(MENAFN - Muscat Daily) Every morning as Dana (name changed) watches her nine year old son Hamed take the bus to school, a slew of anxious thoughts cross her mind.
''I worry he may lose his balance while climbing onto the bus, and fall backwards,'' she said. Dana's fear is not unfounded.
The overloaded backpack that her son saddles on his back is enough to get any mother worried. Of late, Hamed has been complaining of severe backache, and while Dana is convinced that ''it has a lot to do with the heavy bag that he carries to school'', her son refuses to keep it light. Dana is not alone.
Many parents in the sultanate have been echoing similar concerns. When speaking to schoolchildren here, we found that on an average, a child carries a school diary, at least six notebooks, six textbooks of varying thickness, a pen-pencil case, extra stationery (ruler, colour pencils, geometry kit), lunchbox, water bottle “ and sometimes a cellphone hidden between the books “ all weighing nothing less than six to seven kilos.
''This is heavy,'' said Dr Hakim Hassan, senior osteopathy consultant (spine and joints), Finland Osteopathy Clinic, adding, ''The total weight of a school bag should not exceed 10 to 12 per cent of the child's body weight. This figure could vary depending on the child's body type and the platform he/she uses to walk.''
According to Dr Hakim, carrying heavy backpacks could damage the spine and posture of a child. ''When a child is young, his/her skeletons are still developing, the spine is no exception. Carrying a heavy bag increases the pressure on the shoulders and back, leading to instability of the spine. Due to this, a child ends up with muscle problems, like stiff neck and upper back pain. Sometimes, the joints of the spine may also grow unevenly, deforming the child's posture. You do not know how badly it could affect the child...say 20 to 30 years later,'' said Dr Hakim.
Also, children suffering with scoliosis “ a genetic disorder that causes abnormal curvature of the spine “ should be all the more careful, he said. ''When such children load their backs with unnecessary weight, they risk damaging their spine permanently.''
Who is to blame?
It's common to find students, parents as well as school authorities, pass the buck for overloaded school bags, onto each other. Though there is a fixed time-table in place at most schools, children argue that their teachers do not specify what books they need to carry to class.
''We have three textbooks for English, but our teachers rarely tell us which book would be required the next day, which is why I mostly carry all the books to school,'' a 14 year old student of an Indian school said. Parents also have a similar line of argument.
School authorities, however, claim otherwise. ''We have structured the time-table in such a way that we keep a double period of one subject twice or thrice a week so that children do not have to carry too many textbooks to schools,'' said Priya Murali, vice principal (primary section), Indian School Muscat, adding, ''Despite such measures, I find children carrying books not needed for the day inside their bags.''
Then, there is also the ban on trolley bags in many schools in the sultanate that has got some parents riled up. ''It would have eased the load off my sons' shoulders,'' said Shalini (name changed), whose children study in a private school.
''Parents do not realise that trolley bags are heavier than your regular bag. This is the only reason for the ban,'' said Priya. Dr Hakim doesn't agree more, ''Pulling a trolley bag requires one to tilt his/her shoulders. In doing so, the balance of the spine becomes less symmetrical. This could cause your spine to curve on one side.''
The way forward Last year, ISM initiated a pilot project in one section of classes three and four each. ''As part of the project, all textbooks were kept inside the class cupboard. The students though reluctant in the beginning, were very happy about not carrying their textbooks home. We will be trying it in two sections again this year. If the feedback from the parents and students is positive enough, we will implement it across all classes,'' says Priya.
In a similar move, Al Injaz Private School started a locker system for its students. ''Each student has a personal locker. At the start of the academic year, we get our teachers to train the students to use these lockers, and the students are instructed to deposit all their extra stationery, craft material and textbooks here,'' Amita Sharma, director of the school said. A parent whose children study at the British School Muscat lauded the school for introducing tablets and sees it as ''a step forward in academic learning''.
''My children do all their homework online. It has reduced the number of books they carry home,'' he said. Among the Indian schools, ISM also ''plans to introduce tablets soon...but in a phased manner''.
However, until such measures are implemented, teachers and doctors feel that parents and students should try and work around the existing system, to deal with the problem. Amita and Priya say that if students follow the instruction of the teachers and pack their bags according to the time-table, their bags wouldn't be this heavy. Dr Hakim suggests involving the children in sports and physical activity to correct any damage to their spine. He also believes that investing in a good backpack ''could prevent a whole lot of injuries''.
''If you really care for your child's well-being, you shouldn't mind shelling a few extra bucks on the right bag.''
Buying the right school bag
Small and compact: Avoid bags that are bigger (lengthwise) than the height of the child's back. When a child carries a huge bag, he/she inadvertently ends up bending forward. This could compress the spine, leading to tightening of the muscles, thereby causing severe backache.
Cushioned for comfort: Thick, cushy straps help lesson the impact of the weight of the bag on the child's shoulders. Ensure that straps are not too wide as shoulder blades need breathing space. Look for bags that can also be strapped at the waist like a belt; the front belt helps lock the bag to the hip, and keeps the spine erect.
Fit to form: Opt for a schoolbag, which has a nice contour. A perfectly shaped bag is one that takes on the shape of the spine when it rests on the back. Ensure that there is some space between the bag and body just near the lower back. This prevents any discomfort caused due to the polyester material of the b