Education: Sit up straight, children!

Badly fitting shoes, heavy bags and poor furniture can affect a child's posture, causing chronic back pain in adult life. By Emma Haughton
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If example is the school of mankind, heaven help our children. A recent survey by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy found that half of all adults have poor standing and sitting posture - a recipe for chronic back problems in later life.

The seeds of this epidemic can be traced back to our schools. A 1984 American study using X-rays revealed spine damage in 58 per cent of teenage boys and 30 per cent of girls, while Australian research in 1992 found 55 per cent of school children complaining of neck and back pain. Although hours at home slumped watching TV must share some blame, much of the damage is occurring in the classroom.

"The posture of children starting school is great, but once they've been there a few years it's usually lousy," says David Newbound, posture trainer and chair of the National Back Pain Association children's working party. "By the time they leave school, most have such poor posture habits that they cannot possibly do a sedentary job without health defects."

Bad posture encourages growing bones to form incorrectly, resulting in irreversible damage, while muscle and soft tissue strain causes chronic pain. But there are less tangible repercussions, says Newbound. "Poor posture has a significant effect on children's educational achievement, particularly with handwriting development. It shortens concentration span and leads to constant fidgeting."

Heavy bags, poor furniture and unsuitable shoes are the main culprits. It's not unusual to find five-stone children carrying bags fall of textbooks, lunch and sports gear weighing up to 12lbs, says Jane O'Connor, a registered osteopath. "That's a lot of weight to drag around in proportion to their body weight. They look like little sherpas."

High-impact sports carried out in flimsy plimsolls put knees and joints at further risk. "Children need proper supportive and well-designed sports shoes with good shock absorption," says Chris Turner, a chiropractor. He believes damage is compounded by current fashions for clumpy heels, and a general tendency to inactivity.

But the most intractable problem is school furniture. While the old bench seating and angled-top desks kept children upright, modern plastic chairs and flat desks force them to slouch forwards, straining the neck and spine. Many schools use the same sized furniture across their entire age range.

With a funding crisis that means many schools can hardly afford teachers, it's not surprising standards governing school furniture are commonly ignored. Posture-friendly alternatives don't come cheap - up to pounds 250 a head for a sloping desk and properly designed chair from Back in Action, compared to around pounds 40 a head for the cheapest alternatives.

But it's our children who are paying the price in the long run, says Newbound. "Any parent knows to have their kids' feet measured regularly. You don't put two-year-olds in shoes meant for five-year-olds or five- year-olds into shoes for two-year-olds, yet you regularly see four-year- olds in chairs designed for eight-year-olds and vice versa."

If chairs are too large, children cannot rest their feet on the floor and sit upright; too small, and they can't get their knees under the desk, so sit sideways on and develop a permanent twist. Children also tend to sit in the same place in class, leading to neck problems as they look round to see the teacher.

Newbound believes schools' complacency over children's postural welfare is clearly visible in their pupils. "At first, kids fight the furniture and try to hold themselves well, but as you go up through the classrooms they give up, and their posture becomes distorted.

"Children are getting a very raw deal. Even when we do consider their posture, it's always in terms of the ultimate effect on them as adults. Why aren't we more concerned about the comfort of our children now?"

Further information:

'Healthy Backs for Children', The National Back Pain Association, 0181 977 5474.

Back in Action shop (posture-friendly of chairs and other furniture), 0171 930 8309

BackUp range of Danish school furniture available from BDS Interiors, 01223 844577

Professional Association of Alexander Teachers, 0121 426 2108

British Chiropractic Association, 01734 757557

Osteopathic Information Service, 01734 512051

Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, 0171 306 6666.

LOW-BUDGET FIXES

Forward-sloping foam wedges on chairs encourage better posture - available from Back in Action (see right) or contact the NBPA for how to make your own. If chairs are too large, use books to maintain foot contact with the floor.

Reallocate existing furniture according children's size. Remember the wide variations within classes; ensure chairs and tables match.

Make children change seating arrangements regularly.

Provide lockers.

Rucksacks are much better for balancing loads on the spine.

Encourage teachers to take posture training - the NBPA plans courses this year.

Introduce posture education into the curriculum. Alexander Technique teachers, chiropractors, osteopaths and physiotherapists are often willing to visit schools.

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