5 convincing reasons to let your kids be barefoot

“Get that child some shoes!”

A random grandmother shouted at me across the parking lot at the grocery store. She was concerned at the apparent neglect of my child — the fact that she wasn’t wearing shoes.

That’s probably the thought of many of the people who pass us by, but only the old, withering grandmother is fed up enough to say something.

So, am I neglectful?

Actually, I’m well versed in the damaging effects of modern footwear. And by neglecting to put shoes on my child, I’m actually doing her a huge favor.

To be clear, she does wear minimalist shoes when conditions call for it, when there are obvious hazards. But that’s very infrequent. Whatever risks there are in not wearing shoes, they pale in comparison to the risks of wearing them often.

I hope to get you and your children on the same page. So here’s five convincing reasons to let your kids be barefoot.

1. Shoes destroy feet.

The human foot is one of the most complex skeletal-muscular systems in the body. And it works perfectly for what it was designed for.

Without dragging you back to biology class, here’s what you need to know: putting shoes on feet completely changes how they function. And over time, it causes permanent damage to the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and low back.

That’s what shoes do to adults — people who have fully developed feet. When you put shoes on children with developing feet, the outcome is hopeless.

There are four main problems with shoes:

  1. Toe Spread. Most shoes have a tapering toe box that prevent the toes from spreading to their natural width. This causes a physical deformation of the feet (which is so prevalent that almost all feet in modern society are deformed when compared to hunter-gatherers or native tribes disconnected from civilization) and interferes with healthy foot function.
  2. Toe Spring. Many shoes have a toe box that’s elevated above the ball of the foot. When the toes are artificially elevated from years of shoe wearing, the tendons on the top get a bit of a pulling advantage over the tendons pulling on the bottom and sides of the toes. This causes further deformation of the foot and interferes with proper function.
  3. Heel Elevation. The cushioning in the heel of the shoe raises the heel and causes a shortening of the muscles and tendons in the back of the leg. This shortening affects arch function and causes significant pronation — a fault that leads to the majority of injuries in the foot and lower leg.
  4. Torsional Rigidity of the Sole. Modern shoes don’t bend or twist. This is in complete contradiction to how the human foot is supposed to work.

These aren’t minor details, they’re major issues. If you want to dive deeper, check out my interview with foot expert Dr. Ray McClanahan on Rebooted Body Podcast Episode 66 (click here for iTunes | click here for Stitcher Radio).

2. Shoes prevent proper movement development.

Besides physical deformation, shoes cause kids to move in unnatural ways. It’s well known that modern shoes promote damaging heel striking during running. But it goes way beyond that.

During my 15 years as a martial arts instructor, I watched child after child come in and display massive movement faults. In layman’s terms, that means they move in ways that are counter to how their body was designed.

Some of these faults are due to the fact that nobody around them (including the majority of sports coaches) knows how to teach proper movement or correct faults. But a main reason is likely due to the deformation and manipulation we talked about with shoes being a root cause — they can’t physically get into the right positions to move correctly because of limitations.

One movement most of my students couldn’t perform is a butt-to-heel squat (with feet straight or nearly straight). This is the squat you’ll see common in asian cultures and hunter-gatherer tribes. It’s a range of motion that humans are born with (babies do it naturally).

This range of motion is murdered in just a few short years of shoe wearing (and pathological sedentism and excessive sitting). Kids go from squatting this way naturally to being completely unable to squat by the age of 5 or 6.

These are just two of dozens of examples of movement faults that are extremely common now. It’s tragic because it’s limiting kids and leading to a skyrocketing injury rate (especially with knee injuries, which are always due to movement faults outside of freak accidents).

3. Going barefoot enhances proprioception.

One of the greatest benefits to going barefoot is the direct connection between kids and their environment. There’s no longer a buffer that prevents them from feeling the ground beneath them.

The nerves in the feet are sensitive for a reason. It makes you more aware. It makes you more careful. It makes you focus and keep yourself safe. When the ground shifts or you step on something that requires rapid adjustment, it’s easy to adapt when barefoot.

Shoes block all this from happening and inhibit other movements like safe climbing, cuts, and pivots.

Now think about how active kids are and how often they’re in these situations. They’re missing out on one of the most primal aspects of life and failing to develop sensory pathways that program healthy movement function.

Shoes are setting them up for failure. Going barefoot is setting them up for success.

4. Going barefoot makes the feet stronger and the body more agile and less prone to injury.

Recently, Vibram — a minimalist shoe company that makes the popular FiveFingers shoes — settled a class action lawsuit waged by people who claim that FiveFingers led to injuries.

What was the problem? Runners who wore traditional running shoes for thousands of miles and dozens of years of life switched to Vibram FiveFingers and kept up their running and got injured.

That’s not Vibram’s fault, it’s the fault of the traditional shoes these runners were wearing! Because the shoe tries to do many of the jobs the foot is designed to do, the foot stops doing work in many ways. This leads to a massive loss of strength and agility.

Couple that with all the deformation and movements faults I’ve already talked about and of course the outcome is injury. It’s a no-brainer.

