PLEASE LOOK AFTER YOUR KIDS FEET.
PLEASE LOOK AFTER YOUR KIDS FEET.
The Human Foot was famously called a ‘Masterpiece of Engineering’ by Leonardo Da Vinci. I don’t think that goes far enough, it is better than that, it knocks the socks off anything we could engineer with technology. Packed into every foot, even tiny little ones, are 26 bones, 33 joints and over one hundred tendons, ligaments and muscles. Standing, walking, running and balancing with the relatively tiny surface area of the soles of our feet in contact with the ground is truly one of the greatest tricks the human body pulls off. We do it with such ease that you probably never even think about it. Yet despite this biological marvel on the ends of our legs I think we are making a mistake in how we treat them as they grow. As soon as kids pull themselves from crawling to standing we are encouraged to put their feet in heavy, stiff soled ‘supportive’ shoes, supposedly in order to ‘support and protect’ their feet. It is my belief, which I will endeavour to persuade you is correct, that this is deeply flawed and unhelpful to both the structure and function of our children’s growing bodies.
I have become acutely aware of this issue over the last couple of years as I have had the pleasure of watching and marvelling at my son (Hamish; nearly 3) gradually acquire the ability to stand, walk and then run.
The vast majority of kids pull off this remarkable feat with little or no external instruction or support, it is one of the many amazing things that our darling little children do, like learning language and the rules of social interaction, with such success and apparent ease that we rarely stop to reflect on just how unbelievable amazing children are.
It is my contention that our biology has got this stuff covered and does it best when we interfere no more than is strictly required. But that’s not what happens when we come to put shoes on our little ones feet.
Things start off pretty well. Pre-walking shoes are lovely things; they are soft, light-weight, flexible, and flat to the ground. These features mean these shoes allow children’s feet just to be feet, to move naturally, freely and function the way nature intended. They basically just protect the feet from the sharp, wet and dirty things. I reckon that’s ALL children’s shoes should ever do.
It is at the next phase that I think we start to get things wrong. Once our kids are up and walking the perceived wisdom, as delivered by well-meaning shop assistants in the local shoe shop, lead us away from those lovely pre-walker shoes to an all-together-different range of shoes specially designed to help our little bundles of joy withstand the apparent traumatic and destructive act of walking. I have been to the shoe shop and listened to the advice that now they are standing our children need supportive shoes to protect their feet and hold them in the ‘correct’ position. To my wife’s embarrassment and horror I have (politely I might add) asked said shop assistants why Hamish’s feet might need this unnatural support, and whether any evidence exists to support this supposition. I am yet to hear anything to convince me this is a good idea. We don’t brace kid’s backs or knees in order to help them withstand the rigours of living, playing and growing, I don’t think we should do it to their feet either.
Those shoes we were encouraged to buy as first walkers (we didn’t) are very different to those lovely pre-walkers. They are significantly heavier due to the added structure and support, they are stiff in both the sole and upper of the shoe and are very often elevated at the heel relative to the front of the shoe.
Those features, seem to me to negatively impact on the way both the foot and leg function develop as our children develop and grow. Our feet are meant to move. As the foot contacts the ground and bears our weight it is designed by millennia of evolution to move and splay in order to absorb the shock and store energy that we use to push the ground away as the step progresses. How on earth can we expect this to happen if the shoes upper constrains the splaying movement and the stiff sole limits the foot and ankles ability to move and flex naturally. There is plenty of research that demonstrated that shoes do limit this natural movement, like this and this
The added weight on the end of those gangly little legs has consequences too. Often the leg muscles around the hip and knee have insufficient strength to cope with the extra weight. Instead of pulling the foot straight through during the swing phase of the step kids often develop the habit of swinging the foot in an awkward circular motion.
The cumulative effect of all of this is that kids often walk, run and move quite differently with and without their shoes on. My point is that how they move without them is probably more efficient, natural and as nature intended.
So it seems likely that being barefoot, or close to it, is probably better for our kid’s feet and global movement development than with great big heavy, clumpy, stiff shoes on their feet.
So making sure our kids spend plenty of time with, as Hamish calls it “nudey toes” (barefoot), can only be a good thing. This lets their feet develop the natural flexibility, strength and sensory feedback required to function naturally and normally. Of course it is simply not practical to be barefoot all the time so what can we, as parents, do about this?
Thankfully the tide is beginning to turn. Some companies are start to make more flexible, less structured shoes, so there is some choice out there and some shoes do interfere with movement and gait much less than others. Here is my checklist of features to look out for when choosing shoes for little ones:
- Lightweight: Less is more here. We want as little weight as is reasonably possible. Just pick them up and hold them. Compare one pair to another. Reject the heavy ones, keep the lighter ones.
- Flexible sole. Hold the toe and heel of the shoe and squeeze. We want a shoe that flexes fairly evenly along its length and easily with very little force applied. Some are so rigid it must be like you or I walking with planks of wood strapped to our feet. Not good for natural movement.
- Flat. Pinch thumb and finger from inside the shoe to the underside of the shoe. If there is significantly more depth at the rear of the shoe than at the front that’s bad news. If there is little or no difference that’s a good thing.
- No Gimmicks. Because we want light and flexible shoes unnecessary adornments, flashing lights, oversize tongues are all out. Sorry kids, they might look cool but you are better off without them.
- Ignore the price. Quite often those that do best on this checklist are not the most expensive. Price seems to have little relationship to ‘good’ based of this list. Hamish spent the summer kicking about in a pair of slip-on pumps that cost less than £5. As most parents will attest, kids have an annoying habit of growing out of shoes long before they wear them out, so don’t spend a fortune thinking that’s better you a better shoe.
The caveat to all this is that there are some, relatively rare, orthopaedic and developmental problems of the foot that are better off in more supportive, structured footwear (eg: Metatarsus Adductus, Hypermobile ankle joints). If in any doubt ask a doctor or paediatric physio.
But if your child has relatively normal feet (NB: flat feet in kids is not a ‘condition’ it’s perfectly normal!) then please set them free. Buy them shoes that let their feet move freely and naturally, grow and develop normally. Let their feet grow up strong and supple, and stay that way for life. Let them play and run and explore the world barefoot as often as is practical. They will thank you for it someday.
Yours in Movement.