Lighten The Load On Kids

Teachers, Parents Hear Ways to Help Students Avoid Getting Back Pain

Alice Gomstyn
The Journal News
October 4, 2005

WEST NYACK - Brittany Marrone's pink backpack held just one binder and weighed in at 8.5 pounds, far less than the 16.8-pound maximum recommended for her 112-pound frame.

But Brittany, 11, a sixth-grader at South Orangetown Middle School, said that as the school year wore on, she expected to be carrying two additional binders. Her backpack, she said, "will weigh a ton."

Brittany won't be the only child carrying an overwhelming load this year, and that, health experts say, is a serious problem.

In a study cited by the American Occupational Therapy Association, about six of 10 students, ages 9 to 20, complained of chronic back pain related to heavy backpacks. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 7,000 emergency room visits in 2001 were related to backpacks and book bags.

"Kids are really carrying way too much in their backpacks," said Sally Kagan, a nurse at Hillcrest Elementary School in New City. "It's impacting their health and their backs."

Locally and nationally, health officials are urging children, parents and teachers to be conscious of the risks of improper backpack use. Last month, the therapy association marked its annual "National School Backpack Awareness Day." In the Palisades Center mall that day, the association joined with Giant Leaps Occupational Therapy of Valley Cottage to sponsor a backpack-awareness program. There, occupational therapists weighed children's backpacks and gave advice.

On Friday, Hillcrest Elementary School will host its own backpack-awareness program, run by the occupational therapy staff of the East Ramapo school district.

One key to keeping backpacks safe, experts say, is to make sure the child's backpack is no heavier than 15 percent of his or her body weight. If the full backpack's weight exceeds that limit, it is recommended that the child take some materials out of the pack and carry them to reduce the burden on the back.

Parents may also want to consider buying rolling backpacks for their children, but Janet Falk-Kessler, director of Programs in Occupational Therapy at Columbia University, warns against packing too much in rolling backpacks.

"The problem is that if they're very, very heavy, it will cause problems with the shoulder and arm because you're pulling excessive weight," said Falk-Kessler, who participated in the Palisades Center program. "It's a matter of trying to make sure you don't overload any of the packs you use."

Jeanine Fray, a certified occupational therapy assistant in charge of Hillcrest's program, recommends that children wear shoulder pads under backpack straps to reduce pressure.

Heft isn't the only concern related to backpack safety. Experts say other factors, such as the pack's size, are also critical to preventing injury.

Giant Leaps director Tammy Belcher said a backpack shouldn't be so large that, when worn, it falls below a child's waist. Keeping the backpack at waist level, she says, will ensure that weight is more evenly distributed across a child's back.

How a backpack is worn and packed also affects weight distribution. Children's backpack straps should be pulled tightly, and heavier items should be placed toward the side of the bag that's against the child's back, Falk-Kessler said, so the pack doesn't droop and shift a child's center of gravity downward.

"When your body goes backward," she said, "it changes your entire alignment from head to toe. It affects how your muscles work."

Carrying a backpack by just one strap, health experts say, doesn't cut it either.

"It looks cool to carry it all on one shoulder, but it's not really the safest thing for your back," Kagan said.

Amy Altson, coordinator of occupational and physical therapy for East Ramapo schools, said she hoped Hillcrest's program would educate teachers, as well as the students.

"Maybe teachers can lighten the backpacks," she said. "Maybe the teachers can be aware that (students) don't have to bring back every book."

Brittany Marrone, who attended the Palisades Center program, said she would heed the experts' advice and carry a binder in her arms instead of having all of them in her backpack.

Until he attended the program, Brittany's father, Rob Marrone, said he hadn't given backpack safety much thought.

"I learned that kids' backpacks can be heavier than you think," he said. "I didn't realize her backpack weighed 9 pounds, and that was actually light."

Reach Alice Gomstyn at or 845-578-2420.

Backpack safety tips

  • Never let a child carry a backpack that weighs more than 15 percent of his or her body weight.
  • Load the heaviest items closest to the child's back.
  • Arrange books and materials so they won't slide around in the backpack.
  • Check what a child carries to school and brings home and make sure those items are necessary for the day's activities.
  • When the backpack is too heavy, have the child carry some items or consider using a book bag on wheels if your child's school allows it.
  • Both shoulder straps should always be worn.
  • Choose a pack with well-padded shoulder straps.
  • Make sure that the shoulder straps are adjusted to fit snugly.
  • Have the child wear a waist belt if the backpack has one.
  • Never let a backpack rest more than 4 inches below the child's waist line.

The American Occupational Therapy Association Inc.