Ah, the carefree barefoot days of summer: beach sand between your toes, green grass under your feet, and smooth floors and soft carpets underfoot at home. Are you and your children missing out on the rich stew of sensory feeling that going without shoes can give you? If your child goes straight from shoes to sandals to cleats this summer, you may be missing a whole lot more.

Not only does going barefoot feel great, it also nourishes, strengthens, and promotes agility in a child’s growing feet, ankles, legs, knees, and hips—benefits that children are going without in today’s over-shod society.

In fact, podiatrists say that bare feet should be a vital component of a child’s everyday life, in all seasons. The bare foot functions almost like a sense organ, feeling subtleties of changing terrain while walking and playing, and making countless small adjustments in how each step is taken. These adjustments actually help each of us form our balance, movement systems, and posture for life.

In his groundbreaking book Take Off Your Shoes And Walk, podiatrist Simon Wikler reminds us that “not so long ago, children in rural areas most always went barefoot in warm weather, as did many adults. It is only since shoes have been inexpensively made that we have taken to wearing them constantly.” And studies show that constant shoe use may be hurting more than helping our feet.

One study of children allowed to go barefoot showed their toes grew straight and had greater ability to spread and push off while walking, greater flexor strength and denser muscles on the bottom of the feet, a wider range of hip movement and more flexibility of hamstring and gluteal muscles—all important components for walking with a natural and free gait. In addition, a number of studies of children in cultures that don’t habitually wear shoes show strong arches and ankles, and no flat feet!

New York City podiatrist Sherri Greene agrees, pointing out that “young children’s feet need to have a free connection to the earth.” And although shoes in themselves are not the enemy, children’s shoes should be soft and protective, not rigid. “We have to wear shoes in the world to protect the feet,” she says, but adds that “the intrinsic muscles of the foot are not exercised in shoes all day.”

Want to incorporate more barefoot time for your children? Here are some ideas to free up your child’s feet:

Barefeet at home. Many homes have adopted the Japanese model of taking off shoes at the front door upon entering the home. According to Dr. Greene, going barefoot once at home is a great way to lose your shoes for a part of the day.

Barefeet in nature. Try gardening, walking, hiking, climbing, and beach play without shoes. While you may be a tenderfoot for awhile, soon enough the sole of the foot will build itself a thicker callous of skin and toughen up—all the better to go barefoot with!

Barefeet games.   For barefoot fun, try some foot games, such as picking up marbles with toes, folding the laundry with feet instead of hands, playing string games with feet and toes as well as fingers, or scrunching toe races. Children’s yoga, folk dance, gymnastics, and circus arts take barefoot work to higher levels with practice and training. “Yes, you can work to re-create the arch of the foot through barefoot exercise such as yoga,” says Greene.

Change it up. “It’s good to have a variety of shoes,” Dr. Greene suggests. If a person wears the same shoe all day, day after day, they will develop a problem as the foot adapts to that one form only. It’s a good idea to have a variety of different shoe shapes, such as sneakers, sandals, boots, and slip-ons, and to make sure one pair isn’t getting all the use. 

Don’t wear athletic shoes all day. “Of course, for after-school sports, a good supportive sneaker is important to protect the foot”, says Dr. Greene. However, a recent study has shown that the wearing of athletic shoes actually contributes to arthritis of the knee, probably because each step is so cushioned that the wearer is not feeling the ground under the sole of the foot, and the body doesn’t make the muscle adjustments to align the bones for stability (Arthiritis Rheum., 2006). So, wear school shoes during the day and change into sneakers or athletic shoes for sports practice.

Don’t wear flip-flops all day. As far as the adolescent fashion to wear flip-flops all day, even to school, Dr. Greene says, “this is not beneficial” to the feet. “They are just not supportive enough.” Compromise with your teen and find some stylish, yet supportive, sandals.

Podiatrist Dr. William Rossi writes that, denied its natural need and ability for constant exercise, the shoe-wearing foot may be losing its capacity for normal function. So, for health and for fun, kick off those shoes and go out and play!