Barefoot is better for kids‚ new study shows

26 October 2018 - 10:50 By Naledi Shange
Children who grow up walking barefoot have better balance than those who wear shoes.
Children who grow up walking barefoot have better balance than those who wear shoes.
Image: 123rf.com/Talita Nicolielo

Children who grow up not wearing shoes have a distinct advantage over those who do‚ says a new study by Stellenbosch University.

According to the research‚ young children who grow up walking barefoot have better balance and can jump further than those who wear shoes.

“Our research has shown that regular physical activities without shoes may be beneficial for the development of jumping and balance skills‚ especially in the age of six to 10 years‚” said Professor Ranel Venter from the department of sport science in the faculty of education at Stellenbosch University.

Venter conducted the research alongside German academic Dr Elbe de Villiers of the University of Hamburg between March 2015 and June 2016 with the aim of evaluating the link between growing up barefoot or wearing shoes and the development of motor performance during childhood and adolescence.

They studied 385 habitual barefoot children and 425 shoe-wearing children between the ages of six and 18 from schools in the Western Cape and northern Germany.

Venter said the two groups were chosen due to their different footwear habits.

“Whereas South African children are generally used to walking barefoot during the day‚ almost all German children wear shoes during school time and for most of recreational activities‚" she said.

Habitually barefooted children are those who go to school barefoot and remain that way‚ even at home or while taking part in sport activities.

All the children surveyed‚ both shoe-wearing and barefooted‚ participated in physical activity for at least 120 accumulative minutes per week and they had to be free of any orthopaedic‚ neurological or neuromuscular conditions that may influence their motor performance.

The children were asked to complete various activities‚ such as walking backwards at a self-selected‚ comfortable speed over three balance beams (6cm‚ 4.5cm and 3cm in width)‚ standing‚ doing long jump and 20m sprint tests.

According to the research‚ “Results of these tests show that barefoot children in South Africa’s primary schools performed better in balance tests than their German counterparts who never walk barefoot. This may be related to the fact that the feet of South Africa’s children are wider and more deformable.

“Barefoot children were also able to jump further from a standing position than German children. This may be related to the fact that the foot arches of South African children are well developed.

“Children who are regularly barefoot had higher foot arches than children who never walked barefoot. Their feet were also more flexible and less flat‚" said the study.

Venter and De Villiers noted that fewer differences were observed during adolescence‚ although there were greater jump distances and slower sprint times in barefoot individuals.

“Our results show that motor skill competencies of shoe-wearing and barefoot children may develop differently during childhood and adolescence. Whereas barefoot children between ages six and 10 years scored higher in the backward-balance test compared to shoe-wearing children‚ no differences were found in adolescents.

“The early childhood years are fundamental for the development of balance and rapid improvements can be observed until the age of nine to 10 years. A likely explanation is that footwear habits influence the musculoskeletal architecture of the foot‚ which in turn may be associated with motor performance.”

The research also revealed that the type of shoe a child wears has a great influence on how their feet develop.

In an earlier study‚ Venter found that the feet of South African children walking barefoot were in many ways different to European shoe wearers.

“The problem is that the growing feet of our barefoot children are forced into European sizes - the shoes are particularly narrow. It also does not help if parents decide to buy bigger shoes. It changes the natural operation of the foot and the shoe’s designed ‘bend’ does not match the foot’s natural bend‚" said Venter.

Her research found that shoes worn by South African schoolchildren‚ especially school shoes‚ were not suitable and appropriate for their feet.

She encouraged children to walk barefoot. “Society cherishes the perception that barefoot should necessarily be equal to poverty or lower status in society. We should rather embrace and cherish our barefoot culture‚" she said.

“The results of our research must motivate local and South African shoe providers to get involved and to really care for the health and good development of children’s feet.”

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