Children spend much of their time on their feet, walking, running, and playing, and an active child takes about 20,000 steps per day. A question we often receive is: “What shoes are best for my child?” Concerned parents rightly wonder about the best ways to protect and support their child’s feet and prevent future health problems.
Naturally Brilliant Feet
Your child’s feet are naturally and brilliantly designed for optimal standing and locomotion if they are allowed to function the way nature intended. Conventional footwear hinders and deforms your child’s natural foot structures, and, over time, can cause many foot and lower extremity musculoskeletal problems.
Note the shape of your child’s foot. Which part of the foot is the widest? At the ends of the toes, of course! Now look at an adult’s foot. For almost everyone, the widest part of the foot is at the ball. But why is there such a difference in foot shape between young children and adults? Is it just a normal process of growth and development? The answer is NO. Look at the shape of most adult footwear. Notice that the widest part of the shoe is at the ball, and notice how your shoe’s toe box tapers toward your toes.
Shod vs. Unshod Cultures
The similarity of adult foot shape and shoe shape is not a coincidence. Almost everyone in the Western world spends a majority of their waking hours in shoes. This starts even before children are able to walk. Years and years of weight-bearing activity (standing, walking, hiking, running, etc.) in inappropriate footwear causes the shape of the feet to change. In other words, the feet deform to fit the shoes. This transformation has hugely negative implications on adults' foot health.
If you observe many non-Western cultures, including populations in parts of Africa, South America, and Asia, where people spend much of their lives barefoot or wearing only sandals, you will notice that adults maintain the same foot shape as in childhood; that is, with feet that are widest at the ends of the toes. These cultures have low or almost undetectable instances of bunions, hammertoes, heel pain, knee pain, and low back pain. This correlation is too important to ignore.
What Parents Can Do to Help
Parents are in a wonderful position to help their child’s feet and body develop optimally. It’s simply a matter of allowing your child’s feet to function the way nature intended. My advice to parents who pose the question “What footwear should I select for my child?” is the following: Seek shoes that are completely flat and widest at the ends of the toes (not just at the ball), possess a flexible sole that can be easily bent or twisted, and are lightweight. Footwear features like arch support and pronation control can hinder the natural development of your child’s feet, leading to pain and other musculoskeletal problems over time, and should be avoided. Foot-healthy footwear, on the other hand, can encourage natural arch support and prevent excessive pronation. Shoes that allow the foot to function as nature intended are surprisingly difficult to find for all but the very youngest members of our society. But your persistence in seeking these shoes will pay dividends in the appropriate and healthy development of your child’s feet.
- Watch this video to learn how to select the healthiest possible footwear for your children.
Also, contrary to popular belief, it’s OK to allow your child to spend some time barefoot. Feet are very strong and adaptable, and if given the opportunity, they can adapt to a wide variety of surfaces and activities. That being said, always exercise caution in avoiding surfaces that contain broken glass, rusty nails, or other problematic debris.