Why playing barefoot is good for children’s bodies and brains
Wearing shoes is not always good for us. Shoes affect anything from our gait and posture, to the strength of our foot’s arch. In fact, there’s scientific evidence to suggest that flat feet are far more common in children who usually wear shoes, compared with those who don’t. We also know that the critical period for the development of the foot arch is before age 6. This means that walking barefoot can be especially important during early childhood.
But it’s not just about the physical development of children’s feet — barefoot play affects children’s brain development too.
For example, it can:
- Build new neural connections in the brain. Going barefoot stimulates thousands of nerve endings in the feet and activates the vestibular and proprioceptive systems in children’s brains. This helps the children orientate their bodies in space and develop their skills in balance and coordination.
- 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 balancing and jumping.
- 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.
- Prevent injuries. People who go barefoot or wear minimalist shoes, develop wider feet, which helps to distribute the weight of the body more evenly and may prevent injuries.
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.”
This tactile feedback from walking barefoot is beneficial to children of all ages, not least the babies who are just learning to walk.
How to offer barefoot experiences
We were all born to walk barefoot, and young children usually don’t need much convincing to ditch the shoes. As a parent or caregiver, all you need to do is to support children’s natural inclination to explore the world without shoes; starting in babyhood. Say “yes” to barefoot play as often as possible, and try to offer a variety of natural surfaces for children to walk on.
Creating a sensory walking path with different surfaces can be a fun way for children to explore different textures with their feet and promote a healthy sensory development.
When children shed their shoes and feel the ground beneath their feet, they gain awareness of their senses, their bodies and their surroundings.
These are some simple ideas for natural materials to use in a sensory path:
- Ground-covering plants
- Wood chips
- Tree trunk slices
If you have access to nature trails, they too can be a good place for children to go barefoot.
Addressing risks and concerns about going barefoot
A common concern about young children walking barefoot is the risk of infection from bacteria and viruses in the ground.
In reality, children are far more likely to pick up an infection when they stick their fingers in their mouth and nose, rather than through their feet. Plus, the dark, moist environment of a shod foot is more conducive to fungal and bacterial growth than bare feet. The skin itself is a natural barrier protecting against infection, and the more a child walks barefoot, the tougher the skin becomes. This also decreases the risk of injury from cuts.
These tips will help you keep barefoot play time safe and enjoyable:
- Inspect the area visually to make sure there are no hazardous objects on the ground, such as broken glass.
- On sunny days, check the temperature on surfaces like asphalt and sand, as they can get very hot.
- If tracking dirt and debris inside is an issue, keep a plastic bowl with water and some towels nearby, where the children can rinse off.
- Don’t force children to go barefoot if they don’t want to.
In most cases, the benefits of barefoot walking far outweigh the risks. Rather than fight a child’s desire to go barefoot, try to embrace it and remember that grubby feet are usually a sign of a happy child.
Besides, bare feet aren’t just for kids – why don’t you take your shoes and socks off and join in the fun? Your feet will thank you.