Lose the Shoes How children benefit from barefoot learning

Published on Tuesday, 06 August 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Children love going barefoot and there's a reason why – it's good for them. While it can be a worry for educators with regards to risk of injury and concern over what parents might think, research shows that it's beneficial for young children’s development and wellbeing.

Instead of doing daily battle with children who keep wanting to take their shoes off, why not ditch the footwear and embrace barefoot learning. Here's a closer look at why it's beneficial, and a few tips for how to safely manage no shoes in your centre.

The science behind barefoot learning

There are many scientific reasons for children to go barefoot for the majority of their day:

  • Development of the brain and nervous system
    The feet are the most nerve-rich parts of the human body, which means they contribute to the building of neurological pathways in the brain. Covering them in shoes hinders all kinds of opportunities for children's brains to grow neural connections.
  • Allows the correct growth of feet
    Many podiatrists claim that shoes can be much more harmful to little feet than nakedness can. Feet should be allowed to develop naturally, not conform to the shape of a shoe.
  • Aids in walking and balance
    Shoes can constrict foot movement and negatively impact walking, balance, sensory development, and proprioception (the understanding of our body's orientation in the space around us). Walking barefoot can also help children develop a natural, healthy, gait.
  • Strengthens the feet and body
    When barefoot, we grip the ground more easily using the muscles of our feet and toes, strengthening them and reducing the risk of trips and falls. Walking barefoot allows us to maintain the full function of our feet.
  • Improves safety
    Walking barefoot teaches children to assess a situation and adapt to it. If there is a rocky surface, children quickly learn to slow their pace and seek the most stable surface. When barefoot, children tend to step with less force and are more likely to notice if they are putting their feet on something sharp, therefore avoiding an injury. Research also suggests children who go barefoot tend to be less clumsy.
  • Provides direct connection to the natural environment
    Not wearing shoes allows us to blow off steam, relax, and reawaken the senses. Research also tells us that children thrive in the outdoors and natural environments, so not having shoes as a barrier between our feet and the natural world increases the health promoting effects of spending time in nature for social and emotional wellbeing.

Other practical benefits of removing shoes

In addition to aiding growth and development, being primarily barefoot when in care can have other advantages:

  • Shoes are less dirty
    No more taking home piles of sand and dirt in their footwear, wet shoes from toilet training accidents, water play, or marks and playdough from craft and other activities. Simply wash their feet!
  • Fewer battles
    With some children it's impossible to keep their shoes on, so if they're able to be barefoot for the majority of the day it will make your job easier and the child less distressed.
  • Potentially fewer injuries
    Walking barefoot allows children to be more balanced and less likely to trip over surfaces or their shoelaces.

Concerns and tips for going barefoot in your centre

While the benefits are significant, unfortunately there are number of reasons early childhood educators may hesitate to allow children's feet go free, including the risk of injury or being seen as irresponsible.

Our skin is designed as a barrier to keep out pathogens, with a higher probability of becoming ill from touching something with our hands than our feet. Being barefoot toughens the soles of the feet, so unless children are walking through a dangerous site, the likelihood of an injury is slim.

Embracing barefoot learning is simple and here are a few tips to get started:

  • Communicate with parents about barefoot learning, the reasons behind this policy, and the safety measures that will be taken.
  • Be mindful when shoes are necessary and ensure all educators know when children need to have their shoes back on.
  • Explain to children when and why shoes are required, such as when it's time to go home, so they understand when it's okay to be barefoot.
  • Encourage children to take their shoes off when they arrive and throughout the day to walk on a variety of different surfaces regularly such as dirt, sand, gravel, stones, carpet, tiles, and floorboards.
  • Place a shoe rack or basket in each classroom or at the front of the centre, so shoes are stored neatly and out of the way and can be located easily when needed. Teach the children where to place their shoes when they take them off, and to put socks inside shoes so they don't get lost.
  • Ensure walking surfaces are free of hazards at all times by tidying away toys and craft items, mopping up spills, and sweeping away sharp sticks or stones.
  • Apply sunscreen to children's feet for outdoor play, when sunscreen to the face and other parts of the body is being applied.
  • Consider having educators go barefoot at various times of the day to model the behaviour.
  • Set up sensory activities for the feet such as walking in slime or set up different trays with different materials like sand and water to stand in.
  • Make sure to have plenty of towels for drying feet in case they require rinsing off throughout the day.
  • Don't force children to take their shoes off if they want to keep them on. In time they will follow what other children are doing so best to let them welcome the behaviour on their own terms.

Thanks to Rae Pica and Nature Play QLD for their insights on barefoot learning which helped write this article.

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