Barefoot learning: Benefits too great to walk past

Published on Tuesday, 17 August 2021
Last updated on Monday, 16 August 2021

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A recent study has underscored the benefits of going barefoot, recommending that young children should go shoeless as often as possible.

These findings add to a growing body of evidence on the physical and developmental benefits of barefoot learning, encouraging educators to embrace joyful, shoe-free learning moments as part of their daily practice.   

Undertaken in Japan, a team of Austrian researchers compared the feet of preschoolers who were required to wear shoes at child care, with children who attended preschools with a ‘barefoot policy’ – a program that allows children to go barefoot all day throughout the year.

Children who habitually went barefoot had significantly fewer crooked big toes than the children who wore shoes.

Published in Footwear Science, the researchers also reported that poorly-fitted shoes caused problems for growing feet and were prevalent for over 75 per cent of the children, a finding that is supported by similar studies in Europe.

Project lead D. Wieland Kinz said, “Shoes can damage feet, going barefoot prevents this damage. And it also makes the feet more resilient to negative influences.”

Overwhelmingly studies have found young children receive a myriad of benefits from going barefoot. This includes growing neural connections within the brain, strengthening of feet and body, and connection to nature through sensory experiences.

Feet are amazing. Within each foot there are 200,000 nerve endings in the sole alone, in the foot and ankle there are 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments.

When activated by pressure and movement, nerve endings in the feet called proprioceptors send signals to the brain telling it how the body is oriented – proprioception gives us awareness of the position and movement of the body.

There’s also the vestibular system, which is responsible for balance and coordination.

Development of both of these senses relies heavily on sensory input received through bare feet, especially during infancy and childhood.

Walking barefoot is widely thought to be more natural, and the use of footwear has long been discussed as an influencing factor on foot health and movement pattern development.

Many children are given shoes before they can walk so adopting a no-shoe policy especially for baby and toddler spaces will help them develop their balance, strength and coordination as well as giving them more sensory stimulation.

Here are a few reasons why babies and toddlers should be barefoot:

It allows for optimal foot development:

At birth, the bones in a baby’s feet are soft. As a little one grows, the bones harden and the joints, ligaments and muscles in their feet develop. Studies suggest that children’s shoes (especially if they’re stiff, narrow, tight, or have an inflexible sole) can interfere with foot development because the foot conforms to the shoe instead of forming naturally.

It improves agility:

When toddlers walk barefoot they tend to look up because the information they receive through their feet orients them and makes them feel secure. Shoes block that intake of information, so toddlers wearing them tend to look down and are more apt to topple over. Shoes can also restrict toe spread, which helps tots stay balanced. Barefoot steps also boost coordination because they send messages to a child’s brain about how to organise his movement patterns and effectively navigate his body through space.

It promotes awareness: 

Being barefoot not only frees children to look up and around rather than at the floor, but also helps them learn to safely traverse different surfaces. Walking and running barefoot on hard floors, sand, grass, mud and the like gives children confidence to manoeuvre their bodies in different settings. Research has even suggested that being barefoot correlates with being less prone to injury

A ‘no shoe’ policy in the infant or toddler rooms can also allow young children to explore and play on a floor that it is a clean safe place for them to be. Slippers, soft shoes or socks can be worn by adults who can leave outside shoes in a nominated space by the door.

For older children creating daily opportunities for barefoot playtime will release them from the restrictions of shoes, giving them a sense of freedom and allowing them to reap the benefits of connecting directly with the varied and interesting textures of the world beneath them.

Of course there may be hesitancy by many early childhood educators as there are risks to be considered in barefoot play. However, the rich opportunities and rewards for children suggest this is a movement that requires attention.

We’ve previously published some handy tips for educators to get up and running on barefoot learning, which includes actions such as getting families on board, establishing processes and safety considerations.

While warm weather offers a host of activities for barefoot learning and development opportunities – such as outdoor play, messy sensory walks, jumping in puddles and games – winter can be more challenging.

Cold weather is no excuse for not going barefoot. While you may not be keen to go shoeless outside there’s a host of stimulating learning experiences to be had indoors. Here are some suggestions:

Sensory mats

Create sensory experiences for little feet by creating a walking path with different textures such as sponges, pebbles, cushions, fluffy fabric, dry leaves, cork or whatever is on hand.

Animal imitation

Pick an Aussie native animal and then mimic their movement. Jump like a Joey, scurry like a Bandicoot, hop like a Southern Corroboree Frog or waddle like an Aussie Wood Duck. Get the kids to walk on their heels, toes, on the outer edges of feet, jumping, hopping, taking baby steps, taking big steps as they balance, strengthen their feet and bodies and have lots of giggles.

Play and create games

Create dice rolling movement games, play ‘freeze’ with music or have a crab raceyou’ll need to teach the children how to walk like a crab by placing their palms and feet to the floor while raising their stomach up to face the sky. Staying in that pose, let them see how long they can balance something like a small beanbag on their belly. When they’re ready they can carry the beanbags and have a race.

Quiet story time

Whether during regular stories or when transitioning to nap time, listening to stories with no shoes on can be very relaxing for children of all ages.

Yoga balance

One of the most effective ways to improve a child’s balance is with yoga. Try simple poses, such as tree pose, cat and cow pose, airplane, mountain pose, downward-facing dog, and the forward bend. These yoga exercises will help improve balance, as well as cultivate self-health and body awareness.

Bubble wrap stomp painting

This can get messy so preparation is important. Kids will love this activity and it’s great for sensory stimulation, motor activity, creativity and fun. Just ensure there’s not too much paint that the surface gets slippery.

References and further reading:

Nursery World: Bare essentials

Eco Explorers: 5 reasons why you should let your child go barefoot

The Conversation: Children should spend more time barefoot to encourage a healthier foot structure

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