Shoes are Not so Great for Kids
Updated: Jul 23
In the ever-evolving fitness landscape, one crucial aspect often overlooked is the impact of children's shoes on their developing feet. For over a century, the children's shoe industry has thrived, representing 20% of the colossal $60 billion U.S. market. However, a growing consensus among experts suggests that these seemingly innocent shoes may not be the best choice for our young ones' foot health. In fact, they might be doing more harm than good. While undeniably cute and clever, children's shoes can wield a corrupting influence. At their best, they merely shield tiny feet from dirt; at their worst, they have the potential to cause lasting deformities, foster faulty posture, create an unnatural gait, and even hinder brain development. The claims may sound hyperbolic, but compelling evidence supports these concerns. It's time we delve into the evidence-backed reasons why embracing a barefoot approach might be more beneficial for our children's overall well-being.
Children’s Footwear Myths
Shoes need to be a snug fit: This doesn’t allow for the elastic movement of the foot and toes to work as they are meant to function. Furthermore, the tightness can reshape the cartilage and change the actual shape of the foot!
Heel support and lift are needed for protection: look at your child’s shoe. Is the heel higher (and thicker) than the toe? If so, and it probably is, this will adaptively shorten their Achilles tendon and calf musculature…this can be permanent.
Pronation protection: Pronation is normal! Overpronation is entirely subjective and has been seen to dissipate while walking or running barefoot. Let their cute little ankles get stronger by moving through a full natural range of motion.
Leaving room in the shoe for their little feet to grow (or being too cheap and buying a size up thinking they’ll grow into it): When they are running around and suddenly stop their tootsies get slammed up against the front of the shoe, causing ingrown toenails and worse the beginning of hammertoes and bunions.
Ever try to put a shoe on a baby or even the family pet? They can hardly remove the offending shoe or booty fast enough. It is a pretty funny endeavor to watch. This is a message about our instinct to be barefoot. In fact, some studies show barefoot children learn to walk more quickly and have fewer falls than their shod counterparts. Until about age 10, most children still have soft, malleable feet. Not to mention they are getting larger all the time and pushing up through the seams. Kids’ feet are not just smaller versions of ours; they tend to be wider across the toes and mostly cartilage (which is gradually replaced by bone). Children’s footwear is modeled to be smaller versions of adult ones. Some manufacturers make high heels for kids!
Most shoe companies design shoes with pre-defined shapes and overlook the natural architecture of the human foot. This is especially true when it comes to shoes for kids. Rigid and malformed shoes directly affect how a child’s foot bones and arch will shape. Our toes are supposed to be spread out, almost in a “v” shape. Instead, most of us have crunched and smooshed in feet with little or no independent control of our toes. Our feet become the shape of the shoes we wear.
The soles of our feet and toes contain over 200,000 nerve endings that serve to tell our brain about our environment in order to balance the body, know where and how hard to step down and provide it with accurate information regarding proprioception. The foot brain connection is vital for equilibrium, gait, and dynamic/passive stability. The sensory blindfold of a thick-soled shoe confuses the entire connection. A congenially shod child will never properly develop this brain foot connection and will suffer from functionally weak and under-performing feet, unnatural gaits and faulty postural skills.
For various reasons, sneaker companies always convince us to buy snug-fitting shoes for our toddlers (and us). A growing child’s foot will satisfy all developmental requirements by simply playing, jumping and running without shoes. When my son isn’t running around barefoot, he rocks a pair VIVOBAREFOOT minimalist shoes. When he does wear shoes, he hardly ever bothers with socks because he likes to feel the ground (socks provide one more layer of foot/toe tightness and distance from the earth). He also wears “zero drop” sandals like Huraraches or scuba socks. In looking for shoes it is important to find a pair with no heel, thin soles, lightweight and a big toe box. Let your child’s feet feel the ground and function like they have evolved to move and work. There is nothing like being a kid and running barefoot through the grass…interesting peer-reviewed research and reviews of shoe wearing children:
Findings: An Elevated heel of any height on a child’s shoe shortens the Achilles tendon. This marks the beginning of permanent tendon shortening. Flat foot was most common in children who wore closed-toe shoes, less common in those who wore sandals or slippers, and least in the unshod. The study suggests that shoe-wearing in early childhood is detrimental to the development of a normal longitudinal arch.
Optimum foot development occurs in a barefoot environment.
The primary role of shoes is to protect the foot from injury and infection.
Stiff and compressive footwear may cause deformity, weakness, and loss of mobility.
The term “corrective shoes” is a misnomer.
Shock absorption, load distribution, and elevation are valid indications for shoe modifications.
Shoe selection for children should be based on the barefoot model.
Physicians should avoid and discourage the commercialization and “media”-ization of footwear. Merchandising of the “corrective shoe” is harmful to the child, expensive for the family, and a discredit to the medical profession.
The study shows that habitually barefoot children are noticeably better at jumping and balancing compared to habitually shod children, particularly from 6-10 years of age. While these beneficial barefoot effects diminished in older adolescents, the research nevertheless highlights the importance of barefoot exercise for motor development as children grow and mature.
The study 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.
"[Children's] bones are soft cartilage, easily compressible, and they don't feel pain until the damage is done," said the president. The comment was made on the need for parents to be aware of the damage that is being done by children wearing shoes. The Australian Podiatry Association provides a free community service in an effort to create greater awareness of the need to safeguard children's feet.
"The effects of childhood foot damage can show up in posture and gait in the early twenties," the president said. "The inability for a person to stand for any length of time without stress can also be attributed to early foot problems. Shoes must take a lot of the blame for claw toes, under and over riding toes, bunions and ingrown toe nails, not to mention corns and callus'."
"Australian children probably have broader feet now than they did ten years ago, because so many go barefoot. Between the ages of 7 and 12 years, growth is fairly rapid. Don't hesitate to let them be barefoot. It won't spread or flatten normal healthy feet as the foot only grows as long as the ligaments allow anyway. The majority of foot damage is preventable if parents take proper care of their children's feet by allowing them to grow naturally - barefootedly." - President of the Australian Podiatry Association
Going barefoot allows for greater sensory feedback, proprioception, and muscle activation in the feet, which can contribute to improved balance and gait mechanics. By feeling the ground directly, children better understand their body's position and movement in space. Additionally, being barefoot or using minimalist shoes may help to promote natural arch development and proper alignment of the foot's bones and joints, reducing the risk of developing foot-related issues later in life.
Doug Joachim – NYC In-Home Personal Trainer www.JoachimsTraining.com