In the early years of life, when every sensation contributes to a child's growth and understanding of the world, the feeling of grass, sand, or even the cool floor beneath their feet can be a source of endless wonder and development.
In today's fast-paced, overly structured world, we often overlook the simplest and most natural ways to enhance children's development.
There’s increasing momentum around the topic of supporting children to be barefoot outside. More than just a personal preference, there are some interesting perspectives and research studies that advocate for a barefoot approach.
Benefits of wearing shoes
The topic of going barefoot isn’t about taking an all or nothing approach. Shoes play an important role in protecting feet from environmental hazards and possible injury.1
However, according to Dr Nicole Grant, Paediatric Occupational Therapist at Early Start Australia, not all footwear is created equal.
“It’s important that children wear quality, well fitted shoes to support their feet,” she explains.
Not only are they uncomfortable to wear, but ill fitting shoes may also cause foot pain and disorders.2
Advantages of going barefoot
At The Rumpus Room Chatham Street shoes are optional, which Director Niki Moodie says reflects children's right to self-determine what is best for them, so they have agency over their own body. The educators encourage children to engage in risky and adventurous play, and this is mostly done with bare feet.
“Shoes can often inhibit children's balance and coordination and alter their stability,” she says. “They have a much better sense of control when they're climbing a ladder or a rope, swinging, flipping themselves upside down on the trapeze when they're barefoot.”
Libby Bridge, Outdoor Educator at The Rumpus Room Chatham Street agrees, sharing an anecdote of a child mastering the hammock.
“He puts his head and arms through and swings around in it,” she explains. “He needs to be barefoot so he can fully manoeuvre and control what he's doing with his toes. He pushes off, holding his feet tight whilst he swings, before planting them down again to push off in a new direction.
“Children receive so much sensory and vestibular input through their feet,” she adds. “It is so important for children to explore their environment with their shoes off.”
Dr Grant echoes these benefits, saying that going barefoot can:
have a grounding and calming effect as children connect with nature
help children with sensory sensitivities to learn to tolerate different textures under their feet
benefit gross motor development.
One study of preschool children in Japan found that going barefoot was preferable, even to shoes that were properly fitted. These children were found to have fewer instances of bunions – or smaller bunions where present – than their shoe-wearing peers.3
Another study found that frequent participation in physical activities while barefoot may help children to develop their jumping and balancing skills.4
While the risk of infection through bare feet is relatively low compared to other activities, concerns about injury and environmental factors like terrain and pollutants still persist. Transitioning to barefoot activities can also be challenging for children accustomed to wearing shoes, requiring gradual adaptation to new sensations and physical demands.
Niki says that while shoes are optional at The Rumpus Room Chatham Street, they do insist on "shoes on" days when the ground is too hot. The children also must wear shoes while on excursions.
“The usual risks with going barefoot are things like splinters, rocks, broken toys and other sharp objects,” adds Dr Grant. “As long as those risks are managed through daily environment checks, then going barefoot can be fantastic for little developing feet and bodies.”
In the context of early childhood education and care, it’s also important to consider cultural perspectives and how that may influence a child’s willingness to go barefoot outdoors.
The movement to embrace "Grounding"
"Grounding," also known as "earthing," is a therapeutic technique that involves doing activities that "ground" or electrically reconnect you to the earth. This practice is based on the idea that being in direct contact with the earth's surface allows for a transfer of free electrons from the ground into the body. Proponents say that this can be achieved through activities like walking barefoot on grass, sand, or soil, lying on the ground, or even immersing oneself in natural bodies of water.
Grounding is not just a modern wellness trend; it has deep roots in various cultures and traditions around the world. Many indigenous and ancient cultures have long understood the importance of maintaining a close connection with the earth, often incorporating this belief into their healing practices and daily lives. In today's fast-paced and technology-driven world, grounding offers a way to reconnect with nature, promoting physical and mental well-being. By incorporating barefoot activities into our routines, we're not just taking a step back to a simpler time; we're embracing a practice that could be integral to our overall health and well-being.
Best foot forward
With possible benefits, both anecdotal and research based, it’s worthwhile considering an approach for your service within the context of culture, environmental conditions and individual needs, and bearing in mind what the children think about the subject.
1. Better Health. Children’s feet and shoes.
2. Buldt AK, Menz HB (July 2018). Incorrectly fitted footwear, foot pain and foot disorders: a systematic search and narrative review of the literature. J Foot Ankle Res. (28;11:43).
3. Yang Jiao, Sašo Džeroski & Ales Jurca. (2023) Analysis of hallux valgus angles automatically extracted from 3D foot scans taken in North America, Europe, and Asia. Ergonomics 66:8 (pages 1164-1175).
4. Zech A, Venter R, de Villiers JE, Sehner S, Wegscheider K and Hollander K (2018) Motor Skills of Children and Adolescents Are Influenced by Growing up Barefoot or Shod. Front. Pediatr. (6:115).