What to look for in a great backpack as Chicago kids head to school

My son’s kindergarten backpack was much too small. His first grade backpack was plenty big but not very sturdy. It slid off his shoulder constantly. So it got me thinking: What makes a great backpack? There are a few important aspects to consider.


Jennifer Pope weighs in as our local expert on where to get started with the younger crowd. As owner of the children’s store The Red Balloon and mother of two, Pope says the backpacks at this age are less about carrying books comfortably and more about likability and ease.

“I spend a lot of time talking to people about backpacks for little kids, 3, 4 and 5 years old,” she says. “I always remind them, they aren’t really putting anything in them.”

It’s about what appeals to your child. “Boys in the preschool age like ferocious animals or fast-moving objects,” she says. “A shark will sell. A motorcycle will sell. Kids like action at that age.”

And what about the girls? “The girls, it’s funny, they want it to be something that’s happy. Girls seem to care more about lunchboxes, because it’s part of their social time at lunch.”

You also want the backpack to fit your child’s back. Often they are huge or tiny, Pope says. With this young group, practicality is key. “Make sure they are very lightweight, very easy and very washable.”

Pope recommends the snazzy Dabbawalla backpacks (), which they sell at The Red Balloon or at dabbawallabags.com. Other backpacks that seem to measure up to Pope’s standards are preschool backpacks by Stephen Joseph and Skip Hop. Cute. Comfortable. Cozy-fit.

Once kids outgrow them, any of these preschool packs double nicely as a personal bag for special toys or books.

Kindergarten and up

Kids start loading up their backpacks in grade school and more is at stake.

Cynthia LaBella, who is on staff at Ann& Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, shares her expert tips on picking out a backpack for any kids actually hauling around some weight.

As a general rule, children should not carry a loaded backpack more than 10-15 percent of their body weight, says LaBella, a sports medicine physician in the orthopedic group.

And she agrees with Pope: Backpack size really does matter.

“I think it’s good to make sure they find a backpack that is not, number one, too big,” she says.

Once you’ve found a pack that does not hang more than a few inches below the waist and doesn’t stick out too far, check for wide, padded straps. Encourage your child to “always wear both straps at the same time,” says LaBella. “And then tightening the straps so that they are snug” is important.

A backpack with padding on the back is another great feature to look for, says LaBella, “so that anything with corners in the backpack does not poke them.”

If there is more than one compartment, spread out the load with the heaviest items like textbooks closest to the back and work out from there, she says.

LaBella has a few other carrying tips for kids:

  • “Encourage them to stop at their locker frequently, so they are not carrying the load all day.”
  • Rather than using notebooks, carry loose-leaf paper and file the papers in a binder when they get home. Never overstuff the pack. And make sure the backpack itself is light, too, she says.
  • Are chest clips a good idea? “A clip across the chest is nice; it definitely helps keep it in proper position on the body,” LaBella says.
  • Weigh the bag. If it is too heavy, take action.
  • To lighten the load, parents can request a second set of books for home.

And one last thing: make sure you like it, too. Before you know it, their backpacks will be the last thing you see on a daily basis as the kids shuffle out the door.

Samantha Sordyl is a Chicago mom of three and a freelance writer.

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