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What kids carry in their backpacks around the globe

Scott Nyerges

Aug 5, 2019

Back to school means buying school supplies and stuffing them into a backpack. But did you ever wonder what kids in other countries carry in their school pack and book bags? Find out what the first day of school means for students in France, China, Mexico, and other countries around the world.

France

The French take education so seriously that the national education ministry issues an annual list of required supplies for kids in primary and secondary schools. Peek inside a student’s backpack on the first day of class, and you’ll find pencils, pens, notebooks — plus some not-so-expected items like acrylic paints, a 48-page music notebook, and a roll of plastic to make dust jackets for textbooks. The French government estimates that the whole list costs about $400, but it does provide economic assistance so no student goes without school supplies.

Walking to school with parents
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Morocco

Living in this bilingual nation means learning everything in Arabic and French.

Schoolchildren must carry two copies of each required textbook in their packs. And books aren’t provided by the schools, so that means parents have to buy them, as well as provide supplies like printer paper.

It was “a big expenditure for us, and would be for most American parents,” writes blogger Amanda Mouttaki, “and it’s really A LOT of money for many Moroccan families.”

Schoolchildren gathering for class
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Mexico

As in the United States, the Mexican school year usually begins in September and runs through May (although some terms start and end sooner). There are big-box stores like Walmart in some cities, but most parents do their back-to-school shopping at their neighborhood papelería, which sells stationery, notebooks, writing, and crafting supplies. Because local funding for education often falls to families, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas, students may be asked to bring cleaning supplies or basics like toilet paper or tissue, as well.

© kertu_ee/istockphoto

Holland

American parents who rant about back-to-school shopping might want to consider moving to Holland, where it’s the schools that take care of supplies. On the first day of class, all kids need to tuck into their backpacks is their lunch for the day (and maybe a treat to share).

When Dutch blogger Annemarie Verweij moved to Chicago a few years ago, she says she was shocked to discover what back to school meant in the United States — and what her kids’ school-issued shopping lists included. “I just can’t imagine that in one school year children in kindergarten use 18 glue sticks!”

Back to school in Holland
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Korea

No kid can resist colorful, cute school supplies, but in South Korea they take it to the next level. “Even in the smallest of neighborhoods, there is always at least one stationary shop that sells colorful and cute supplies from the early mornings to late at night,” writes Mimsie Ladner, about her time as an American living and teaching in Seoul.

Students take pride in their pencil cases, packed with not just regular pencils but also colored pencils, felt-tip markers, wax crayons, and whatnot. “Students tote their pencil cases, which are generally smaller than those used in America, everywhere and tend to stay trendy by purchasing a new one every few months,” Ladner says.

Back to school in Korea
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Japan

Backpacks are serious business in Japan, where a large leather randoseru is on nearly every child’s back. Traditionally, red packs are for girls and black for boys, although you can find them in a range of colors and even buy them stateside. Japanese children are expected to keep the same randoseru throughout their primary school years.

Peek inside, and you’ll find the usual school items — notebooks, pencils, packs of tissue — but you may also see a melodica. Learning how to play this musical instrument, a sort of harmonica-keyboard hybrid, is mandatory in many Japanese primary schools.

Backpacks in Japan
© istockphoto

Germany

Good luck finding a school backpack that’s big enough to tote a schultüte (school cone). These paper cones are a traditional gift given to first-graders on their first day of school, filled with everything from school essentials like colorful pencils and notebooks to candy and small toys to share with their new schoolmates.

Back to School in Germany
© SilviaJansen/istockphoto

China

On average, students in China spend far more time in the classroom than their American counterparts: up to 10 hours a day.

Inside a Chinese child’s backpack, you’re likely to find homework, and plenty of it.

“Even weekends and holidays have the equivalent of one day of homework for each day they’re not in school,” writes Charlotte Edwards-Zhang, an English teacher who moved to Shanghai, where she met her husband. “As I write this, it’s early August and my son is still putting in two hours a day doing homework and studying his second grade.

Chinese schoolchild
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New Zealand

Many public schools in New Zealand distribute lists of school supplies that would be right at home in any U.S. classroom. But along with glue sticks, lined notebooks, and pencils, students in New Zealand may also be required to bring whiteboard markers, a recorder to play in music class, and a sun hat and sunblock.

Why the sun gear? Because lunchtime in New Zealand often means dining al fresco. “I never paid much attention to the phenomenon of the school cafeteria until I moved to New Zealand and was asked if my school had ‘one of those cafeterias where you carry a tray, like in the movies,’ ” writes Tara Kennon. “In NZ, students might eat in the schoolyard, in a shared open space or in part of their classroom.”

Children in New Zealand
© Fiona Goodall / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images CC

India

What’s in an Indian student’s backpack? Too much, according to education officials. “My frail daughter has to haul about 4 to 5 kilograms of books in her school bag and also carry her lunchbox and water bottle in a separate bag,” parent Rajinder Shukla told Reuters. That’s roughly 9 to 11 pounds.

In 2018, the government issued guidelines mandating that children’s backpacks weigh no more than 10% of their body weight. The government also recommends that children not be assigned homework in grades 1 and 2 in order to minimize the loads they must carry.

Backpacks in India
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