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Your Kids Should Be Barefoot and The Science of Why

Lily Hoog-Fry & John Baker of Swell Movement & Longevity 

We know that spending more time with bare feet is advantageous for almost all adults, but what about our young children? 

Read on for the principals and science underlying why barefoot shoes, or no shoes, are the best shoes for our kids. At the end we have some fun foot moves to play with as a family to work on everybody's foot health. 

Principles of Adaptation 

It isn't that surprising that the feet our children will have throughout their lifetimes are shaped by the types of shoes we put kids in while they are developing. I mean, it is the exact principle we use on their teeth with braces to shift them straighter – if you push something into a specific shape for a long enough time, it will change shape. 

Or said in a fancier, scientific way, "the human body will adapt specifically in response to the demands and stresses placed on it" (Imai, et al. 2014). 

This principle is called the SAID principle and it underlies all of the amazing ways our kids are able to adapt to the new, and ever changing world around them. But in the context of their feet, binding their feet everyday for years isn't really how we want them to adapt. 

This doesn't mean that we old folks who grew up in shoes are doomed, but it does mean we have to work at regaining healthy feet. 

Through our children's footwear, we have the opportunity to contribute to the healthy development of their feet and overall health for years to come (and decrease the burden on the healthcare system). See our previous blog on footcare and quality of life here.

Why not use the SAID principle to increase the strong foundation of our child's feet instead of rendering them stuck, prone to injury and less capable of carrying them throughout their life? 

Great Intentions, Poor Outcomes

The main reason we don't let our kids run around barefoot is a practical one – risk of injury. We mean so well when we put our kids in shoes every single day. 

"Barefoot, but what if they step on something?!" we ask ourselves. 

The truth is, when kids are playing, the grippy and transformational nature of their  foot is the safest and most stable way for them to move (because a healthy foot can mold and shape itself to the contours of the surface beneath it). 

We all know how fast kids grow – their shoes are going to fit well for a passing moment in time. Outside of that passing moment, we are compromising their stability by squeezing their feet in shoes that are too tight, or letting them slosh around in their shoes that are too big. Not to mention even the most perfect fitting traditional, stiff soles still aren't a good choice for optimal foot development… but we'll get there. 

Of course there are places that kids definitely need to be wearing shoes, we aren't insane, but the grass and playground at the park, and around the house are likely not some of them. And, the more time your kids spend barefoot, the more resilient and durable their soles will get. 

For the places where your kiddos do need protection or warmth, it is a good idea to choose a flexible sole with other key minimalist principals like a wide toe-box and zero drop to preserve their foot health, such the Bearfoot Ursus.

Foot Development

Let's start with the basics of children's feet, because they are weird and very cool. 

Other than being extremely scrumptious (if you're into stuff like adorable newly made humans), babies' feet have no bones. You heard that right. No bones. And although that’s because many of the bones  are cartilage at this stage (which turns into bone later), this makes for extremely flexible, mobile and rapidly changing feet. 

According to a study on over 10,000 kids, cartilage becomes bone around 5-7 years old, but the arch of the foot isn't developed until early teens (Waseda et al, 2014). This means that even though your kiddos' foot structure may look like they have flat feet, that can be normal for a long time and is still impressionable! 

If this doesn't change by early teens there could be something wrong, and it should be investigated, as actual childhood flatfoot appears to be associated with "developmental disorders and often leads to motor functional deficiencies" (Waseda et al, 2014). 

Another complicating factor in understanding your kid's arches is that, although the arch could look pathological when they are standing still, when they are walking they can be quite functional and strong.

The static height of children’s arches seems to change in relationship to the time of day, whereas the dynamic arch (when they are walking) stays more consistent and is a better indicator of arch development (Scholz, et al 2017). All this means is that assessing if your kid really does have "flat feet," or any other foot deformity, is difficult in their early years. 

With that said, if they do have actual childhood flatfeet, it is harder to treat any dysfunction after foot development is done. Therefore all possible preventative measures should be taken to thwart lifelong foot pain and dysfunction, hence why we are spending all day writing this blog for you and your family.   

What Science Says about the Benefits of Barefoot (& Barefoot Shoes) 

Although there is a wide range of normal for the childhood foot, there is nothing normal about how wearing shoes or "being shod" affects the way kids' feet are supposed to work. Scientific evidence shows that kids who wear traditional shoes have an arch that is less functional and more weak, making them more likely to have actual flat feet or develop other foot dysfunctions down the road (Wolf, et al, 2008, Rao & Joseph, 1992). 

