The holiday season is about family picnics with children running barefoot.
However, some parents insist on their children wearing shoes due to safety concerns.
Prof Ranel Venter from the Department of Sport Science in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University and her colleague Dr Elbé de Villiers collaborated with researchers from the University of Jena and the University of Hamburg looking at children who grew up walking barefoot.
The study was conducted in South Africa and Germany between March 2015 and June 2016 and published recently in the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics.
The study found that young children, who grow up walking barefoot, have better balance and can also jump further than children who wear shoes.
Prof Venter said, “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 6–10 years.”
Venter said the aim of the research was to evaluate, for the first time, the link between growing up barefoot or wearing shoes and the development of motor performance during childhood and adolescence.
“To our knowledge, no study has examined the potential relationship between regular barefoot activities and motor skill,” she said.
Three hundred and eighty-five habitual barefoot and 425 shoe-wearing children between 6 and 18 years were recruited in schools across rural and urban areas in the Western Cape and Northern Germany.
Prof Venter says the two populations were chosen due to their different footwear habits.
“Whereas South African children are generally used to walk barefoot during the day, almost all German children wear shoes during school time and for most of recreational activities.”
For the children to be considered habitually barefoot, they had to be barefoot at school and in and around the house or during sports/recreational activities.
Both groups had to participate 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 motor performance.
Venter says all the children completed balance (walking backwards in a self-selected, comfortable speed over three balance beams of 6, 4.5, and 3cm width), standing long jump and 20m sprint tests.
“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 walks barefoot. This may be related to the fact that the feet of South Africa’s children is wider and more deformable. Barefoot children were also able to jump further from a standing position that 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 have higher foot arches than children who never walk barefoot. Their feet are also more flexible and less flat,” said Prof Venter.
Venter says that as far as jumping results are concerned, significant effects were found for the age groups 6–10 and 15–18 years.
She also pointed out that fewer differences were observed during adolescence although there are greater jump distances and slower sprint times in barefoot individuals.
Venter said the overall results of their study emphasize the influence on and importance of footwear habits for the development of feet and motor skills during childhood and adolescence.