The bestseller Born To Run changed the way we think about traditional running shoes and how they interfere with the body's natural wisdom. Nearly ten years later, 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."
Subsequent research reinforced those findings.
- A 1992 Bone and Joint Journal study found shoe-wearing in early childhood to be detrimental to the development of a normal arch. Specifically, the authors found a positive relationship between wearing shoes in early childhood and the subsequent development of flat-footedness.
- A 2008 Gait and Posture study found that slimmer and more flexible shoes interfered with children's natural foot motion far less than conventional shoes did. Based on detailed analyses of children's movement patterns in barefoot-style shoes versus traditional shoes, the authors recommended all children wear barefoot-style shoes.
- In 2008, Foot and Ankle Surgery published a review recommending small children wear a sports shoe, which is as flexible as their own foot. It stated that the impact forces affecting a child's foot during sports are small enough that extra cushioning is unnecessary. The authors argue that although the hard indoor surfaces on which children play increase the need for cushioning, as the child's foot grows there is an increasing need for sufficient mechanical stimuli to facilitate healthy development of the bones and muscles. Because cushioned shoes interfere with the foot's natural movement, they can cause poor positioning in the flex zone, thereby causing harmful stress on the foot.
- A 2011, Journal of Foot and Ankle Research found shoes alter children's gait patterns. One notable finding was that wearing shoes decreased the movement of the intrinsic muscles of the foot, possibly contributing to weakness in those muscles. In fact, eight of the nine range of motion variables measuring foot motion were decreased in subjects who wore shoes versus the control group.
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.
Jessi Stensland, founder of FeetFreex and a self-proclaimed “natural mover." She puts it in no uncertain terms, “From the moment kids are putting on shoes, they're walking wrong." Stensland explains that the foot is designed to process an immense amount of sensory input and that 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.
“We are meant to have a raging river of information coming to [our brains and spinal cords] through our feet to help us move our bodies through space and we have slowed it to a trickle… the moment we put [on] shoes." In contrast, 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. It is a classic case of “use it or lose it," Stensland says.
There is no shortage of research 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. For example, 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.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. A 2002 paper published in Podiatry Management details the many ways in which typical shoes interfere with children's gait and development.
- 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.
Stensland likens healthy movement to a healthy diet – a variety of all kinds of foods, including fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, protein, and some Cheetos or Pop Tarts every now and then. 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," a term coined by movement educator/author Katy Bowman. She recommends 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.
Conscious shoe selection
Dr. Gangemi, chiropractor, elite triathlete, dad and barefoot enthusiast, recommends looking for these qualities in kids' shoes:
- Low heel height
- Minimal cushioning
- Flexible throughout
- Very lightweight
Stensland has compiled a list of approved shoes for nutritious movement here, including guidelines for DIY'ers wishing to make their own.
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 neighborhood walks in nice weather.
Check your fear
After researching the foot and how shoes impact its structure and functioning, I realized I was scared of all the wrong things when I insisted my kids leave their shoes on at the park. I was afraid they'd step on something sharp or that they'd contract a disease, both of which are, in fact, highly unlikely scenarios. (However, I do think I'm justified in my fear of letting them take their shoes off because it would make it even harder to get them to leave the park.)
On the other hand, the prospect of depriving my kids of healthy movement, potentially for life, is far scarier than anything a barefoot adventure could throw at me, including a tearful, forcible departure from the playground.
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.