Better backpack habits help pupils' posture


May 30, 2002|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IF YOU'VE watched children walking to school, you've seen that some of them look more like Himalayan Sherpas bearing supplies to classes on Mount Everest than children of middle-class families living in a modern society. Carrying overloaded backpacks is not the exception today, but the rule.

What students put into their backpacks and how they carry them have produced some startling statistics. Arnold chiropractor Diane Kelly does the math: If your child carries a backpack that weighs 12 pounds and lifts that weight 10 times a day, the child will lift 120 pounds a day, or 21,600 pounds in one 180-day school year. That's nearly 11 tons -- or the equivalent of six mid-size automobiles.

Because so many young backs are in jeopardy, Kelly visits elementary schools to teach children the correct way to carry their backpacks. The 48-year- old Florida native, who has practiced in Maryland for 18 years, says that a backpack should weigh no more than 10 percent to 15 percent of a child's weight. When an average-size child regularly lugs as much as 25 pounds of books and sundries, it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out the percentages are all wrong for the child's shoulders and back.

Kelly takes her backpack to each presentation, where she reads to the children from a book that she wrote, Woe Is Me and My Birthday Tree, to make it easier for children to learn about proper back care.

Pupils relate to the brightly colored paperback book, which is about a girl named Woe who has scoliosis. With the inclusion of what can be a fearful condition in a nonthreatening manner, pupils take home copies of pages from the book to color. Kelly hopes to alleviate some of the fear of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Causes can be congenital, hereditary or because of an injury, she says. Some forms require surgery; others respond to exercise and chiropractic adjustment.

Woe learns how to exercise to improve her posture and how carrying her backpack the right way will help, too. The book advises parents to lighten the load in their children's backpacks, check their children's posture periodically and join their children in stretching their muscles.

When Kelly plays the "Macarena" and the children start to dance with her, they don't realize they're stretching their backs, shoulders and torsos. Because they're having so much fun, they aren't aware that Kelly is there to teach them an important message about maintaining the healthy backs they were born with.

"Woe is me, no woe is I" is the witty refrain that runs through Kelly's book, and by the time the children have heard it once or twice, they're joining in.

To illustrate what not to put in their backpacks, Kelly fills her backpack with items that children love, but should leave at home, such as a teddy bear, a toy dinosaur, a blanket and a compact disc player.

The last item she pulls out of her backpack is a full-size model of a spine. With it, she demonstrates what can happen to the spine when pupils carry their backpacks incorrectly -- that is either too low, too high or on one shoulder. If a child has to lean forward to carry a backpack, Kelly says, it's too heavy.

Kelly and her husband, Brad, monitor what's carried in their children's backpacks. Sean is in eighth grade at Severna Park Middle School, and Lauren in fifth grade at Oak Hill Elementary.

Illustrated by Vonnie Winslow Crist, Woe Is Me and My Birthday Tree was published last winter. Kelly's second book, Woe Is Me and My Night-nights Three, will be available sometime this year.

Information: 410-757-8989.

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