I’ve always thought the loveliest summer scenes include a kid running barefoot in the grass, or on the beach, or anywhere, really. Tiny bare feet symbolize freedom and innocence, the footloose and fancy-free joie de vivre of childhood.
At the same time, baby and toddler shoes are just so freaking adorable. There’s a reason people used to bronze their baby shoes, after all. Have you ever seen a pair of toddler Timberlands? Painfully cute.
As it turns out, though, babies and kids going barefoot is where it’s at. According to people who study such things, letting kids go shoeless as often as possible does wonders for their foot and brain development.
It makes sense when you think about it. For most of human history, shoes were nothing more than a thick-but-flexible covering to keep the feet warm and protected. There’s no evolutionary or physiological basis for shoes with any kind of heel or even any kind of “support.” Our feet work just like they’re supposed to to help our bodies move around without assistance from fancy soles.
In fact, wearing shoes too much through toddlerhood and childhood might just be the cause of many foot problems people deal with. Flat-footedness has been linked with early shoe usage, with researchers determining that shoes — especially closed toed shoes — can be detrimental to the development of a healthy arch. A 2008 study in Gait & Posture concluded that all children should wear flexible footwear instead of traditional shoes, and other studies have shown that shoes can actually teach kids to walk incorrectly.
This is good news for parents with children who prefer to run around unshod or who constantly take their shoes off everywhere they go. Not only is it not bad for them, it’s actually also clearly beneficial. Humans had much healthier feet before the advent of shoes, which have messed with our natural gait and normal foot and ankle development. The longer and more often kids go barefoot, the better.
Going around without shoes is a foreign concept for many of us though. A good percentage of us live in places where it’s too cold to go without shoes much of the year, and footwear is a major part of our fashion industry.
But in this area, it’s pretty clear that we need to let our kids literally follow in the footsteps of their primal ancestors. Some parents might feel hesitant to let their kids run around outside without shoes for fear of injury. However, the more kids go barefoot, the thicker the skin on the bottom of their feet becomes. Unless you think there’s a good chance of hypodermic needles or sharp glass crossing their path, letting them ditch their shoes outside, especially in your own yard, is totally fine.
For babies and toddlers in particular, exploring the world with bare feet offers sensory stimulation, which helps develop various parts of the brain. Neurological pathways are built through new experiences. The feet are one of the most nerve-rich parts of the human body, and allowing kids to fully feel variations in texture and terrain on their feet helps them learn to be mindful of their surroundings, aids in balance and coordination, and builds neuromuscular strength.
So if our kids insist on playing caveman, let’s let them. Encourage them, even. Feet can be washed — it’s okay. We can help create those beautiful scenes of little ones padding around on their bare feet. Our children will appreciate it, so will their feet, and so will those of us who love to see kids in their natural, adorable state.