There is a reason we have so many joints in our feet (32 per side!). And that reason is to help the foot change shape as we walk to increase efficiency and preserve energy. Traditional children's shoes have also been shown to decrease the torsional foot motion that is vital for a healthy gait, by over half! (Wolf, et al, 2008). According to the authors of the cited study, "flexible children's shoes do not change foot motion as much as conventional shoes and therefore should be recommended for kids." 

The engineering naturally born into your child's foot is incredible. And when we stick their very mobile foot that is learning vital motion, into a rigid brace, it is no wonder it never learns to be mobile again! 

When children wear shoes,  we risk that they may lose the engenius engineering of their feet forever, because they never get a chance to learn the proper motor skills required for healthy foot development (unless they read a Bearfoot blog and start taking care of their feet like you have!). 

**Okay, the last study on children's foot mechanics, we swear!**

Recent research displays that running barefoot has long term benefits for children as well. 100 kids participated in a barefoot running program at their school for 4 years. After this period, their running was compared to the same number of kids who didn't attend the program. The barefoot trained kids were found to have much better stretch-shortening cycles. This is the responsiveness of their muscles and tendons to impact and is the one of the most important kinds of muscle activity during locomotion (Seiber et al, 2021). 

Specifically, the barefoot runners had shorter ground contact times, even when they were asked to put traditional shoes back on (shorter ground contact time is what you want, to read more about this see this previous article). They were also found to be able to jump higher and have healthier foot striking patterns than kids who hadn't been running barefoot (more midfoot than rearfoot) (Mizushima et al, 2021). 

Running barefoot made them better at using their feet! 

Very Valid Hippy Bullshit Points

When we were reading the other articles on the topic of kid's foot health, almost all of them love to talk about extraordinary health benefits like increased brain development and emotional connection to the world, that going barefoot has. And we're halfway on board these statements. 

Hippy blogs love to repeat that there are "120,000 thousand nerve endings on the sole of each foot" with no references (we aren't linking the blogs here because we aren't jerks, but google this topic, and it is not hard to find them). While this sounds great, the only valid number we found was closer to 4,000 per sole (Corniani & Saal, 2020). They aren't really wrong though, because the point they are trying to make is that it is densely innervated compared to the rest of our body, which is true! The face and hands are the most densely innervated areas on our bodies – but the feet aren't far behind, with much more innervation than everywhere else (Corniani & Saal, 2020). 

The nerve endings on our feet are to feel and respond to different surfaces and textures, allowing us to stay upright with spatial awareness of our bodies. When we don't get to integrate this information at an early age, it stands to reason this would have significant effects later in life. As with everything in the body, if you don't use it, you lose it. Our bodies are masters at not being wasteful. 

 

When our babies, toddlers and kids never do sensory exploration through their feet, they will be worse at sensing with their feet, simple as that. 

It is our personal theory that this is why most life long shoe wearing adults feel like they have to wear shoes everywhere now – they've never practiced having to feel and be responsive through their feet. It isn't easy to cram what should have been neurologically developing over years of childhood into a short period. 

You can do it, but why make your kiddos when they can just avoid the issue from the start?

Earthing

The other almost-hippy-bullshit-reason children should spend time barefoot is that emerging research is teaching us the power of 'earthing.'

"What the hell is that, you hippy," you ask?

'Earthing' is the term for when you have direct physical contact between your soles and the electrically conductive surface of this planet (Chevalier et al, 2012). Sounds a little wild but actually makes some scientific sense. 

Our bodies are a balancing act of the perfect amount of electrons. When there isn't the right number, the lone electrons can't be paired up. Left unchecked, these lone electrons  start destroying the stuff around them. This is the basics of how inflammation, immune and aging processes work (with many more big vocab words that make it seem infinitely more complicated). 

The earth gives us a never ending supply of electrons to balance us via the "global atmospheric electrical circuit" (Chevalier et al, 2012). Thus, it stands to good reason that the more time they spend with their shoes off, the more nervous system development and electron balance they may have! 

