Happy feet

There’s a time to go barefoot and a time to wear shoes
By Marc de Chazal

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Feet are remarkable. Each foot contains 26 bones (together that’s 25% of all the bones in your body), 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. Our feet are complex anatomical structures that enable us to move about efficiently, whether we’re walking, running or jumping. It’s no wonder, then, that we have invented all kinds of shoes to protect our feet from injury and to enhance our performance in various sports. But are shoes always a good thing? There is a growing movement of barefoot enthusiasts around the world, and those who endorse minimalist shoes for walking and running, who believe that barefoot is best. They argue that traditional footwear weakens our feet and prevents us from walking and running with a natural gait. They also point out that we rely on the feedback we get from the ground to maintain our balance and form, especially when running, which is impeded by overly cushioned shoes.
 
How does this affect our children? Their feet are different to those of adults, because they’re still developing. Their growing feet are especially vulnerable to the elements and need protection from sharp objects such as glass and thorns when they start to walk; the flip side of this coin is that shoes may actually hamper the normal development of a young child’s foot. The bones in a baby’s foot are soft and will only harden around the five-year-old mark. You’d be hard-pressed to find a podiatrist who will argue against the barefoot-is-best philosophy when talking about the novice walker. “I believe children should be barefoot as much as possible,” says Chris Delpierre, a podiatrist at the Sports Science Institute, who is also the father of one-year-old twins. “Going barefoot helps children to develop balance and good posture and is also best for the natural development of foot muscles.”
 
Baby steps
 
Delpierre advises parents to get their child’s first pair of shoes when they start to walk, not before. Bare feet or socks with rubber grips are adequate until your baby takes his first steps. “Your child’s first shoe should only be used to protect their feet from rough or wet surfaces,” says Delpierre. “When children are learning to walk, they should be barefoot as much as possible.”
 
What should you look for in your toddler’s first shoe? Podiatrists tend to agree that a child’s first pair of shoes should be as light and soft as possible. Flexibility is crucial. Put the shoe to the test by bending it in half and twisting it. “The shoe should give the sole of the foot grip, but should in no way restrict the natural movement and growth of the foot,” Delpierre explains. “Try to get shoes made of leather or fabric that allows the foot to breathe naturally. As a child gets older, takkies or trainers are a good idea. Those that fasten with Velcro make doing them up much easier for parents.”
 
The Podiatry Association of South Africa stresses the importance of buying shoes that fit correctly. According to foot experts, no shoe should be “broken in”. This just means the shoe is either poorly designed or poorly fitting. You want your child to be as comfortable as possible wearing shoes. They also advise that you look for a shoe with a round toe box, as this gives the toes more room. And there should be a thumb’s width between the end of the shoe and the end of the longest toe. When their toe approaches the end, it’s time for a new pair.
 
One of the most important things to remember when buying shoes, no matter the age of your child, is that feet naturally swell during the day, so the afternoon is a good time to go shoe shopping. It may be tempting to buy shoes with lots of growing room, but this is not ideal. “The shoe will be too big in the beginning, which causes unnatural foot function as the foot tries to grip the shoe,” says Delpierre.
 
Bigger steps
 
When children start school, wearing shoes is usually compulsory. Kommetjie Primary School in the Western Cape does have a prescribed school uniform, but it has a relaxed policy about footwear. “We allow children to come to school barefoot,” says school secretary Dian Hanratty. “It generally gets very hot in the summer months and we find that going barefoot prevents the smelly feet problem. If children opt to wear shoes, the requirement is a white sport shoe for both girls and boys. Most of our learners come to school barefoot throughout the year, although we stress the importance of personal hygiene and neatness,” adds Hanratty. Their learners are required to wear appropriate shoes for sports such as tennis and cricket (primarily to protect their feet from injury), for school outings and for certain school functions.
 
There are some innovative “barefoot shoes” on the market for children, including some that are designed especially for learners who are required to wear black or brown shoes as part of their school uniform. The aim of these shoes is to give children the health benefits of going barefoot with the protection of normal shoes.
 
Delpierre believes that children benefit most from being barefoot when they are playing or exercising. “Wearing shoes restricts the natural movement of the foot, which will cause a loss of balance and agility. Shoes also cause the foot to function differently, which will affect the development of muscles in the foot,” he says.
 
“Shoes for specific sports can have a big impact on performance levels, but this is not a factor for young children. As they get older and participate in sports such as tennis, hockey, rugby, soccer or cricket, shoes become very important for protection and performance. But young children should be barefoot for sport.”
 
Tips for parents
 
  • Inspect your child’s feet regularly.
  • Allow your baby to kick freely so that normal development can occur.
  • Do not force your child to walk – the average walking age is 10–18 months.
  • Encourage barefoot walking on suitable surfaces (sand, grass, carpets) to stimulate muscle activity and development.
  • Shoe and sock sizes should be adjusted as their feet grow.
  • Any complaint should be taken seriously.
 
Source: Podiatry Association of South Africa

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