How Ditching Shoes Can Make Your Kiddos Healthier & Smarter
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine your toes sinking into the warm sand. Wiggle them around a bit, and exhale to the sound of ocean waves. Next, let's envision our soles on soft grass in the spring, a light floral smell in the wind, and the air on our skin. It’s relaxing, isn’t it? Sometimes we forget how grounding and calming it is to leave our feet bare and feel the world under us. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures.
Barefeet get a bad rap, especially with parents and caregivers- we worry our kids will step on something sharp or contract some kind of disease. But did you know that the soles of our feet have one of the highest nerve concentrations in the body? That’s for a reason- we learn through our feet from infancy through adulthood.
We will start by addressing the main concerns caregivers have about letting their kids run around outside without shoes- injury, illness, and temperature.
Realistically, it’s unlikely your kids will injure their feet unless they’re walking in an area like a downtown sidewalk littered with broken bottles or a construction site. In those situations foot protection makes sense! But at the playground or in the backyard or driveway, injury is unlikely. Being barefoot actually helps kids (and grownups!) to be more aware of the terrain they are traversing. So even where the occasional hazard may lurk, barefoot kids are more aware of their surroundings because of how sensitive the bottoms of our feet are. Think of it like wearing gloves- of course, you put gloves on when handling something excessively hot, sharp, or chemical. However, trying to do everything with gloves on would limit you, your dexterity, and your sense of the materials you were working with. Feet are just like this! Only it can also affect balance and coordination, as well as the speed of motor development in toddlers and preschoolers (barefoot babies learn to walk sooner and better than their sock-wearing peers in many cases). It’s much easier for kids to navigate playground equipment, trees, and whatever else they are climbing on with their toes free and their feet uncovered. This is why barefoot kids are less likely to fall in ways that lead to broken bones or other severe injuries. Being barefoot also toughens up the soles of the feet, making injury even less likely. As an anecdotal example, my brother and I ran around barefoot our entire childhoods, climbing trees and even doing dumb things like jumping off the roof of the shed onto the trampoline (I don’t endorse that, and I’m not sure how we made it to adulthood some days!). Neither of us has ever broken a bone, gotten a sprain or concussion, or been seriously injured while doing so. Our friends, however, whose mothers always kept their Nikes on, didn’t fare so well. This of course isn’t a scientific study, and a dozen kids from my block hardly constitute an appropriate sample size, but it does give some food for thought that those of us who ran around footloose and fancy-free were the ones who didn’t end up injured. From a non-anecdotal standpoint, it’s been proven that kids are more careful on surfaces that feel uncomfortable under their feet. They won’t run as hard on gravel or pavement as they do on grass or sand, and therefore are less likely to fall or lose control. With shoes on, that rough sensation isn’t there and so they don’t take those same precautions they naturally do otherwise.
Another common concern is illness- you may have heard your mom or grandma saying if you don’t wear shoes you’ll catch a disease. This is simply untrue. Our skin is an excellent defense against pathogens- that’s actually one of its main purposes! And further, you’re more likely to get sick from something you touch with your hands. We have a tendency to think feet are gross, when realistically our hands are much germier. Even in babies who put their feet in their mouths, it's unlikely there is anything worse on their feet than their hands. Naturally, there are nuances to these statements, and if they step on dog poop or something equally yucky, it's important to clean it off just as you would with their hands. I’m not endorsing abandoning basic hygiene! What about foot fungus, you say? Fungi grow better in a dark, moist, warm environment, so you're more likely to contract a fungus while wearing shoes than not. Bacteria also thrive in these environments. It’s what makes shoes and socks so stinky. That’s right- that smell is actually bacteria! Bare feet might get a little dirty, but they aren’t conducive to bacteria and fungal growth.