Foot Games for Kids

  1. Put a bunch of stones, marbles or nuts on the ground and see who can pick up the most with their feet ONLY! 
  1. Ask them, "are your toes ninjas or what?". This is a fun way to get them thinking about how mobile and strong their toes are. Do ninja training where you lift each toe by itself. 
  1. If you’re going to use citrus to make some juice, first ask your kids to roll it around  with their feet. We've found that most kiddos don't really get excited about rolling their feet with a ball, but try asking them to help you roll oranges for orange juice or even a lime for your cocktail… you would be surprised how much pressure you can put on citrus without it breaking! As an added bonus, this will help the juice come out easier.
  1. Have them cover their eyes, put a generic object like a pencil or a paperclip on the ground and see if they can tell you what it is (more points for picking it up with their feet!)
  1. If you have babies, spend time touching and playing with their feet to help their nervous system learn about them. However, don't try to make them stand on their feet before they're ready to bear their entire body weight on developing cartilage, let them figure out how to do that when they’re ready. 

In closing, who knew you could affect the health of children of all ages by simply taking their shoes off or putting them in minimalist shoes? It is a pretty spectacular deal for increased athleticism, healthier feet for their lifetime and help you make a cocktail! We joke, but seriously, keep your kid out of shoes as much as you can for their future health. 

References 

  1. Imai, et al. (2014). Comparison of the immediate effect of different types of trunk exercise on the star excursion balance test in male adolescent soccer players. International journal of sports physical therapy, 9(4), 428–435.
  2. Waseda, A., Suda, Y., Inokuchi, S., Nishiwaki, Y., & Toyama, Y. (2014). Standard growth of the foot arch in childhood and adolescence--derived from the measurement results of 10,155 children. Foot and ankle surgery : official journal of the European Society of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, 20(3), 208–214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fas.2014.04.007
  3. Jerosch, J., & Mamsch, H. (1998). Deformities and misalignment of feet in children--a field study of 345 students. Zeitschrift fur Orthopadie und ihre Grenzgebiete, 136(3), 215–220. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2008-1054225
  4. Scholz, T., Zech, A., Wegscheider, K., Lezius, S., Braumann, K. M., Sehner, S., & Hollander, K. (2017). Reliability and Correlation of Static and Dynamic Foot Arch Measurement in a Healthy Pediatric Population. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, 107(5), 419–427. https://doi.org/10.7547/16-133
  5. Wolf, S., Simon, J., Patikas, D., Schuster, W., Armbrust, P., & Döderlein, L. (2008). Foot motion in children shoes: a comparison of barefoot walking with shod walking in conventional and flexible shoes. Gait & posture, 27(1), 51–59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gaitpost.2007.01.005
  6. Rao, U., & Joseph, B. (1992). The influence of footwear on the prevalence of flat foot. A survey of 2300 children. The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery British Volume, 74-B(4), 525-527. https://doi.org/10.1302/0301-620X.74B4.1624509
  7. Seiber, W. , Hahn, D., Power G., Fletches, J., Siebert. (2021). Editoral: The Stretch-Shortening Cycle of Active and Muscle-Tendon Complex: What, Why and How iIt INcreases Muscle Performance? https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/10437/the-stretch-shortening-cycle-of-active-muscle-and-muscle-tendon-complex-what-why-and-how-it-increases-muscle-performance/mag
  8. Mizushima, J., Keogh, J. W. L., Maeda, K., Shibata, A., Kaneko, J., Ohyama-Byun, K., & Ogata, M. (2021). Long-term effects of school barefoot running program on sprinting biomechanics in children: A case-control study. Gait & posture, 83, 9–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gaitpost.2020.09.026
  9. Giulia Corniani and Hannes P. Saal (2020). Tactile innervation densities across the whole body. Journal of Neurophysiology 124,4, 1229-1240
  10. Chevalier, G., Sinatra, S. T., Oschman, J. L., Sokal, K., & Sokal, P. (2012). Earthing: health implications of reconnecting the human body to the Earth's surface electrons. Journal of environmental and public health, 2012, 291541. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/291541
  11. Hollander, et al. (2016) The effects of being habitually barefoot on foot mechanics and motor performance in children and adolescents aged 6–18 years: study protocol for a multicenter cross-sectional study (Barefoot LIFE project). J Foot Ankle Res 9, 36 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13047-016-0166-1

(Referenced often, hasn’t actually been completed yet but we’ll be on the lookout to update this article when it does.)