As a child, I used to LOVE school supplies, and I loved packing and unpacking and then re-packing them again and again, into my brand new back pack.  And while as a parent now, I like the sense of organization and order (albeit fleeting) that school supplies can bring, as an Occupational Therapist, I cringe as I watch my kids pack their new school supplies into their used and soon to be overstuffed backpacks.

September 21st is National School Backpack Awareness Day and it is an annual event that is held on the 3rd Wednesday of every September.  The Day began years ago, as a partnership campaign between the the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and L.L.Bean, Inc. in an attempt to educate parents, students, educators and communities about the serious health effects that back packs that are too heavy or worn improperly have on children.

  • More than 79 million students in the US carry school backpacks (AOTA “Backpack Facts”.)
  • More than 23,000 backpack-related injuries were treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctor’s offices,  and clinics in 2007 (U.S. consumer Product Safety Commission National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), Database (2007))

So what’s a parent to do?! I don’t know about you, but as a parent I like to economize where I can, and buying a brand new pack that meets the growth rate of my children from year to year is not always in the budget.  So if you’re like me and you’re stuck with “last year’s backpack”, which was purchased in an attempt to fit them for at least a couple of years,  but want to minimize any complications the pending doom/I mean overstuffing, might cause…here are some strategies I intend to follow and teach my kids:

  • “Pack it light, wear it right!”; It’s recommended that a loaded back pack should never weigh more than 15% of your child’s total body weight (i.e. for a student weighing 100 lbs, the back pack shouldn’t weigh more than 15 lbs).
  • When teacher, “Mrs. Jones”, assigns extra homework or EVERY “Mrs. Jones” assigns homework and your child is expected to carry what amounts to a pack that outweighs the 15% rule, suggest your child pack ½ in their bag and carry the rest in their arms, so the weight is evenly distributed, or pack most in the bag and hand-carry remaining items (to get my kids used to what 15% of their weight feels like, I’ll be organizing a couple relay races in our backyard, prior to labor day) note: if the backpack is too heavy too often, a rolling pack may be a better option
  • Check what’s in the bag and make sure all items in there are essential for the day’s activities. (I confess, I’ve found many an unidentifiable, lost, or broken items in my own kids’ pack.  Who knew her entire coin collection was stashed in the front pocket and that she wasn’t really eating those apples?)
  • Load heavy items closest to the child’s back (the back of the pack) and as best you can, arrange books and materials so they won’t slide around in the back pack.  Stable loads mean less strain on a child’s back muscles.
  • WEAR BOTH STRAPS! This distributes weight evenly and helps minimize pressure on blood vessels and nerves in the neck and shoulders, which could cause pain and/or tingling in the hands, arms, or neck when too much pressure is applied.    A waist belt will also help with weight distribution, as will securing the pack snugly against your child’s back.  I’m realistic enough to know the waist belt will not get worn by my kids, no matter how much nagging I do,  so the 2-strap rule is routinely “encouraged”.  In fact, by the end of the school year last year, I had the younger two kids in my carpool calling after the older ones as they got out of the van at drop-off, “Both straps!  Both straps!”  (I think it gave the younger ones something to tattle about on their older siblings…I know tattling only happens in my house but hey…I’ll use it when it works).
  • Finally, if it’s in your budget to purchase a pack, if at all possible, choose a pack with padded shoulder straps and choose a pack that allows the bottom of the pack to rest in the curve of the lower back.  A backpack that hangs too low or loosely can pull backwards and strain muscles.

And so now that I’ve taken care of my kids and the backpack dilemma, I need to get myself ready and practice what I preach.   There are ergonomic strategies for carrying a purse too…who knew?!

Kelly Beins is wife and mom of two, a runner, an Occupational Therapist certified in sensory integration, and owner of a new practice, Occupational Therapy Consulting, LLC which specializes in sensory integration assessments and consultations. Kelly specializes in working with children, birth through adolescence, who have developmental or social-emotional challenges and has presented and written at both the state and national levels.  Watch for the online launch of her new website: some time mid-October along with her new blog: “Glass Half Full”, which will showcase resources, tips and strategies for helping people live life to the “fullest”, as well as stories of people, who will inspire the pessimist in all of us.