How can swimming help children with flat feet?
Can flat feet be treated or not? There are various studies about this. Are fallen arches in children an inborn or acquired deformity? There are different views from different perspectives. Can we actually prevent the phenomenon of flat feet in children or not? Here I won’t give you the answer to this question, but I will try to explain the exercises you could do in the water in order to prevent flat feet in children. I will remind you that swimming itself can be beneficial for each step your child makes, from the earliest age.
Can swimming solve the issue of flat feet in children?
Every foot is a story of its own. There is no universal "cure" when we talk about flat feet. Whether acquired or inborn, flat feet are not a situation which can be treated briefly, just by walking over pebbles in summer or by wearing certain footwear for a certain period of time… The solution lies in a combination of a variety of things, healthy habits, prevention, movement, play, sport, swimming… All that, not just today, but every day. That is my personal experience as a dad and as a swim coach.
Kids are different and so are their feet. It’s not the same when you identify flat feet in a three- year-old child and in an eleven-year-old one. You need to get to know them well first, both the feet and the person. If you identify and respect their needs, you will easily find a proper activity which might help the child walk in a confident way.
Children who have been in the water since an early age, from the time they were four or five, and who swim are less likely to develop flat feet or at least the problem is less serious.
That’s not just my personal opinion, but also the opinion of the expert team of the sport association with which I had a chance to work together. Why? Because, as they are swimming, children put the largest effort on their feet, they spend most of the time barefoot, more than in any other sport activity. Here we have the so called "kicking", stretching and bending of the feet while swimming, which later turn into the swimming technique called crawl. For example, for making one stroke a foot goes up and down for at least 4-6 times. Imagine the children of five swimming with a kickboard or noodle moving only their legs along the 25m-long pool, making their feet going up and down all the time. They make around 250 such moves on average. Now imagine the children who are 11, and who are average swimmers, in a 45-minute training. They make the same move at least 10.000 times! Now multiply this number with the number of trainings, which is twice a week, or eight times a month. And just imagine the combination of leg work in swimming dolphin or crawl! That’s the best for both children and their feet, not only as a therapy, but as a prevention as well.
Water makes children’s feet relaxed and alleviates the pain!
With children in the water everything seems to be easier, and more fun. Apart from having their muscles relaxed, their joints suffer no stress, children are more active in the water, and they don’t see it as something they have to do! Even when we talk about water exercises for their feet, as a therapy. Children feel free in the water, they are more comfortable, and flat feet much relaxed.
Swimming makes their ligaments and foot muscles resilient.
When my Little Shark was little and when he was making his first steps, we noticed his left foot moving inward. What did we do? We swam. In the water children can’t injure themselves the way they can on the dry. As you are swimming there are no sudden moves, the joints and ligaments are not under pressure in the way they are when you’re on the dry. With certain exercises on the dry, with proper moves in the water and persistence, we succeeded in correcting his foot. We still swim today, at least once a week. We try to spend as much time in the water as we can, be it in the pool or the bathtub, to do exercises for the feet, but only through the play.
These are some of the exercises our physiatrist has recommended for strengthening the foot muscles, which I further adjusted to the water, not only for my children, but also for the children in the swim lessons:
1. "Toes and heels" exercise is much fun in the water. Because of splashing, and children love it. In the shallow part of the pool we play so that we are making "a noise" in the water by walking on our toes, splashing around. We do the same by walking on our heels. The obligatory part is a guffaw and cries of joy the children make. I like including the following elements in this exercise:
- Walking on the heels along the dark line on the pool’s bottom. As they are walking on their heels, I put a blue plastic coin between their toes or a small bottle cap. It depends on the age. On their way back, they are walking on their toes (without the coin) also along the dark blue line, but walking zigzag.
- To make the toe walking more fun, I place those small hoops (with the diameter of around 15 - 20cm) at the pools’ bottom, and their task is to step with one leg in one hoop and with the other leg in the another, going from one point of the pool to the other.
- When we finish these exercises, we rest our feet by making circular moves with our feet in the water – a bit to the left, then a bit to the right, then up and down, making a full circle, while the toes are going up and down, and back and forth. While we’re doing this exercise, I tend to "accidentally" check if they are ticklish on their feet and if they are not, they get a short massage for the end.
2. Reaching the underwater "trophy". I tend to end my lessons by playing the submarine game in the shallow part of the pool. I scatter the rings (of the size of a palm, and pencil thick) on the pool’s bottom as they are not watching. Their task is to dive in and bring as many "trophies" to the surface as they can. I have modified this game for those with flat feet. Instead of diving, their task is to reach a ring with their heel, raise it using their toes and pass it to their friend. Until they collect them all. In the end, they go to the pool’s edge again walking on their toes and heels. Apart from the benefits they have for the feet, ligaments and muscles, these exercises help the children develop motor skills.
3. Underwater foot basketball. We take rubber balls which are a bit larger than marbles and usually in some flashy colours so that children could see them better in the water. (If you don’t have these balls, small sinking toys can also do.) I put the balls into a net at the pool’s bottom to keep them together, and their task is to catch the balls from the bottom of the pool using their toes and put them into a bucket, which is placed outside the water. Whoever collects more balls in the bucket is the winner.
This game can be done from the sitting position on the pool ladders, and it can also be done from the standing position at the pool’s edge. If you have your children doing it from the standing position you can «spice it up». How? By having the child standing with one foot on a soft rubber hedgehog or a semi knobbed ball, while he/she is collecting the balls and putting them into the bucked with the other. In this way you practice balance keeping in children. Try them out, as these exercises are keeping their attention in the water, even if we’re talking about three-year-old ones, while for those older ones it is a good challenge and develops a competitive spirit.
4. "Tightrope walking". This little exercise can be done in a shallow pool. First, I take a rope and stretch it on the bottom of the pool (I tighten it, put weight on the rope’s ends to prevent it from moving). The children are supposed to grab the rope with their toes, leaning on their heels and walk along the rope to the other side of the pool. On their way back they do the duck walking. Once they finish the «tightrope walking» they all sit down on the pool’s edge and I give them a pencil or a little stick they are supposed to pass on to each other using their toes.
Trust me, by doing these water exercises regularly, some of my swimmers stopped having issues with their flat feet. To improve your condition and get positive changes in your feet you need consistency, both in the water and on the dry. Swimming and some exercises in the water may have a positive influence on the regular development in children and their feet, but they can also reduce the progress of certain deformities. The results cannot be seen in only two months. If not treated in a timely and adequate manner, flat feet can often bring to some spine issues later in life.
This is why regular swimming and soft exercises in the water and around it always bring to positive results.
The most important thing is that children’s feet are light as they’re playing and walking through their life! Swimming will definitely bring back the freedom of movement.
You shouldn’t make a fuss about flat feet, but you should be aware of the fact that our children are less physically active. Want it or not, our children move less nowadays. Yes, and we as parents, with a couple of honourable exceptions, spend much of our time in our armchairs, cars…Life is more dramatic, I know! However, each one of us carries his/her burden in his/her own way, right? But the fact is, the medical specialists complain about more and more children having spinal issues and flat feet, while still being at the very beginning of their life adventure…