Vibram FiveFingers are basically a cover for the foot. They don’t manipulate the function. It’s like being barefoot, but protected.

Only in this day and age can we sue a company for our feet not working the way they were designed! Why aren’t we suing the traditional shoe manufacturers for messing up our feet in the first place?

This is the culture your children are growing up in. And you have the ability to save them from it while raising them to have an evolutionary advantage over every other human being stuck in the shod-is-great mentality.

5. Small scrapes and cuts build their awareness (and their immune system).

I alluded to this earlier: when kids are barefoot, they pay more attention. They’re more aware of their surroundings and their body. They’re less likely to injure themselves.

Of course, if you take a child who has worn shoes for years and have them go barefoot, it’s going to be uncomfortable for them. They won’t know how to navigate properly.

But over time, they’ll get the hang of it. The cuts and scrapes they get will be minimized. And they’ll enjoy all the benefits of barefoot life.

Besides, the cuts and scrapes aren’t a big problem. Kids need to experience these things. Their immune system is built to be strong precisely because of this type of interaction with their environment.

It’s also a built in safety feature. Kids won’t run full speed on concrete when barefoot because it’s not comfortable. Thus, they won’t fall when running full speed on concrete (like they do in shoes).

When it’s grass, they’ll run full speed and if they fall it naturally won’t be as bad. Plus, they’re less likely to trip and fall when barefoot in the first place. Climbing is safer when barefoot too.

Want to adopt a barefoot lifestyle for your kids?

You can easily transition your kids to a barefoot lifestyle. However, the longer they’ve been wearing shoes, the slower I’d ease them into it. Start in very safe areas (indoors, grass in parks, your yard, etc.) and then slowly migrate to more complex situations (concrete, the woods, etc.)

Yes, they’ll have less protection from “the elements” but I promise that’s nothing compared to the consequences I just told you about. When you get down to it, the human foot is not supposed to have anything on it — it’s simply a return to the way life was intended to be lived.

When your kids must wear shoes (like to conform to society’s standards in certain situations or when circumstances are obviously dangerous), I’d highly recommend getting minimalist shoes from companies like Lems, SoftStar, Merrell, and Vibram.

I’d also recommend that you transition yourself — just do it with patience and the understanding that your feet are no longer look or behave like they’re supposed to — take it slow. A barefoot family is a healthier family.

  • Jane

    Thank you for this!! Instinctually I’ve always felt that shoes were more cumbersome than helpful so whenever I’m home I go without. And when I’m out doing errands I love my minimal sneakers! (Although the toes did take some getting use to). My family thinks I’m bizarre but I just feel so much better. I almost never trip or fall (compared to others that have sprained or broken limbs) and walking out in my yard barefoot is delightful. My son is just starting to walk and already the pressure is on from everyone to put him in shoes but I will share your article and tell them to leave his feet alone!!

  • Matt Whitehead

    Hi Kevin, Good article, thanks! One thing to add to your reason number 2 is that shoes when put on a child under 1 year old discourage crawling and encourage standing. Crawling is one of the most important stages of development and the longer time a child spends crawling the healthier their musculoskeletal system will be. Putting a shoe on a infants foot makes it harder and more uncomfortable to crawl and also gives the infant increased (note: unnatural and artificial) stability when standing. This will encourage the infant to stand – whether parents are holding the infants arms or the baby pulled themselves to a standing position by holding onto something. Standing before they are developmentally ready in their musculoskeletal system will cause them to develop muscle imbalances and postural alignment problems that will usually haunt them for life causing many injuries and chronic pain conditions later in life. Keeping infants barefoot (or in socks if cold) and giving them as much free “play” time to move without assistance is a very important part of raising a healthy and happy baby. This play/movement time should be on the open floor without obstacles to hold onto and with an loving adult or child playmate for fun.

    Keep up the great work!

  • ERin

    We never wear shoes at home or in our backyard. I hate shoes. So we only wear them when we have to. I didn’t buy her a pair of shoes until she turned 2 when she had to have them for daycare. She wore wool socks in the winter and nothing in summer. We most definitely get weird looks! And one older lady told me “she is going to be wild.” Uh…because she doesn’t have shoes on?? Sigh.

  • Matt

    Definitely agree with all of this. I don’t have kids yet but should I have them, I’ll be keeping them out of shoes for as long as I can. My Dad was my stay at home parent and lived his life barefoot or in clogs, so I followed suit (minus the clogs) and have some of the healthiest feet I’ve ever encountered. They’re not ‘pretty’ because my feet are wide with large gaps between my toes but I can easily out run and out climb pretty much anyone when I’m barefoot and they’re in their shoes.
    Not only that, but my feet have contributed to keeping my hypermobility in check. I have no balance issues, and not a single back/knee/ankle problem which is pretty rare when you look at most hypermobile people.

