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Tread Softly: Why My Kids Wear Barefoot Shoes

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats The Cloths of Heaven

In our house we tread softly because we are barefoot. When we leave the house we wear minimal shoes. We do this because it is better for our feet and our bodies. It is really important for children’s growing feet to wear a shoe that facilitates their foot development. They need space for all of their joints, ligaments and bones to move. They need to be able to feel the ground to give sensory feedback to their brains. Lastly, a zero drop shoe helps to prevent foot, knee and hip injuries. This is a quick post written to explain why my daughter will not be wearing supportive, padded and heel raised trainers to her new dance class. Aggressive? Yes. Embarrassing? Probably - sorry/not sorry because:

Children’s feet are amazing

At first, the bones of a child’s foot are only partially ossified and the ends are cartilage. As the cartilage grows the ossified zone expands until finally the adult bone is complete in late adolescence. When children’s bones grow most of the growth happens at the ends, existing bone tissue has to be broken down so the bone can reach its adult shape. My daughter is not yet ten and her feet have grown 16 shoe sizes in her life already.

here is a picture of an X ray of an adult's foot next to that of a three year old’s - amazing hey? See the gaps in between the bones? See the round shapes that will slowly morph into the tarsus/bones of mid foot ?

It makes sense with all this important growing going on that my kids shoes have a wide toe box, not a pointed one, to allow their toes to grow straight instead of conforming to the shape of the shoe. It also makes sense that the shoes are zero drop this means that the sole has no slope and the heel is the same height as the toe. A slope is going to send uneven weight through the feet with more pressure at the ball of the foot. This stresses the arch of the foot, the calves and the hamstrings. In 2007 researchers in South Africa compared the health of the feet of 2000 year old skeletons (who had lived a barefoot lifestyle) to that of 180 modern humans - the skeletons had healthier feet. This is in part because

Our feet are force transducers

They are strong flexible levers that push the body off the ground during walking and running. Our arches spread as weight is applied to the foot and then contract again dissipating the force through the ligaments, tendons and muscles of the foot. Here is an illustration by Eric Franklin demonstrating this idea.

Children are born with flat feet and their arch doesn’t develop until they are eight or so.

Kids who grow up barefoot have fewer presentations of flat feet because they have had more opportunities to practice this splay and recoil action. Feet encased in a supportive casts are not given this chance. They are also deprived of sensory input which is not great because

Our feet are full of sense organs

Our feet are packed with receptors and there are over 200 000 nerve endings in the soles of feet. The more feedback they are given from the ground, the more messages they send to the brain. Barefoot toddlers can walk with their heads up because they can feel the ground. This keeps them balanced and upright while also developing neurological pathways created from their rich sensorial input.

When the brain is very clear on where a body part is in space or has a clear brain map for the feet, then it is able to activate all the mechanisms to keep the joints safe while giving the foot more freedom to move. When the foot is insulated by a thick outsole the brain doesn’t have a clear message and needs to protect the body in a more general sense. Waking up our proprioceptors increases coordination, strength, flexibility and balance. Studies show that the motor skills of children and adolescents that have grown up barefoot have been found to be better than their shod counterparts. Another problem with shoes is they don’t allow the

Spiral movement of the foot in gait

A wide shoe allows for more even distribution of pressure through the foot to the outer edges and toes. There is a theory that people who run barefoot have a mid foot strike, providing a broader surface area to absorb force. They also have a shorter stride and greater knee bend to prevent injuries. Those with padded shoes strike the ground with greater force at the heel. A shoe with a slope or a toe spring also interrupts the natural spiral that the foot moves through to transfer force and create healthy gait. This is an illustration of the way our foot should move through the gait cycle - ideally our shoes allow this movement not restrict it.

My Dad has recently had a stroke and to help him control his drop foot he has been encouraged (for now) to wear supportive trainers that prevent his feet from over inverting. This will be reviewed in 6 weeks time. I am not saying that supportive shoes are bad. My argument is that children are growing and to facilitate their healthy development they need to either be barefoot or in minimal footwear. Lecture over. Thanks for reading. Back to my usual program of feminist, body positive and holistic movement practice next time.

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