Take Your Shoes Off Please

Over the years, we have watched many children arrive on the first day of a Jump Up Outdoors program determined not to take their shoes off. After a few hours, they might reluctantly remove their shoes at the creek and sometimes forget to put them back on again. Often by the last day, the children arrive at reception, rip their shoes off, race down the hill and remain barefoot for the entire day. Now, some of these children were adamant that they would not remove their shoes…ever. So to watch this transition in such a short period of time, suggests the experience of being barefoot is a good thing! Our Jump Up kids seem to demonstrate an innate knowledge that being barefoot would make it easier for them to clamber up the hill, climb to the highest branches of a tree or negotiate the rocky creek bed.

But to add to intuitive wisdom of our Jump Up Kids, research overwhelmingly supports that walking barefoot is an integral part of normal development and has broad, long term health benefits. Here are some of the reasons why:

Walking barefoot develops a sense of body awareness or proprioception

Babies and children learn about their bodies, where different bits are and what they can do with them through all the sensations they receive through nerve endings. Feet and toes are jam packed with nerve endings so that children can feel the ground beneath them in order to develop a sense of where their body is in space and how they can move to safely negotiate their environment. By placing shoes on our children’s feet we are reducing the amount and quality of sensory information the child is getting about their environment and body. This in turn limits the development of sensory pathways that promote healthy and functional movement patterns. When wearing shoes, we get less information about where we are walking and therefore need to look down to get this information. This increases the risk of losing balance and falling, particularly for toddlers and young children.

Walking barefoot develops a natural, healthy gait

Barefoot walking promotes better biomechanics in terms of distributing weight evenly and efficiently throughout the body. When children are born they do not have bones, but only cartilage in their feet. It is not until the late teenage years that the 28 bones of an adult foot are fully ossified. Forcing feet to conform to the shape of a shoe will ultimately result in permanent changes to the shape of a child’s foot. Changing the shape of our feet will in turn alter how effectively and efficiently our feet work.

When we are barefoot, we develop a more natural gait which is gentler, has a shorter stride and less pressure through our heels. When barefoot, our knees bend more to cushion each step and our toes work to help us grip and move forward. Many of the functions of our feet are altered when walking in shoes. The resultant gait is much harder on many joints throughout our body and can result in both pain and deformity.

Walking barefoot strengthens the feet and body

When walking barefoot we can grip the ground more easily using the muscles of our feet and toes. Our feet are designed similarly to our hands and have lots of small muscles that allow us to develop finely tuned movements with small muscle adjustments. When we are barefoot, the small muscles in our feet adapt the shape of our foot and body position to the surface we are walking on. This not only strengthens these muscles but also results in more effective grip and balance thereby reducing the risk of trips and falls. When wearing shoes, our feet stop working in the way they were designed resulting in reduced strength and agility. It is only through walking barefoot that we are able to maintain the full function of our feet.

Walking barefoot improves safety

Apart from the freedom that we feel when we throw our shoes off, it also teaches children to assess a situation and adapt to it. For example, if there is a rocky surface children quickly learn to slow their pace and look for and tread on the most stable surface. When walking barefoot we tend to step with less force and are more likely to notice if we are putting our feet on something sharp, therefore avoiding injury. A heightened awareness of surroundings and ability to react adaptively in many different situations are skills that will help children assess and adapt to risk in other facets of their lives. Research also suggests that children who are barefoot tend to be less clumsy and use a more natural gait, making them more stable and less likely to trip.

Walking barefoot provides a direct connection to our natural environment

Walking barefoot provides a direct connection to our natural world which allows us to blow off steam, relax and reawaken our senses. Research and experience tells us that children and adults thrive in the outdoors and natural environments. Wearing shoes places a barrier between our feet and the natural world reducing the health promoting effects of spending time in nature. Walking barefoot promotes an affinity for nature which is not only good for our feet, but does wonders for our physical development and social and emotional health and wellbeing.

Our Jump Up Kids knew it intuitively, the professionals have proven it through research and we here at Jump Up For Kids will continue to promote the development and health promoting benefits of walking barefoot. So next time your children are heading outdoors, make sure your remind them to “Take your shoes off please.”

Written by: Written by Madeline Avci. Mum of 3 young men, Occupational Therapist, Owner of Jump Up for Kids (including Jump Up Outdoors). Madeline is passionate about making the outdoors part of everyone’s day and supporting families to navigate the challenges of our modern world.

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