Are barefoot shoes for kids better than “supportive” footwear?

I want to talk about supportive shoes for children, or rather NOT putting children in supportive shoes. A disclaimer first – I am not a medical professional. I am a mum of three, simply speaking about my own experiences and reiterating the advice of many passionate podiatrists. Having been educated on this issue myself over the past 5 years, I’m so grateful for what I’ve learned.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard the mantra of “children need supportive shoes for their growing feet”. My own parents were given this parenting advice and followed it diligently. I found myself clip-clopping off to school in a brand new pair of Clarks shoes each year that ticked all the boxes of “arch support”, “cushioned heel cup” and “durable soles”. They cost a pretty penny, looked smart and were about as comfortable as a trip to the dentist for the first 4 weeks. As my own kids started approaching school age, I was making my own transition to more minimalist running shoes under advice of a podiatrist. I started seeking advice about school shoes for my kids and had everything I had previously learned about kids shoes turned on it’s head.

Now, I need to mention that this article is referring to regular, healthy kids feet. There are indeed some cases where a deformity or weakness in the foot structure may indeed require some sort of support, but will discuss that more later on. If in doubt, see a podiatrist and if still in doubt, talk to several. I am a huge advocate for getting a second opinion!

Are barefoot shoes better for kids?

Children’s feet are inherently healthy. They have 33 joints in each foot and they know how to move them. Have you paid attention to how much a baby or a toddler can stretch and wiggle their toes? Joints are there for one reason – to bend and move! If you’ve ever had a joint immobilised for a period due to injury, you’ll know how weak the muscles around it are when you’re finally allowed to start moving it again.

Placing our children’s healthy, mobile feet in supportive, rigid shoes when there is no problem is done under the belief we are helping them. In reality, many shoes stop a lot of those 33 joints from moving, causing the muscles to become weak. This can potentially lead to a host of issues down the track with balance, coordination and misalignment in the feet.

Why do toddlers rip their shoes off at the first opportunity? Because they’re uncomfortable! I’ve heard parents claim their child has flat feet or that their feet roll inwards so they need arch support. Feet come in a variety of shapes, just like other parts of our bodies – unless there is a problem, maybe your child just has flat feet? It’s also very common for young children to have feet that roll inwards slightly and this usually corrects itself as the foot develops and strengthens. Consult a podiatrist first before actively “fixing” them with supportive shoes. On that note, get a feel for your podiatrist’s way of thinking. Some are quick to “correct” most feet with orthotics, while others focus on the strengthening and functionality of the feet themselves.

What are the best type of shoes for kids feet?

Podiatrists, just like any other health professional have their own opinions. I have seen podiatrists who literally prescribe polar opposite methods of treatment. I also see podiatrists recommending certain shoes that others specifically tell you to avoid! My family and I have had several issues resolved since switching to a podiatrist that supports minimalist footwear, so that’s the school of thought I am reflecting in this article. At the end of the day, you do you.

Podiatrists who advocate the wearing of barefoot shoes for kids stick to four main criteria when it comes to the best shoes you can put healthy, growing feet into.

Rule #1: Kids shoes should be lightweight.

Your child’s walking pattern (gait) can be negatively impacted by a heavy shoe. Take a look at just how bulky many kid’s shoes are – they often have chunky soles that are a similar thickness to an adult shoe and weigh a similar amount, yet your child is much smaller and lighter. Heavy footwear can even affect their incidental activity levels, though they may not be consciously aware that it’s because of the weight of their shoes.

Rule #2: Kids shoes should not have a raised heel.

Have you noticed how many children’s shoes (especially school shoes) have a raised or stepped heel? Raising the heel causes the ankle to shift by lifting the heel higher than the toes and subsequently the knees, hips, spine and neck to adjust to a new position. Long term implications can include achilles and calf issues, as well as a predisposition to hamstring, knee and back injuries. The excessive cushioning on the heel of many sports shoes can also lead to poor running technique. Heel strikers are predisposed to many more injuries due to the repeated forces their joints have to endure each time the foot hits the pavement. With less heel cushioning, a runner is forced to strike the ground on more of the mid or forefoot, using the shock absorbing anatomy of the foot to take the load instead as it was designed to do.

Rule #3: Kids shoes should be wide.

The toes are the widest part of the foot. A healthy foot, that is. Many adult feet have changed their shape from years of poorly shaped footwear. The toes ability to spread out allows balance and strength just like spreading your fingers when doing a handstand. So many shoes have a narrow, triangular shaped toe box, which pulls the big toe across the foot and squishes the toes together. Your big toe joint is a massive part of how your foot works, providing power and forward propulsion. When it isn’t in proper alignment, it loses a significant amount of that power.

One of the biggest differences between kids barefoot shoes and regular shoes is the wide toe box allowing the toes to spread out. My own kids have worn different brands of barefoot shoes for almost 5 years and now find many other shoes feel incredibly narrow and rigid.

Rule #4: Kids shoes should be flexible.

