekly, to get rid of old assignments and unit-specific materials that are no longer relevant.
  • Work on organization together – if they only have a subject some days, only bring those textbooks and binders when they are needed. Set aside a place at home where these items always go when they aren’t in use. This way, your kid can always find them. Switching items over can be part of the homework routine.
  • Choose the right backpack. Most physical therapists recommend a pack with thick, padded straps, as well as a waist strap for extra heavy loads. Many sporting goods stores can size your child to find the right dimensions and strap tightness for their body.
  • Pack smart. The heaviest items should go in first, closest to the body and the bottom of the backpack. This weight distribution makes the backpack more comfortable.
  • On those extra-heavy days, see if your student is willing to carry something outside of the backpack to lighten the load on their shoulders, like lunch in a separate lunchbox, or a second bag for their gym shoes and water bottle.

Just as importantly, have an age-appropriate conversation with your kiddo about how keeping an eye on their daily gear can be good for them in the long run. That way you can take a load off your mind, too.