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Dr Elbé de Villiers (left) and Prof Ranel Venter (right). Photo credit: Stefan Els

Motor skills of South African, German children researched

A study by researchers from South Africa and Germany found that young children who grow up walking barefoot, have better balance and can also jump further than children who wear shoes.

“Our research has shown that regular physical activities without shoes may be beneficial for the development of jumping and balance skills, especially at the age of 6–10 years,” says Prof Ranel Venter from the Department of Sport Science.

Venter and colleague Dr Elbé de Villiers collaborated with researchers from the University of Jena and the University of Hamburg. The study was conducted in South Africa and Germany between March 2015 and June 2016 and published in the journal Frontiers in Paediatrics.

Venter says 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 skills during childhood and adolescence.

A total of 385 habitual barefoot and 425 shoe-wearing children between ages 6 and 18 were recruited in schools across rural and urban areas in the Western Cape, the rest of South Africa and in Northern Germany.

“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 recreational activities.”

Both groups had to participate in physical activities 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.

Importance of footwear habits

Venter says all the children completed balance, standing long jump and 20 m sprint tests.

“Results show that barefoot children in South Africa’s primary schools performed better in balance tests than their German counterparts. This may be related to the fact that their feet are wider and more formable.

“Barefoot children were also able to jump further from a standing position. This may be related to the fact that their foot arches are higher and well developed. Their feet are also more flexible.”

“Our results show that the early childhood years are fundamental for the development of balance, and rapid improvement can be observed until the age of 9–10. A likely explanation is that footwear habits influence the musculoskeletal architecture of the foot, which in turn may be associated with motor performance.”

Venter says the overall results of their study emphasise the influence and importance of footwear habits for the development of feet and motor skills during childhood and adolescence.