We are lucky to live in a climate where walking barefoot - indoors, on the beach, around gardens or pools is very much a possibility.
It is therefore gratifying to know that for the optimal development of children’s feet, barefoot is indeed the best.
Babies’ feet have no bones at birth, as these – all 28 of them - develop over the course of a child’s life, by the late teens. Feet are actually “formed” by the very footwear purporting to protect them, making their choice a very important matter, and one into which fashion trends should not come at all.
Looking around, it is very easy to see that very few children are actually wearing footwear that is good for them.
Children all over town can be seen wearing flip-flops, loose sandals, clomping school shoes or heavy trainers. Although some of these items may be convenient for a quick dash to the beach or the pool, they are hardly optimal for active and physically mobile youngsters.
It is impossible to negotiate a climbing frame, turn cartwheels or balance on a thin wall when wearing footwear that is loose and slips off the foot, or is rigid and heavy.
Many shoes, especially, though not only, for little girls, have significant heels, giving the foot an unnatural tilt forward. This alters the balance, as well as the range of movement of the foot, with lasting harmful effect.
The problems start virtually at birth. It is almost impossible to resist those delightful, stylish soft shoes. Nonetheless, try to avoid clapping cute soft little pram shoes onto your babe-in-arms. Irresistible and delightful they may look, but once your baby is crawling – all research indicates that barefoot is best.
Crawling is a vital skill, helping the developing brain by stimulating different areas that will become significant later during the acquisition of reading and writing skills.
It helps develop balance, strengthens muscle tone and works towards the alignment of the spine. Crawling develops the much mentioned “hand-eye coordination.” Putting one hand forward, then the other and then hoisting the body after them, supported on the knees, is a cross lateral movement, strengthening both hemispheres of the brain in turn - thereby integrating communication between them; necessary for future learning.
It helps establish proprioception which is the brain’s unconscious sense of self-in-space. This is vital to establishing smooth and coordinated movement.
The very repetitive nature of crawling also stimulates brain activity to develop cognitive processes such as concentration, memory, comprehension and attention.
Crawling also helps establish near and far vision i.e. looking at closer objects – at hands for example ; then far away – into the distance where the child is heading. This skill becomes necessary, amongst others, when copying off a whiteboard.
Children who skip the crawling phase occasionally develop difficulties with reading and writing. In order to crawl efficiently, however, a child must be able to feel the ground with his or her feet, to get maximum sensory feedback to assist in moving forward in a controlled manner.
Pram shoes, no matter how soft, cut down on this feedback. Their primary purpose is to keep babies’ feet warm; mercifully, not a problem we have here in the Middle East.
Once they are upright on two feet, children’s shoes should be soft and extremely flexible. A shoe with a thick, rubber sole will not bend, thereby hobbling a child effectively.
The “sturdy” and “supportive” shoes of our childhoods have caused more problems than they have solved, resulting in an array of difficulties ranging from bad gait to in-grown toenails.
Next time you are out in the street or at a mall take a moment to actually evaluate the walk - gait – of people around you. You will see many bad walking styles from shufflers (people who cannot lift their feet off the ground otherwise their flip-flops would fall off) through the stilt-like clomping of people wearing platform shoes or wedges to the stabbing steps of ladies wearing extremely high heels for their height. All these gaits will have a lasting effect on the walker’s posture and skeletal health, outlasting the fashion that caused them in the first place.
Our aim, when selecting shoes for our children should be:
to find shoes:
• that bend easily at the toe,
• have a thin and flexible sole, that is strong enough not to be easily pierced by sharp objects
• with a sole which is completely flat, providing no elevation at the heel
• the toe part of which should be wide, as children’s feet are widest at this point – all pointed shoes effectively force toes into an unnatural triangular shape.
• are made of soft breathable or even washable upper material
• have no cushioning as a shoe that provides sufficient space for the feet to do its work, allows automatically for the natural dissipation of the ground reaction forces, without artificial padding – unlike adult shoes. Children’s shoes, due to the developing nature of their feet, should not be miniature versions of adult shoes.
For children participating in sports, such as running or football, selecting the right pair of shoes is of even greater importance.
Despite the significant cost of good children’s shoes, this is an area where cost cutting is not advised.
Agnes Holly, BA English and German; MA Comparative Literature; Hornsby Dipl Special Educational Needs. Agnes has more than 25 years' teaching experience in various roles ranging from university to nursery teaching, in addition to on-going work bringing up 5 children.