  • Bernard Harmse

    I am privileged to live and have been born a South African. Barefoot walking is almost the norm here with people,and mainly with kids.Its mo stranhe thing tobsee adults..teems and kids barefoot in malls and churches.In 80%of primary schools..grade 1-7 ,schools allow kids to attend barefoot, and it is actually written into the school uniform rules,and in many schools,the rules actually state that bare feet are the preferred option..other rules clearly state that shoes are optional,and other rules actually state that summer uniform includes bare feet.I for one attended school barefoot.. My son hated wearing any form of shoes, and preferred barefoot walking.I myself..am an ardent barefooted..I only wear shoes to work,other than that..I am always barefoot.

  • Caitlyn

    Um…I’m a kid, and this was the first thing that popped up when I looked up something and I love to go barefoot but we just cant because of school and in or yard glass is coming up from deep in the ground and were we live there is this thing called *no shoes, no shirt, no service* so there really is no way around shoes the world now feels as thought we need shoes, But the only way I can go barefoot is in the house and that’s it. so how will this work in the growing society.

  • Patrick

    Great article. Am an avid barefoot runner and trying to get my 10 year old son into this too. He loves trail runs in the woods and beach. Since it’s too cold in wintertime for him to run BF bought merell vapor glove. Spring an summer I’ll let him transition to BF.

  • Christina

    My kids love going around barefoot and my husband always gets on their case about it. I tell him that it’s healthier for them and he starts gripping about snakes or other critters. I tell him that it’s no difference if they wear flip flops. Besides, I don’t like forcing them to wear shoes if they don’t want to and they enjoy being barefooted. I myself go around barefooted at home as much as I can unless I’m walking on rocks. Then I just wear flip flops. I rarely wear tennis shoes. I keep one pair for emergencies and working in the yard. Other than that, I don’t like them. Nice shoes I wear for special occasions. So basically I hardly have any shoes. Same goes for my kids. Plus, they out grow them quicker than I can buy them. So it’s a waste of money in my opinion. So I say, let your kids go barefooted and see how less sick they get. I think my kids get less sick than I did as a child and that’s a big plus.

    • Dylan Kemp

      LOL, where do you live? Inner city Detroit? In my 50+ years of life I have NEVER seen a needle or syringe on the ground, and that includes big cities like NYC as well as many cities in Panama, Europe, Japan, S Korea, Canada, etc…. It is ridiculous closed minded thinking like yours that the shoe companies rely on to push their expensive, unnecessary products.

  • Dylan Kemp

    You are right on the mark. I too am a martial arts instructor (TKD), and have also noticed that students lack balance from the deformations shoes cause. I too had those problems for years. Many years of barefooting and wearing toe spreaders to realign my toes have solved many of those problems. We do have a couple kids who lived most of their young lives in the Philippines (they are 12 and 14) going barefoot and they have excellent balance because their feet are wide and the toes are the widest part of their foot. I have even used these boys to demonstrate to parents why they need to let their kids go barefoot more (I show them the differences between their kid’s feet and the feet of the Filipino boys)

    I have a friend who moved his family to New Zealand when his kids were 3 and 5. His kids are barefoot 24/7 for 9 months out of the year and only wear footwear when temps are below 40 degrees (and then they take them off as soon as they got to school). His kids play flag rugby and cricket and his son (now 11) does triathlons. All these activities are done barefoot (including the 5K run and 20K ride). In fact footwear is specifically not allowed in rugby until he is 13 for exactly the reason stated above in #3, so that they learn how to run, cut and pivot properly. In fact foot and ankle injuries are far more common once the kids start wearing cleats (and the injury rates are FAR lower than injury rates for the same age groups in the same sports in the US). Yes, his son has gotten some bruises while doing woodland runs and rock scrambles but nothing serious. He has never gotten a cut running barefoot on tracks or even through the city streets there. Sure, his feet get dirty but my friend’s solution is to have a tray at the front and back doors with a very wet towel sitting in them so the kids can wipe their feet clean before entering the house. When was the last time anyone washed the bottom of their sneakers before entering a house?

  • Bernard

    One of my bucket list desires is to be barefoot in the snow..just to feel it..we went snow hunting yesterday..but landed up gravel walking barefoot…I just love the feeling of gravel beneath my feet and always go barefoot hiking.
    Hiking barefoot helps to grip better and stabilize yourself.Especially between rocks ..and amongst ROKS..being barefoot really helps you grip.

  • Stephanie

    I’m probably late on this, but I was looking up info for my own daughter when she is born in the next few months. I can attest my feet were ruined by shoes. I developed bunions due to chronic dislocation of my first toes because of the shoes my parents put me in. They didn’t know better; they were just listening to other people. My genetically lax feet were ruined with hard, stiff shoes. I feel the best barefoot, but I have chronic back pain and hip pain. I never wear shoes in the house to make sure I spend some hours barefoot and I wear loose clogs at work that allow my foot to move. I intend to make sure my daughter’s feet don’t suffer the same fate. Luckily my husband has strong feet and he can wear Vibrams with no problem because he let his feet form naturally (his mom is from a poor part of Southeast Asia, so She didn’t get into the “proper shoe hype”). I hope my daughter gets to have good feet since we spend the majority of our life on them.

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5 convincing reasons to let your kids be barefoot

by Kevin Geary time to read: 6 min