From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Back to School: Ergonomics Issues For Kids

Recently there has been much effort and publicity in the field of children and ergonomics. Two particular issues of debate concern elementary school aged children and the use of computers in the classroom and the prevalence of heavy backpacks on children.

Two states, California and New Jersey, have proposed laws intended to protect school children from carrying backpacks that are too heavy. California Assemblyman Rod Pacheco has introduced a bill that would require textbook printers to decrease the weight of their books. In New Jersey, Assemblyman Peter Barnes had made a proposal that would direct the state Board of Education to set and enforce weight standards for elementary and secondary textbooks.

Pacheco’s plan is supported by The California Medical Association, which said childhood is a key time for spinal growth, which could be altered by heavy backpacks.

More than 40 million students carry school backpacks, and according to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) many of them are too heavy, incorrectly worn, or poorly designed which may cause children pain, soreness, stiffness, and possible long-term damage to the skeletal system.

The AOTA and other groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics and chiropractic associations recommend that a child carry no more than 10 percent to 20 percent of their own body weight.
Once the children are in the classroom, the focus changes to the increasing use of computer technology. The state of Maine, this July, revealed that it plans to offer laptop computers to all 7th grade children.

In December of 2001, MSNBC included this issue in a five-part series titled, “The working wounded”. According to MSNBC, some surveys indicate that fourth-graders spend 9 percent of their time on computers; by 12th grade, that proportion jumps to 19 percent. The University of Rochester, found similar evidence when they asked sixth- through eighth-graders whether they experienced computer-related aches or pains at home or school. A total of 47 percent experienced discomfort with wrists; 44 percent with neck; 43 percent with eyes and 41 percent with hands.

Some schools are taking measures to address these concerns. In 2000, a school in Singapore spent $6,000 to make sure their students remained injury-free and productive. Bedok South Primary put their money towards fitting 45 computers with glare filters and wrist-rests. They also intend to buy footrests and install pullout drawers for computer keyboards. 3M’s then manager of ergonomics services, Tom Albin, visited the school for an ergonomic assessment. The Straits Times quoted Mr. Albin, “Children who are comfortable learn better and faster.”

Here in the United States, an innovative program at Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary School in Sammamish, Washington, is implementing a program to teach students, some as young as five, about the benefits of good ergonomics.

Diane Tien, the school’s instructional technology assistant, with help from some of the country’s leading experts in children’s ergonomics developed the program. Speaking about the program philosophy, Tien states, “It isn’t so much that [the students] have to learn what the definition of ergonomics is, they have to understand their own physical needs first.”

The program will focus on teaching children about minimizing awkward postures and the importance of taking breaks during computer work or play.

There are resources available for educational institutions or parents that wish to explore how to improve ergonomics for their students.
In September, 2001, Ergoweb reported on a new technical committee, Ergonomics for Children and Educational Environments, established by The International Ergonomics Association (IEA). Objectives of the committee include:

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-08-01.