Despite the popularity of barefoot running and minimalist running shoes, we still haven’t heard much about the negative effects of shoes on children, despite the fact that research supported barefoot-style shoes for children as early as 1991. According to that landmark study, optimum foot development occurs in the absence of shoes. Additionally, stiff and compressive shoes may cause deformities, weakness, and restricted mobility. That study went so far as to say that the term “corrective shoe” is a misnomer and that such a shoe is “harmful to the child, expensive for the family, and a discredit to the medical profession.”
There’s no doubt about it, the foot is complex and amazing. Each foot has 200,000 nerve endings in the sole alone. Additionally, the foot and ankle are home to 26 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It’s not hard to imagine that altering the movement of this complex web of structures would create a ripple of changes – none of them positive.
The foot is designed to process an immense amount of sensory input and it’s designed to move in varied, complex ways. When you put a child as young as 18 months in a supportive shoe, you’re depriving them of the chance to use their feet properly, potentially for life. When we walk barefoot on a variety of surfaces, our feet adapt by developing musculature and fatty padding to protect our feet and to fully support healthy movement in all planes.
There is no shortage of examples to indicate the many specific ways in which shoes interfere with the foot’s ability to do its job, potentially triggering a variety of negative long-term effects:
- A shoe with even a slight heel lift (e.g., almost any athletic shoe) shortens the Achilles tendon and the plantar fascia, limiting ankle range of motion. This affects the angle of pelvic tilt, which can then lead to low back pain and posture issues.
- Despite their flexible soles, the natural flex point of a sneaker (toward the middle) is not aligned with the natural flex point of the foot (the ball). This problem is exaggerated further if, like most parents, you buy them with a little room to grow. Therefore, any flexibility the sole allows a child’s foot is rendered moot. (To understand what I mean, just bend one of your kid’s shoes in half.)
- Lace-up shoes commonly worn by children are constrictive. When kids lace their shoes tightly, the excessive pressure limits the dorsalis pedis artery’s ability to allow normal blood flow through the foot.
- Sneakers have a high traction plastic or rubber outsole that causes the foot to forcefully “brake” with every step. Note that an active child takes 20,000 steps per day. This unnatural braking forces the foot to slide forward, jamming the toes against the shoe’s front edge with every step. This is the equivalent of wearing shoes one has long outgrown.
Even if you’re not ready to home school or move to a tropical, casual, shoe-optional locale, there are plenty of opportunities to foster your kids’ healthy foot development.
Healthy movement to a healthy diet. Just as with our diets, the effects of any junk food are mitigated by nutrient dense foods. Similarly, while there will inevitably be times when your kid needs to wear shoes, including structured shoes with a heel (e.g. tap shoes or soccer cleats), you can offset the ill-effects of such shoes by adding in a healthy dose of “nutritious movement,”offering kids a chance to walk on natural surfaces like sand, gravel, rocks, or wood for at least 20 minutes a day. Even if you can’t do this every single day, you can at least have them play barefoot inside.
Qualities to look for in a kids shoe when buying:
- Low heel height
- Minimal cushioning
- Flexible throughout
- Very lightweight
Lead by example
For better or for worse, our kids learn more from what we do than from what we say. We can encourage them to kick their shoes off when we do the same. While it might not make sense to walk into your office barefoot, you can set an example by taking your shoes off when you enter the house, while relaxing in your backyard, at the park, or on neighbourhood walks in nice weather.
We all want to give our children a solid foundation. It turns out, we don’t necessarily need to do anything fancy or complicated to do it – at least in the literal sense. While you might need a lot of therapy and soul searching to give your kids the best emotional foundation, creating a solid physical foundation is as simple as letting them be barefoot.