We should let our children go barefoot as much as possible – and here is why
Growing up in Norway, one of the things that really scream summer to me, is seeing children running around in the grass barefoot.
In fact, in Scandinavia, grubby, grassy feet covered in mud and soil are celebrated as a sign of a happy, healthy child – and a glorious childhood summer.
It was how we spent our entire summers when I grew up – and to this day, I love the feeling of being barefoot – in the grass – and also inside my house too.
Truth be told, I enforce very strict rules about shoes inside the house – as in; it is one big no-no.
Seriously; despite living here for close to a decade, wearing shoes inside the house is the one Irish "thing" I can not ever get on board with. So, in our home, the first thing we all do when we step inside our front door is remove our shoes – and both my children and I always walk around in our bare feet inside.
I realised when my children were smaller that the whole barefoot thing wasn't so much a done thing here in Ireland. I remember getting comments from other parents when we visited playgrounds and parks, often asking me if I didn't worry about them stepping on something sharp or getting injured if they didn't have shoes on. Another thing that baffled me was how often children here even wear their shoes inside – at creche, in school – some even at home.
So many benefits to being barefoot
The thing is – being barefoot actually has a whole rake of benefits for children – and adults too, actually.
Research has shown that wearing shoes affects everything from our gait and posture and foot development to the strength of our foot's arch. Walking barefoot, on the other hand, strengthens the muscles in children's feet and ankles, improving balance and posture. It engages the feet's arches, strengthening them, and improves the alignment of muscles throughout the legs.
For example, scientific evidence suggests that flat feet are far more common in children who usually wear shoes, than in those who don’t. We also know the critical period for the development of the arch is before age six. This means that walking barefoot is especially important during early childhood.
I mean, it makes sense when you think about it. For most of human history, shoes were nothing more than a thick-but-flexible covering to keep the feet warm and protected. There’s no evolutionary or physiological basis for shoes with any kind of heel or even any kind of “support.” Our feet work just like they’re supposed to – to help our bodies move around without assistance from fancy soles.
In fact, there are so many benefits to being barefoot – not just for your children's feet, but for their nervous systems and brains too.
With children, walking barefoot can:
- Improve motor skills. A 2018 study of children in Germany and South Africa suggests that barefoot play can contribute to improved motor skills, particularly when it comes to balance and jumping.
- Prevent injuries. People who go barefoot or wear minimalist shoes develop wider feet, which helps distribute the weight of the body more evenly and may prevent injuries.
- Strengthen children's feet. Conventional footwear can weaken the muscles in the foot, whereas going barefoot or minimally shod strengthens them, supporting normal gait, one 2018 study shows.
- Build new neural connections. Going barefoot stimulates thousands of nerve endings in the feet and activates the vestibular and proprioceptive systems in children's brains. This helps children orient their bodies in space, and develop skills like balance and coordination.
Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of the book Balanced and Barefoot recommends letting children go barefoot as much as possible, both indoors and outdoors.
“Walking outdoors offers natural messages to children’s feet as they walk on different-sized pebbles and uneven ground,” she writes. “The resistance and inconsistency nature offers integrates reflexes in the foot and forms strong arches. Going barefoot out in nature helps to develop normal gait patterns, balance and tolerance of touch in the feet, all of which provide a strong foundation for confident and fluid movement.”