If a foot is designed to bend and twist, surely a shoe should allow that sort of movement? The rigid soles that only flex across the toe line reduce so much of the foot’s ability to move, resulting in weak muscles in the foot structure. Pick up your kids shoes and see how much you can bend or twist them with your hands. I am constantly surprised at the slabs of rigid rubber we strap to the bottoms of our feet and even more so at why we think that’s so normal! Our feet and ankles are designed to adapt constantly as we move adjusting balance and shifting weight according to the proprioception of the ground beneath us. How can we possible do that when we have an inch of rigid or overly cushioned foreign matter between us and the ground?

The biggest epiphany for me was when my podiatrist made the following analogy, so I’d like to share it with you:

When you injure your shoulder, you might have it immobilised for a bit while it heals, but then you start doing rehab and you aim to improve mobility and strength. You don’t put your shoulder in a brace for the rest of your life.
When you experience lower back pain, the answer isn’t to wear a girdle for the rest of your life to provide support. Ideally, you identify the weak glutes or core muscles that have lead to the back pain and you work to strengthen those areas. This takes the load of the back, which was feeling sore because other muscles weren’t working effectively.
So why is it that when it comes to our feet (with 33 joints and 20 muscles in each), we treat pain or dysfunction by reducing mobility and adding more support through “better” shoes and orthotics, rather than giving the feet the ability to regain strength and mobility.

I feel better in supportive shoes, so why wouldn’t my child?

There is much debate around the need for “supportive” shoes for adult feet. This is because adult feet have already endured decades of potentially incorrect footwear, gait imbalances or weaknesses that have gone uncorrected over hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of steps. Good or bad, an adult’s feet have altered to the shoes, lifestyle and stressors that have been placed upon them. Sometimes an adult’s feet will respond well and gain a lot from wearing minimalist shoes, but there are occasions where some sort of added cushioning or support is the only option for comfort and functionality.

I’m around forty years old and most of my friends are between the ages of 30 and 55. Over recent years, I’ve noticed that around two thirds of my friends have some sort of issue with their feet, knees, hips or lower back. Plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, meniscus tears – you name it. Some don’t have an official diagnosis, but have been placed in orthotics to relieve mysterious pain or have just swapped out running for cycling because their joints couldn’t take it anymore. My friends aren’t especially overweight, most have lead pretty active, healthy lifestyles and played sport well into adult life. They wore the same rigid school shoes as I did growing up and spent their recreation time in trendy looking joggers with fat, shock absorbing soles, triangular (athletic looking) toe boxes and plenty of inbuilt cushioning and support. Yet, here we are as adults in pain.

My own transition to barefoot shoes, for context.

After years of distance running in top quality $400 joggers that were prescribed for me in the sports store as a mild pronator, I developed plantar fasciitis that had me in agony simply walking around the grocery store. I saw a physio who prescribed even more cushioned shoes that I was to wear at all times, even when walking on sand. When that didn’t help, he added a heel cup and a soft orthotic combined with calf stretches. I started to question the logic after months of no improvement. The calf stretching was being negated by the tower of heel cushioning I was wearing, elevating me so my calves were in fact being shortened as I walked around. It didn’t make sense and it sure wasn’t working.

Then I met my podiatrist and I was one of the lucky ones. He changed everything I was doing and started me on a strengthening program as well as helping me to change my previous running form as a heel striker. Progress was slow, but finally, there was progress! I now wear minimalist shoes or go barefoot around 70% of the time. It’s not always possible as I have to wear safety boots for work. I also like a pretty pair of heels when I frock up now and again, but I spend as little time as possible in restrictive shoes. My feet no longer hurt and have changed shape slightly. It isn’t noticeable to the eye, but my feet are definitely wider as I have shoes which used to feel comfortable that now feel like they hold my toes too close together. My toes are also more flexible -I have regained movement in parts of my feet that I hadn’t even realised I’d lost!

What are the best barefoot shoes for kids?

The awesome news here is that the minimalist footwear movement seems to be growing and there are an increasing number of options available when it come to kids barefoot shoes. The most well known brand is definitely Vivo Barefoot, and they are reliable, high quality shoes, with a cute range of kids sizes. Our kids have outgrown all of their Vivos before wearing them out and we’ve passed them on to other grateful families who have squeezed much more life out of them. Another brand we have bought several pairs from is Xero Shoes. Xero come in a little cheaper than Vivo, which definitely helps when you have kids the same age and can’t re-use them in your own family! I have seen my kids wear out their Xeros before growing out of them, so I guess you get what you pay for, but I have no problem buying from Xero again – they are still an excellent shoe. The newest player on the field that we’ve tried out is Splay Shoes. Splay tick all the boxes of wide, flat, lightweight and flexible as well as being competitive on price. The only problem with Splay is that their availability of certain sizes and colours can be limited, but I attribute this to being a newer business, still juggling the supply and demand side of things. Really happy with what we have purchased from Splay so far, though. I have no doubt that there will be more competition in this niche over coming years so keep your eye on the marketplace for kids barefoot shoes!

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