Why SA's barefoot kids are a step ahead

06 December 2015 - 02:01 By TANYA FARBER

Pop sensation Taylor Swift caused a stir last month when she appeared barefoot on the pages of Vogue magazine. But if she were to start a trend, it could have some sturdy feet to stand on - and South African ones to boot.story_article_left1Previous research has shown that children who wear shoes a lot have feet that don't develop correctly, unstable ankles, and lower limb muscles that are prone to injury in adulthood.Now a team of researchers are comparing the feet of children in South Africa - where it is common for kids to ditch their shoes - to those in Germany where going barefoot is unusual.Stellenbosch University, in collaboration with the University of Hamburg in Germany, is studying 300 local children aged between six and 18 ."We measure the length, width and height of the children's feet and do the same with their school shoes and trainers. We let them run sprints with shoes and without," said researcher Ranel Venter.Schools in Stellenbosch, Darling, Durbanville and Oudtshoorn form part of the project.Venter described shoes as "sensory deprivation chambers" and said her dream was to change the negative perception of barefoot walking.The study will be completed by July next year, but preliminary data on comparisons of a 20m sprint will be available by early February.Some parents kept children in "branded shoes" to show off, but were actually doing damage, Venter said. Many parents believe it was "unhealthy or a hazard to walk around barefoot" when, in fact, in South Africa's climate, keeping feet in shoes was a "breeding ground for ill health".full_story_image_vright1An earlier study by Stellenbosch University comparing barefoot netball players with shod ones showed that "ankle stability improved significantly without shoes"."My dream in the long term is to work on a really foot-friendly school shoe because kids use them for so many things. It is very exciting," she said.Cape Town mom Jelena Dokmanovic is Croatian but has been living in South Africa for over 15 years. She is married to a local and has two children. Her daughter, Mia, almost 8, grew up refusing to wear shoes. "European children have more pressure to wear shoes. It's a cultural thing. But my daughter wouldn't - she hated them."When her daughter went into Grade 1 this year, she had to start wearing school shoes. Her son, 2, only wears shoes if they are going to be walking on hot tar or cement in summer.When she and her family visit Croatia, people stare when the children don't wear shoes, "even in summer at public playgrounds which has soft grass and sponge mats all around the equipment" and "even in houses in winter where there is central heating and it is hot inside".Dineo Bakopa, a mother of three in North West, said it would be hard to convince the parents where she lived to let their children go barefoot as often as possible.story_article_right2"Shoes for our kids are things we are proud to afford, and so you'll see this month especially, children will be wearing the shoes they got for Christmas. If we let them run around barefoot all the time, it's like we couldn't afford to buy them shoes."Experts at the Podiatry Association of South Africa say children's feet differ from adults' because they have mainly cartilage and are a different shape.They say parents should "encourage barefoot walking on suitable surfaces (sand, grass, carpets) to stimulate muscle activity and development" and that it is important to inspect their feet regularly.Because children can't always be barefoot, it is important to "ensure that shoe and sock size are adjusted accordingly as their feet grow".Also, their feet should be measured every month, there should be a thumb's width between the end of the shoe and the end of the longest toe, and the sole of the shoe should be "relatively straight rather than curved".farbert@sundaytimes.co.za

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