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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!
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