One of my favorite childhood memories is of running to my neighbor’s house down the hill and congregating with all of the other neighborhood kids. Sometimes we’d jump on her trampoline, or cool off by running through the sprinklers, or chase down the ice cream truck, the hot pavement burning our feet as we hopped from one foot to the other trying to decide what to get. After hours of bouncing, splashing, and exploring, the streetlights would come on, and we’d each venture back to our own homes, leaving a trail of muddy, wet footprints behind us.
It is only now, in hindsight, that I recognize how much I took being able to run around my neighborhood barefoot for granted. I loved being barefoot, (and still do), but my parents never seemed to directly encourage or discourage it. It was just a thing I did. It’s only now, as a teacher and parent coach, that I’ve noticed that kids are wearing shoes far earlier and far more often than they used to.
The most common reason I hear from parents for not wanting their children to go barefoot outside is fear of injury. But unless you are in an environment where there is broken glass everywhere, the likelihood of a foot injury due to being barefoot is minimal. In fact, in my classrooms, I often encouraged children to climb barefoot because they were more balanced and better able to grip surfaces with their bare toes than they would be with shoes on. Then, as if Mother Nature is rooting for our feet to be free, when we go barefoot, our feet toughen up and develop callouses, which leads to more natural foot protection. I remember my mom kicking off her shoes as soon as the weather warmed up each spring and walking the dog around our neighborhood barefoot, proclaiming it was time to get started on her “summer feet.”
The other reason parents often give for not wanting their kids to go barefoot is a fear of catching a disease. This risk is extremely minimal, however, as children are far more likely to put their hands, not their feet, in their mouths. So touching a doorknob or faucet handle with their hands is a much bigger risk than walking around a classroom without shoes on. And the benefits far outweigh these minimal risks!
So, now that the sun is shining and the weather is beckoning us outside, let’s consider some of those benefits:
Going barefoot supports healthy physical development in children. When toddlers are barefoot, they are better able to balance their bodies through getting direct feedback from the ground, rather than constantly having to look down because they cannot feel it as well with shoes on. The muscles, ligaments, and arch in the foot are able to develop properly without interference from shoes. Furthermore, walking barefoot allows for better foot mechanics as children have more control over their foot position when they are walking. They are stabilizing their own feet without unnecessary support from shoes, which can hinder their capacity to do this effectively.
Going barefoot helps children learn about the world around them. Kids learn through their senses, so touching and being in direct contact with the world around them is of vital importance in early childhood. Since the skin on the bottom of their feet is so sensitive, kids can feel and differentiate between various textures and temperatures in their environment. This helps them develop their proprioception, or sense of self-movement and body position in relation to their surroundings. Being barefoot can be an engaging sensory experience all on its own, or you can enhance the fun of it with activities like footprint painting or stomping on bubble wrap.
Going barefoot fosters a connection with and appreciation for the natural world.When children are barefoot, they are more likely to be paying close attention to their physical environment and navigating their physical space with keen awareness. They feel the leaves crunching under their feet, the slimy moss under a log, and the sharpness of a pebble in the creek. These visceral experiences have a way of imprinting on a child and connecting them to the natural world. And early childhood is the perfect time to get kids excited about and invested in nature. This is how they grow up wanting to take care of and protect it.
Besides all of the above, being barefoot just plain feels good. Stepping onto cool morning grass, feeling the sand between our toes, or climbing up a giant oak tree with bare feet are some of the simplest and most delightful pleasures we can offer our kids. If you can’t remember just how good it feels, it may time for you to get outside and set your ten little piggies free, too!
Autumn Vandiver is a preschool teacher and parent coach. You can learn more about her and her work at coachingwithautumn.com