Monday, June 9, 2008

Bag to School

School reopens this week for most children in India. And along with the flurry of excitement that comes with entering a new class, comes the thrill of getting to school in their new finery—new uniforms, new shoes, new raincoats and umbrellas, as this is monsoon season. And of course new bags. Yes, this is going to be my topic for this column. The school bag. Whether the fancy ones with Disney and other cartoon characters embellishing their surface, or the plain canvas ones, long forgotten by the urban children but still in use in rural areas. Both with a single fact in common. Packed to capacity with books that often make the bag unbearably heavy to carry. Some children carry close to their own weight in books to school and back everyday. The average weight of a school bag in Mumbai is 9 kilos. And this is without factoring in sports kits and the like.

According to reports that come out in the newspaper, where intrepid reporters accost unsuspecting school children on their way to school, and weigh their bags, some bags weigh as much as 12 kgs. I kid you not. Have these schools not sensitised themselves to the sad fact that they are physically and psychologically making the children beasts of burden, weighed down under studies?

It is a common sight to see parents escorting their children and carrying their bags for them. And almost leaning over diagonally like human towers of Pisa with the weight. How would the child ever be able to carry the bag, one wonders? When the brat was in playschool, he was all of 20 months and he had a timetable, and books to be carried in his bag as per the timetable. Yes, it was a really horrible playschool, but nonetheless. Needless to say, the brat being the brat, half the books were tattered beyond comprehension and the remainder were a mish mash of edibles spilled and crayon work gone haywire, but the fact is that my heart broke everytime I saw him teeter across the building compound his school bag on his little back, almost as big as he was at the time.

Thankfully, his current school only has us send in a spare change of clothes, a tiffin box, and a water bottle, apart from his almanac. Making his load relatively lighter, of course.

But such schools are few and far between. Some schools have tried to alleviate the load of the child by having worksheets instead of rough books. Two sets of text books to be kept in class and at home (But that is an indulgence that the rich can afford). Sharing of textbooks by benchpartners, to reduce the load to be carried into class every single day.

But the fact remains that most children are tottering around like beasts of burden which school bags which could give a good trekking bag a run for its money, and god help you if you get side swipped by one of these. It could knock you out flat to a count of ten.

But jokes apart, what are the obvious problems heavy bags could cause? Back problems for one. Chronic back pain for another. If your child is constantly stating that he or she has a backache, pay attention. And take a good hard look at the school bag. It could be the culprit. I personally know of a case, a 13 year old girl sharing the room with the brat when he was once admitted into a pediatric ward for his febrile convulsions, a child in Standard IX who had developed nerve compression in her spine as a result of carrying a too heavy bag too long and too far, as she lived a long bus ride away from her school. Not pretty. In fact, it was very very scary.

Spine misalignment, wear and tear of ligaments, joint problems, stunted growth and much more are being cited by orthopedics as possible outcomes of consistently carrying around overtly heavy bags. Surely, our children deserve better.

Pediatricians recommend that the weight of the school bag should be no more than 10 percent of the child’s body weight. The bag should be carried on the back with two padded straps resting firmly on either shoulder to balance out the weight. And the school not make it mandatory for the child to stand with the bag during assembly.

For the parent, do check out the weight of the bag you are buying for the child when it is empty. If it is already heavy to start with, dump it, however attractive it may be. Do realize that lunch boxes, water bottles, etc are added weight for the child to carry, in addition to raincoats and umbrellas during the monsoon. Do look for lightweight options to everything. Buy 100 page notebooks for rough work rather than the heavier hardback 500 page versions. Ask if your child can get worksheets rather than books for rough work. Check if sport equipment can be kept in lockers at school.

Do weigh your child’s bag on a regular basis and check in with the school if you feel it is consistently too heavy, and if there are some items which can be reduced.

And last but not the least, do know that the government has stipulated that there is a fixed maximum weight to a school bag, which should not exceed ten percent of the child’s body weight.

The Indian Parliament introduced The Children school Bags (Limitation On weight) Bill, 2006.
The important points of this bill were that the weight of the school bag should not exceed ten percent of the child’s body weight.
Nursery and kindergarten students should carry no school bags.
Schools should provide appropriate lockers in schools for the children to use.
The schools should issue guidelines on school bags.

To quote from the bill:

It shall be the duty of the appropriate Government to ensure that the weight of
the school bag to be carried by a child of particular class shall not be more than ten per cent
of the weight of the child:
Also, as part of the bill come the following stipulations:
(a) the students should use appropriate school bag with several compartments
to balance the weight and broad padded straps for symmetrical distribution of weight
on their spine;
(b) the students should always use both straps for carrying school bags and no
student is slinging his bag over one shoulder;
(c) the students should always keep the bag down while waiting for the school
conveyance or in the school assembly;
(d) the students should bend at knees with back straight while lifting the school
(e) the students should be told how to pack their school bags so that heavy
items should be close to the body and not carry unwanted items to school.

Schools which are found to be violating this rule, and which have not provided lockers for the children to keep their belongings, will be fined and if recognized, will be derecognized on repeat offence.

The bill has explained in detail the rationale behind its being passed as pasted under:
Small children often have been seen tottering to school with heavy backpacks. The
results of this excessive weight is more serious than ever expected. Some children may
develop a permanent stoop due to the heavy pressure on their spinal cord, which would lead
to permanent damage to their physical structure and back muscles.
It is a medically proven fact that lifting heavy burdens for a long time or distance is not
good for anyone, especially children. In the tender age, bones are delicate and excessive
weight can misalign the spine leading to offensive skeletal and muscle maturity. Carrying a
heavy bag on the back often results in aches in the back and shoulders. Forward bending at
the back makes the work of breathing harder. Children carrying bags weighing more than
10 per cent of their body weight have been found to have poorer lung function.
Yet, life goes on as before for most families even after they hear their children
complaining about pain in back and neck. Growing weight of school bag and its effect on
health of the children has became a matter of grave concern for every parent School authorities
have also been expressing their concern over the issue but nothing is being done to lessen
the burden of school bags.
Along with books, children have to carry their sports and other equipment with them.
If lockers are provided to children in school, it will allow them to leave sports equipment, and
certain books and notebooks in school. Further, the school should issue common instructions
to students in advance which books will be needed and which can be left at home and
teaching the child to put down the bag when waiting at the bus stop, in the assembly, and to
use both straps of the bag, etc. Some schools have adopted a way for reducing the weight of
school bags. They don't send all the books back home. Only those books are kept in the bags
which the students are required to study at home. This has been working very well for junior
classes. Therefore, there is an urgent need to enact legislation for the whole of the country
to save the children from carrying heavy loads on their back.
Hence this Bill.

Additional links

Children being children, will be tempted to carry along their entire quota of books every day to ensure that they do not leave behind a single book by mistake. Do keep your eyes peeled to check whether they're overloading their bags more than is essential.

You owe it to their growing backs.


DotThoughts said...

they make wheeled backpacks now. quite popular with the students here.

karmickids said...

Dottie: True. Popular here too, but impractical for getting into buses and have you seen roads here??? They'd be filthy and slushy on day one.

GettingThereNow said...

This is a very good post Kiran! And utterly necessary to bring the parents' attention to this crucial issue.

Dottie - we don't buy the wheeled backpacks for S either - same issue as Kiran pointed out. They are unweildy when a child has to get on and off a bus. They are heavy to start with, too.

karmickids said...

GTH: Thanks, I know it agonises me when I see a pint sized child struggling to get on and off a bus with a huge bag almost his own height and weight...I think its high time parents took some initiative to work proactively with schools to lessen their kid's loads.