Stride Rite Debuts New Innovations

Baby’s first steps are a significant developmental milestone. But according to new research commissioned by Stride Rite, those tentative steps are also what determine a child’s lifelong gait pattern.

In its mission to make its shoes as technologically advanced as possible, the Lexington, Mass.-based children’s brand teamed up with Dr. Howard Hillstrom, director of the Leon Root, M.D. Motion Analysis Laboratory at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, and learned that infants’ initial steps shape their strides well into adulthood.

For the design team at Stride Rite, this surprising fact underscored the necessity of having a good, quality pair of shoes early on. “[It proved to us that] having the proper footwear is critical when learning to walk,” said Jennifer Kretchmar, VP of product for Stride Rite Children’s Group.

To unearth more, Stride Rite asked Hillstrom to conduct a multiphase biomechanics study. The first phase, recently completed, revealed the importance of babies being able to sense their environment when learning to walk. According to study data, first walkers need shoes that allow them to grip and feel the ground beneath them and distribute their weight appropriately to maintain balance and establish a positive walking pattern.

This and other key findings led to the development of Stride Rite’s new Sensory Response Technology, the latest addition to the brand’s STEP system of technologies, which include Soft Motion, Natural Motion System and Toddler Tech. Slated to launch this August, the inaugural SRT offering, available in baby sizes 3 to 8, includes three boys’ styles and three girls’ styles, all retailing for $50. (A second evolution of the line, reflecting the findings from the next phase of Hillstrom’s study, is slated for release by fall ’10.)

The shoes feature small pods on the outsole that move independently and provide sensory feedback, allowing the child to adapt to uneven surfaces. An hourglass-shaped panel — designed to mirror a baby’s unique foot structure — is positioned in the midfoot area and provides needed support. If babies happen to invert their foot while walking, a smooth, rounded transition from the outsole to the upper encourages the shoe to roll with the baby rather than catch an edge, reducing the number of stumbles and falls.

Here, Hillstrom talks about the mechanics of the study, while Kretchmar reveals how research became reality in the new SRT collection.

Dr. Howard Hillstrom, director, Leon Root, M.D. Motion Analysis Laboratory at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery

FN: How was the first phase of the Stride Rite study conducted?
HH: A combination of qualitative (functional task performance video) and quantitative (in-shoe plantar pressure and gait pattern) measurements was taken of children learning to walk in four structurally different shoe designs. This pilot study assessed cruisers, early walkers and experienced walkers.

FN: What were your key findings?
HH: Plantar loading [pressure on the sole of the foot] and stability while performing functional tasks was affected by shoe structure in this healthy pediatric population.

FN: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see in the design of children’s shoes?
HH: One of the biggest mistakes is to scale down an adult shoe and employ similar thickness materials. Many companies tend to view children’s shoes as miniature adult shoes, which will almost guarantee an excessively stiff children’s shoe.

FN: What is the most essential feature in a first-walker shoe?
HH: Preliminary data suggests that children learning to walk require [greater] flexibility to negotiate obstacles without losing stability.

Jennifer Kretchmar, VP of product, Stride Rite Children’s Group

FN: What was the most surprising finding from the study?
JK: Based on previous research, we know that barefoot is best when learning to walk. But through the study conducted by Dr. Hillstrom, we were able to clearly identify footwear that had either a positive or negative impact on a child’s stability and performance. We were surprised to learn that a child’s gait is completely programmed by the age of 2 or 3. [It proved to us that] having the proper footwear is critical when learning to walk.

FN: How did you specifically apply the study findings to the design of the SRT shoes?
JK: Dr. Hillstrom and his team were able to identify the many different ways in which babies’ feet move when they are learning to walk. A baby’s feet are not fully formed like an adult’s, so we developed features to improve their ability to respond to their environment in order to reduce the number of stumbles and falls they face. This required developing a feedback system that provides the right amount of flexibility and cushioning in critical areas.

FN: What is the idea behind the sensory pods on the bottom of the shoes?
JK: The sensory response outsole enhances babies’ ability to sense the ground beneath them, to stabilize their gait and to respond to their natural environment.

FN: With the new line, how did you unite the technology aspects with the fashion? Were there any limitations?
JK: Our consumer not only wants what is best for baby, which means incorporating the latest medical findings in our footwear, but also what is the most stylish. Our design team loved working on this collection because they could have fun with colors and materials, interpreting the latest trends. For baby girls, we have a little fringe moccasin, as well as styles with neutral metallic leathers and sparkle suedes. For boys, we have European styling with great hits of color.

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