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The problem with schoolbags

As children head back to school after midterm break it is a worth revisiting schoolbag debate. At the start of each school year questions are posed about number, size and weight of schools books and types of schoolbags. Parent’s groups clamour for guidelines or even legislation on appropriate weights. Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple.

The problem with schoolbags is KIDS!

To put it into perspective, children come in all ages, shapes and sizes. Even within a single class there is great diversity in physique and height. If you line up any year height range from tiny to tall. Body shapes vary from petite and skinny to big or well built. It is obvious that a tall, well built child will weigh significantly more than a tiny one. This is where the problem comes: how can you legislate for an age/weight ration where such physically diverse body types occur even within a single age. To make matters more difficult, children grow constantly. So even if a suitable guide weight of schoolbag was agreed at the start of the school year, children’s growing bodies would need to be constantly re-evaluated throughout the year. You can imagine the complexity of this scenario.

No wonder academics and government policy makers struggle to come up with firm guidelines relative to schoolbag weights.

Whatever about strict weight guidelines, as parents there are things we can do to improve our children’s load.

The first step is to get children into the habit of repacking the bag each day, only bringing the actual books needed for next day’s classes rather than every book they own.

Packing the bag is a science in itself. The largest, heaviest books should lie against the rear of the bag and then graduate forward until the smallest, lightest books lie at the front. The reason for this orderly setup is to do with how our bodies carry weight most efficiently. The body’s centre of gravity is just within the pelvis, slightly more posterior towards the spine rather than the stomach. Our back muscles function best when weight is balanced near the centre of gravity. Packing the heavy books to lie at the back of the bag means that the loading of these books is close to the spinal muscles. This allows the spine and muscles to carry the extra weight at least extra cost.

If the bag were packed the opposite way round with the heavy books towards the front of the bag, their weight would be further distant from the spine and the centre of gravity. The back muscles would have to work much harder to balance the load this way round. So even though the total weight of the schoolbag is the same which ever way you place the books, the actual position of the books within the bag significantly alters the loading of that weight on back muscles.

A second factor in the schoolbag problem is how a child wears their bag. For muscle efficiency the bag should lie right up against the spine. It should be carried higher up the body rather than lower and not extend much below the waist line. To achieve this, just shorten the bag’s shoulder straps for the individual child to ensure a close fit. It is surprising how much this will improve the child’s ability to carry their bag.

Another factor is peer pressure, wanting to look ‘cool’ among the pals. This is particularly evident among teenagers. Watch them slouch up the road to school and you will see bags swinging off one shoulder or dragging along by ankles. If only we could get them to carry the bag as designed: over both shoulders. In this position the weight is equally distributed both sides of the spine reducing the impact of the bag’s weight.

Once all these factors are taken into account there is some leeway in choice of bag. Pull along schoolbags can be good (if allowed by the school). Just check the size is correct for the child’s height: the bag handle must come up to the child’s waist. Satchel type bags are also fine, again as long as they are shortened to lie near the waist rather than at hip level.

Finally, if a kit bag is to be carried as well as a school bag it is suggested that one of the bags should be a shoulder style, carried as discussed. The second bag should be satchel type slung across the stomach to counter balance the bag on the back, or roll-along. Which ever, the lesson is that carrying the least amount of books, packing the bag well and carrying it properly minimises the effect of heavy bags.

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