You can see just about every style of a shoe made for kids these days. A shoe for running, shoe for cross-training, shoe for jumping, shoe for relaxing, etc. Question is, are all these new shoes an improvement from back in the day when you basically had school shoes and dress shoes as options? I am fortunate to be a consultant with NIKE youth and often am brought in to discuss the shoes they are making/want to make for kids. This is a passionate subject for me because I think we have a long way to go.
Even with all the improved knowledge and technology available, statistics say that the world and US have more injured kids (ages 5-18) now than ever before. In fact, the number of kids not even able to compete in high school or college due to serious injury is shocking.
High school athletes account for an estimated 2 million injuries and 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year
More than 3.5 million kids under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries each year
Children ages 5 to 14 account for nearly 40 percent of all sports-related injuries treated in hospitals. On average the rate and severity of injury increases with a child's age
By age 13, 70 percent of kids drop out of youth sports
Among athletes ages 5 to 14, 28 percent of percent of football players, 25 percent of baseball players, 22 percent of soccer players, 15 percent of basketball players, and 12 percent of softball players were injured
Since 2000 there has been a five-fold increase in the number of serious injuries among youth athletes
Much research has been done on the possible injury effect of certain types of shoes and playing surfaces alike. As a professional in the field of human performance, I tend to look at things from the ground up. This means looking at the surface kids are playing on and the shoes they are wearing. As a parent we can't always control the surface even though we can regulate variety. Shoes are something we can control.
Before discussing which shoes your kids should wear, you need to understand why this is so important. To keep it simple, our bodies work in chain reactions. The foot/ankle complex is where everything starts and if the foot is dysfunctional you will be prone to injury. When there is dysfunction in the foot/ankle the systems that utilize gravity with the bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and facia are misdirected. When these systems are forced to work in an unnatural way, we start to develop problems and compensate in ways that lead to pain and limited performance.
Kids shoes should act as a safe alternative to the ground, not a replica of the foot, a soft pillow feel, or a way to look taller, etc. The entire purpose of a shoe is to protect you from the surface you are on, not to replace the function of the foot. Furthermore, when you elevate the heel of a kid you can create adaptations like a shortened Achilles tendon among other problems. Let's assume this is the result of your kid wearing shoes with an elevated heel and look at this common scenario.
First of all, if an athlete has a shortened Achilles tendon they cannot dorsiflex their ankle competently. This means- they can't effectively decrease the angle from their foot to their tibia(shin) during a squat and/or in the air. In the event that you cannot dorsiflex the ankles; the knees, hips, and trunk will compensate leading to poor performance and eventual injury.
A few things dorsiflexion allows us to do effectively:
1. Places the ankle in a relative neutral position which is the most stable due to co-activation of agonist/antagonist muscle systems.
2. Facilitates the stretch shortening cycle of the gastroc/soleus and deep compartment.
3. Creates pre-tension that reduces amortization time(loading time) of the foot.
4. Allows for more efficient elastic return of the Series Elastic Component.
5. Increases force production and reduces ground contact time.
Shoes that bunch the foot or are too soft at the base to allow proper pressure can cause similar problems. Beware of "free" or "soft" shoes because they create equal problems to a heel lift. Basically, you lose function of your metatarsal joint, cuneiforms lock up, your navicular won't allow proper subtalar joint function. That's just one the layer of bones.. You can create deformation of the ligament and tendon structures that weave around the foot like a stirrup. In addition, the facia that starts in the foot has been proven to have lines that run all they way to your skull(Myers).
Remember the heelie phenomenon where kids were rolling on the skates built in to the bottom of the heels of their shoes? It created so many problems for kids feet that it was pulled from many manufacturers.
So what shoes should your kids wear? Think back when we had less injury in sports but they were still played at a high level. What were the shoes like? They were mostly flat. Track spikes, basketball shoes, everything was basically flat with a zero drop(angle from heel to toes). Back then we still had incredible athletes but much less injuries.
My suggestion is to find the same type of zero drop shoes for your kids now. Make sure to let them be barefoot anytime it is safe. The best option for toddlers is barefoot or some form of moccasin that allows the foot to work but protects them from surface.
Some examples of great options(and available in almost every color) for kids to wear everyday are Converse Chuck Taylors, Nike Air Force 1, Vans classic slip on skate shoe among others. More important is to know what not to get.. Not in all cases, but generally speaking, you want the body to naturally build support in the ankles and arches so they may be less dependent on this "support" later in development.Training shoes can be difficult but generally if you stick to these 3 simple rules you will eliminate most problems:
1. No High Heel rise or heel drop