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Why kids should go barefoot more (and probably adults, too)

(By Lauren Knight)

During an unseasonably warm day this past winter, my husband and I walked with our three boys to the playground down the street from our house. The sunshine was toasty and the boys were quick to take advantage of it. As soon as we arrived, all three of our little boys immediately shed the light jackets they had been wearing, along with their shoes and socks, and took off, small bare feet pounding and bouncing on the playground’s rubberized soft surface. They ran fast, climbed easily, using their feet to wrap around the poles they scaled, clearly delighted. It wasn’t long before a few other children at the playground caught on and attempted to remove their shoes and socks.

“NO!” one mother shouted, “Do not remove your shoes and socks,” she told her son. When he whined and asked her why not, she simply stated, “We always keep our shoes on outside.” This was nothing new; we have, for years, been the odd family out at the playground, the ones who play chase, balance on a slackline nearby, and practice handstands shoeless, sometimes all five of us at the same time.

How (and why) to let a little risk into your child’s day

On one occasion, a parent would not let his son take off his shoes when we invited him to come onto our slackline — not only did the slackline end up covered in mud, but the little boy gave up quickly — he was unable to keep his balance with his shoes on. Another time, a father chastised me to his child for allowing my children to go shoeless, implying that I was endangering them somehow. The judgements don’t bother me; I am secure in my parenting choices and have made them purposefully and fully-informed, but it did make me wonder why so many parents of young children forbid them from taking off their shoes outdoors. I decided to research the myths and benefits of going barefoot, and what I found out may surprise you.

Two common reasons parents give for not allowing their children to go barefoot outside include fear of injury to the foot, and fear of picking up some unsavory disease or illness through their feet. Unless you are in the city where there is broken glass everywhere, the likelihood of injuring one’s foot is minimal, especially on a soft rubber surface where it is easy to see and avoid stepping on objects. Both children and adults who go barefoot frequently also have a heightened sense of their surroundings and can easily spot a sharp object they need to avoid. Children’s feet also toughen up the more they go barefoot, leading to more natural protection.

As far as picking up an illness or disease from going barefoot, our skin is designed to keep pathogens out, and you are far more likely to spread or contract an illness through your hands (think public doorknobs, sinks, keyboards, and hand rails) where germs are most plentiful. Also, children are much more likely to put their hands, not their feet, in their mouths and touch their faces and eyes, where disease or illness most commonly enters the body. Parasites are not likely to be transmitted through the foot in a developed country. Since the advent of modern plumbing, hookworm is much less common, especially in non-tropical regions that experience cold winters. A child is much more likely to contract a mosquito- or tick-borne illness than a parasite these days. In fact, shoes actually create an opportunity for illness by trapping bacteria and fungus (along with the darkness, heat, and moisture) and holding them against your feet, establishing an ideal environment for the growth of icky things like athlete’s foot and toe fungus.

Kevin Geary, parenting guru, teacher, and author of Revolutionary Parent, a site dedicated to raising physically and psychologically healthy kids, argues that shoes are actually quite bad for children. Shoes destroy feet, preventing proper toe spread, which interferes with the foot’s ability to function properly, and prevent proper movement development, which can make children be more susceptible to foot and lower leg injury. The benefits of going barefoot, however, are plentiful.

One major benefit of allowing a child to go barefoot is that it strengthens the feet and lower legs, making the body more agile and less prone to injury. It also enhances proprioception, the sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement. In other words, going barefoot helps a child develop body awareness. Geary explains that the nerves in our feet are sensitive (the sole of your foot has over 200,000 nerve endings– one of the highest concentrations in the entire body) for this very reason; they make us safer, more careful, and better able to adapt to the ground beneath us. When barefoot, we are better able to climb, cut, pivot, balance, and adjust rapidly when the ground shifts beneath us, as it does when we walk on uneven terrain, or anything besides concrete and pavement.

Dr. Kacie Flegal, who specializes in pediatrics, wrote about optimal brain and nervous system development of babies and toddlers, stating that being barefoot benefits a young child tremendously. “One of the simplest ways to motivate proprioceptive and vestibular development is to let our babies be barefoot as much as possible.” She goes on to say, “Another benefit to keeping babies barefoot is the encouragement of presence of mind and conscious awareness. As the little pads of babies’ feet feel, move, and balance on the surface that they are exploring, the information sent to the brain from tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular pathways quiet, or inhibit, other extraneous sensory input. This creates focus and awareness of walking and moving through space; babies get more tuned in to their surroundings.”

Another benefit of going barefoot is that it encourages a natural, healthy gait. Adam Sternberg wrote about the topic for New York Magazine in 2008 and cited studies that reveal the damage shoes are doing to our feet; in particular, that we humans had far healthier feet prior to the advent of shoes. Sternberg further reported that despite these findings, people are still not actively encouraged to go barefoot outdoors. Podiatrist Dr. William A. Rossi said it all when he wrote, “It took 4 million years to develop our unique human foot and our consequent distinctive form of gait… in only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument, our shoes, we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait, obstructing its engineering efficiency, afflicting it with strains and stresses and denying it its natural grace of form and ease of movement head to foot.”

And finally, going barefoot is a joy to the senses, especially to young children who experience all the newness of the tactile world around them. Think of the relaxing feeling of walking on soft warm sand at the beach, the refreshing feeling of cool dewy grass in the early morning of a summer day, the feeling of slippery wet mud squishing between toes in the garden, the feeling of the rough bark of a climbing tree, the surprise at the splash of a puddle underfoot. All of these sensations are available when we allow our children to experience a bit of shoe-free time. Perhaps you should join us and kick off those shoes at the playground and in the back yard. Enjoy your feet and what they were made for.

Lauren Knight is a frequent contributor to On Parenting. She blogs at Crumb Bums.

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