Finally, there is the worry that their feet may get too hot or cold. I would suggest to you that if their feet are cool to the touch, feel the rest of their body. Is all their skin cool? Are they shivering? Do they seem uncomfortable or if they are verbal, are they telling you they are? Oftentimes our feet are cooler than the rest of our body because they are far from our core. Our furthest extremities get less of our circulation and it takes more time for new blood to reach them. That doesn’t mean that the rest of the body is cold, though. As I type this, my feet are much cooler than my core and hands. However, I feel completely comfortable! If the temperature is so low that there is a risk of hypothermia or frostbite, covering up is always the best plan of action. When the weather is nice, however, their feet will probably not get too cold. Teach them to listen to their bodies.
On the matter of being too hot, when the temperatures rise and the pavement or metal play structures heat up, that can definitely call for foot protection. Place your hand or your own barefoot on the surface and you will easily be able to tell if it’s too hot for bare skin.
Next, let's move on to the benefits of ditching the footwear, emotionally, developmentally, and physically!
Being barefoot makes kids smarter- really! Multiple studies have demonstrated that because of how nerve-rich the feet are, being barefoot contributes to the formation of neurological pathways in the brain. This leads to better problem solving, language skills, social skills, confidence, and emotional regulation. Toddlers who experience natural surfaces barefoot are generally more advanced than their peers in cognitive and motor skills. Kids who are delayed or progressing slowly can also benefit from time with their socks off. A friend of mine has a 19-month-old son who was shuffling and exhibiting clumsiness and delayed speech. He had been doing physical therapy to strengthen his ankles and core and was seeing modest improvements, but not as quickly as they were hoping. On the advice of an early childhood specialist, she allowed him to go barefoot as often as possible. On the first day, within 30 minutes he was moving faster and falling less frequently. Within the first week, not only did the shuffling improve and his walking and balance become drastically better, but his language exploded. He started using more words, and communicating more frequently, and his speech was clearer. Being barefoot offers constant sensory exposure, which is important for all aspects of functioning and brain growth. That’s why so many people in the field of childcare and pediatrics place a big emphasis on sensory play! It can reduce the instances of sensory processing disorders, and is therapeutic for kids who have them. It also helps and prevents picky eating and emotional dysregulation. Letting your kids go without shoes is an easy way to sneak sensory exposure into everything they do- consider it a parenting hack!
Balance, coordination, and spatial awareness are all improved by being barefoot, even in kids who are not behind on their milestones. Because of the feedback, they get from their feet, kids who are barefoot have better posture, keep their heads higher and look down less which leads to a decrease in trips and falls. The same is true for adults! Walking on natural surfaces like grass, sand, and dirt is shown to boost happiness, reduce stress, and improve immunity for people of all ages. This is because it stimulates the production of some of the neurotransmitters associated with positive emotions like dopamine and serotonin. In adults, it can add years to your life by reducing the risk of type two diabetes and heart disease, and improving nervous system regulation. Not to mention- too much time in shoes is actually bad for your feet! The feet of most adults are different from those of infants, with the balls of the feet being wider than the toes. This is different from the shape of baby feet where the toes are the widest part of the foot and is from years of forcing our feet into tapered shoes, therefore altering our natural development. Adults in countries where shoes are worn less often or not at all do not have these deformities, and also do not suffer from corns, bunions, and ingrown toenails. These changes also affect gait and posture, which in turn causes issues with the health of our joints and back. Shoes change the way we walk, and where we put pressure, which can result in issues for our ankles and knees. The cushioning on our soles encourages us to force our heels into the ground and the stiffness of the bottoms prevents our feet from rolling flexibly forward, so shoes are given an upward-curved toe -called a toe spring- to allow them to rock forward onto the next step. This toe spring lifts our toes off the ground, so they can’t help propel the foot forward as they’re meant to. In turn, our feet get trained to use the wrong muscles in order to walk. This can lead to foot pain, as the tendons and muscles we are supposed to use to walk don’t get strengthened and instead atrophy. The best type of shoe to put your kids in when shoes are required is one with a wide toe box and not too much extra cushion.
Of course, discretion needs to be used, and there’s nuance to when we should and shouldn’t cover our feet. As a general rule of thumb though, it's better to be barefoot when you can for both kids and adults. So let your kiddos take off the sandals and sneakers and prepare to be amazed at the things they can do and how high they can climb!