Clarence Darrow made this statement during the 1920s: "Chase after the truth like all hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coat tails."
This week the leads from Terra Plana Vivo Barefoot flew in from London to meet me in our quest to seek truth as it relates to what we put on children's feet.
Galahad and Asher Clark are seventh generation shoe designers from the Clark shoe family and are the industry leaders in what they call "The Barefoot Revolution." Also visiting from London was Lee Saxby, a world expert on gait biomechanics and Dominic Jones, Terra Plana's lead in sustainable manufacturing. We collaborated at the $1.5 million Gait Lab at University of Virginia headed by Jay Dicharry, a world leader in gait mechanics, and his team of graduate students.
At the end of the two days, the clear message is that children need less shoe.
Seventy percent of your brain's information for movement comes from the nerves on the soles of your feet; the more you can feel the ground, the greater your body's understanding of its surrounding environment and natural movement. I've always believed that children should play in their bare feet or in play shoes that complement natural foot development and proper biomechanics.
Unfortunately, the modern shoe industry and its marketing machine effectively convince parents that when running and walking, a child should wear miniature versions of traditional adult running shoes - all containing elevated heels, extreme cushioning and rigid soles that don't allow flexibility.
In early development, a child's foot is widest across the toes. If our population wore shoes that were designed with this functional shape from birth, most adults would also have feet with the widest part across the toes.
A child's developing foot is composed of mostly cartilage, which is gradually replaced by bone. If the cartilage is deformed by badly shaped shoes, the bones will take on the deformed shape.
Shoes must allow enough room for natural growth until the foot bones mature (ages 18 and 19 for girls and 20 and 21 for boys).
Simply put: inflexible, poorly shaped shoes are potentially harmful - they restrict the natural movement and development of the foot. A void exists in the development of proper youth footwear, where natural foot function and development are perhaps most critical. Without any supporting evidence, the President of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine David Davidson made this comment when asked about children's footwear by Running Times Magazine "Kids should not be running in minimalist footwear at all, and as in other shoes, should be wearing brand name running shoes with good motion control, cushioning, etc"
I find it surprising that there are no supporting documents to the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) parent flyer which states "Select a child shoe that's rigid in the middle. Does your shoe twist? Your shoe should never twist in the middle."
Curiously, right below that piece, and written in fine print, there is this statement: "this does not apply to toddlers shoes. For toddlers, shoes should be as flexible as possible."
I'm left wondering, "So at what time does a toddler become a child and we cast their feet?" As a parent and physician I believe that the AAPSM and APMA statements could cause harm in a developing child's foot. A foot builds its own intrinsic support via communication with the ground, building strength and stability through proprioception, and allowing normal force loads to be applied to the areas that nature intended. If you change anything from what is natural in a developing child, proceed with caution. A foot that is bound in a rigid and supportive shoe is disconnected from communication with the ground, and this may in fact affect foot strength and function and bone growth.
The next time you are in a park, watch a child run barefoot. Notice the relaxed movement, springy quick steps and foot placement. They do not strike hard on their heels. Then watch the child with the highly cushioned or supportive shoe. The difference is easy to see.
So what are the important features to look for in a child's shoe?
Ultra-thin flexible soles to allow proper proprioception;
Low, flat to the ground profile;
Soft and supple materials;
A toebox wide enough to allow natural toe spread; and
Proper fit - critical.
Why do I care so passionately about this? The most important reason is that I am a parent and want to do what is best for my children without the influence of commercial marketing claims or trends.
I have watched my own children (ages 6 and 7) dramatically change their movement patterns after discarding the heavy, inflexible "Sketchers with lights" and getting them into slip-on Vivo Barefoot shoes. When I ask them to put on their shoes now, they consistently grab the Vivos. We gave away 100 pair of Vivo Barefoot kids shoes at Freedom's Run. Dozens of moms and kids have thanked us for the discovery they have made.
Have your kids take a pair for a test run at Two Rivers Treads.
For more information visit our Kids Page at www.trtreads.org.