Kids seem to naturally be drawn to bare feet. My five-year-old takes off his shoes the minute a sandpit is in sight, and keeping socks on my eight-month-old is an exercise in futility! While they seem to do this purely for enjoyment, like most things kids do, there are actually many benefits to spending time barefoot, especially outside. With summer coming, here are five great reasons to consider barefoot play outdoors this summer.
Proper foot development
This is especially true for the smallest of children. Being barefoot allows the bones, ligaments, and nerve endings of the feet to grow and activate. Even though baby shoes are adorable, most experts agree they’re not necessary and can even be harmful to Baby’s feet. Spending time barefoot outside can be especially beneficial for babies and toddlers, helping them learn to move on a variety of surfaces and textures.
Nerve ending stimulation
Your feet (and your children’s) have over 200,000 nerve endings (more than any other per square inch in the human body). These nerve endings exist for a variety of reasons, including to send messages to the brain to help maintain balance and safety while walking. Like any other part of the nervous system, these nerve endings benefit from stimulation. Walking barefoot allows the feet to transmit new messages to the brain, which is a great way to stimulate the entire communications system.
This is enhanced outside, where different surfaces, textures, and temperatures act like a giant sensory playland. Not only is this fun, but strengthening these nerves can improve proprioception—awareness of the body in space. Enhanced proprioception benefits a host of athletic abilities including kicking, jumping and balancing.
Improved posture and balance
Each foot has 26 bones [PDF] (making up a quarter of the bones in your body), 33 joints, and more than 100 tendons, muscles, and ligaments. These work together to keep the body upright and moving. Spending time barefoot is a great way to strengthen this entire system, which can improve balance and help prevent injury, both to the feet and ankles as well as other muscle and joint systems. Our feet were designed to walk barefoot and giving them the opportunity to be in their “natural state” can benefit the entire body.
Connect with nature
Barefoot walking outdoors fosters an awareness of surroundings unparalleled to walking with shoes. To walk barefoot, your children (and you) need to stay mindful of rocks, leaves, and grass. And this mindfulness can extend out to other senses, noticing the crunch of the leaves, the smoothness of the rocks, the smell of the grass. Engaging all five senses is a wonderful way to be present with natural surroundings. Plus, giving your children many new experiences to explore helps with brain development.
Those same sensory nerves that can help with movement can also help with stillness. When things get overwhelming, especially for children, being able to feel steady can be extremely important. Feeling one’s feet on the ground can create a sense of stability and safety, often referred to as “grounding.” Being barefoot outside naturally induces this feeling, and you can encourage your kids to work on grounding by asking them to imagine roots of a tree growing from their feet into the earth.
When walking barefoot outside, always make sure you’re in an area safe for such activities. Your own yard, if you have one, is a great place to start. On grass or sand are other safe places to try. Start small with just a few minutes outside. If you have a local barefoot trail, this is another great way to explore barefoot walking with your family. If going for a longer barefoot walk, make sure you bring the shoes just in case, it can be quite overwhelming for the senses. In the winter, walking barefoot at home and practicing barefoot activities (like yoga or gymnastics) are a great way to keep the practice up.
Stay safe, stay grounded, and have fun with your feet!