My kids are always barefoot at the playground (and pretty much whenever they are outdoors).
Sometimes another child notices their feet and tries to take their own shoes off, too. Their mom or dad usually stops them, and my kids remain the only shoeless wonders climbing up the slide or burying their feet in the pea gravel.
I used to feel a little bad when this scene happened. I felt guilty for inspiring a barefoot rebellion in other people’s children, or I would question whether I was making an unsafe choice letting my kids shed their shoes. But now that I know the many benefits of going barefoot, I feel confident in my decision and wish more parents would follow suit.
We didn’t start off as a barefoot family.
When my firstborn started walking I got him some very soft-soled shoes, but even those seemed too restrictive for a tiny human learning how to balance. When he got a little older, he would try to take his shoes off the second we went anywhere outdoors, and my instinct was to let him do it. I saw how free he looked running around, and how much better he could climb and balance, and it just felt right.
On a purely physical level, shoes are bad for healthy foot development. Shoes interfere with how kids’ toes should spread and how their feet should move, which affects their gait and arch development, and makes them more likely to injure themselves. Going barefoot, on the other hand, strengthens the feet and lower legs and helps prevent injury.
The importance of footwear makes a lot of sense when you remember that babies are born with no bones in their feet, only cartilage. They don’t develop all the bones of an adult foot until the teenage years, but it’s hard for those to develop properly if their feet are restricted by a shoe. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “shoe selection for children should be based on the barefoot model,” as “optimum foot development occurs in the barefoot environment.”
Perhaps even more importantly, going barefoot helps children develop two sensory systems that not many people know about—the vestibular system and the proprioceptive system. The vestibular system allows us to balance, as well as stabilize our head and body when we move. The proprioceptive system tells us where our body parts are positioned in space.
As Angela Hanscom explains in her book, Balanced and Barefoot, when babies and kids wear shoes, their feet don’t have to adapt to uneven ground or changing terrain in the same way they do when barefoot.
Those sensory systems, then, are not getting the ideal amount of input and stimulation. Children with poor proprioceptive and vestibular senses are more likely to fall and have injuries, while those whose senses are more developed have better balance, coordination, and body awareness.
My kids going barefoot all the time has encouraged me to try it sometimes.
It has reminded me that beyond all the science-y benefits, going barefoot just feels good. Our feet are super sensitive, and the visceral pleasure of digging your bare toes in the sand or walking on wet grass is undeniable.
I have even squished my feet into the mud with my kids, and while the sensation isn’t exactly soothing to me, something about it makes me feel alive and present. More connected to nature. More aware of the simple joys that I’m usually too distracted to notice.
As far as the safety factor of going barefoot, my kids have never had an injury except an occasional prickly burr.
To be clear, they don’t go barefoot in a parking lot or a street or anywhere there could be broken glass. They have great balance and can sense where their bodies are, so even if they stumble or hit uneven terrain they adjust quickly. Their extra-tough soles are not bothered when walking on sharp rocks that would make a barefoot adult wince.
I’m much more worried about dirty hands getting them sick than dirty feet, especially since my youngest sucks her thumb, not her toe. We hose off our feet before coming inside if they’re seriously dirty. As far as weather concerns, I’m grateful to live in a place where going barefoot is an option for most of the year. On really cold days shoes are non-negotiable, and my son will begrudgingly wear socks under his Crocs.
I’m not advocating that you throw your shoes away. But if you’re a shoes-always-on family, it’s worth it to let your kids go barefoot sometimes.
Let them feel their soles slap into the water of a deep puddle, their feet squish into the fresh mud, their toes curl around a rock as they climb. And hopefully you’ll let yourself feel it, too.