Barefoot, not just for adults!

Yesterday my niece stepped on her first nail. She survived. And I know she survived because I got this text from my sister:

Survived Rae’s first nail through foot – she is doing fine.

And then I texted:

YAY! Just like mama.

Only I have an iPhone, so it auto-corrected it to “Just like mana.” Because everyone knows that the word mana is more popular than the word mama. (?)

And then SHE texted back:

Dada

and I’m not sure why. Did her husband step on a nail too as a kid? Did one of her 47 kids have the phone? Had she forgotten when she stepped on her first nail? So I texted:

No u did that too I remember the very moment

And I did too. She was about nine and on the phone (probably talking to a boy), when she shifted her weight forward onto a piece of wood with a nail in it. BAM. And here’s the funny thing — She didn’t hang up the phone. No, I remember she was trying to keep the conversation going with stuff about how she had a nail in her foot. She really liked talking on the phone.

She remembered too, because then she texted:

Yes

And then she wrote:

Barefoot in the apple hut*

Only here’s the the thing — she wasn’t barefoot. She was wearing black keds. And I remember, because when they pulled the nail out of the foot/shoe, the shoe filled up with blood. It was cool. Probably because It wasn’t my foot. So then I texted back:

No you weren’t barefoot it went through your shoe and u were on the phone

And when I read my text I can see why my little sister thinks I was bossy as a kid (only as a kid, right sis?) Plus texting always makes me sound like I’m about 12.

And then she texted back:

Hurt like a mother.

And then I texted:

I bet.

And then we stopped texting because:

1. I have a new baby and a whole bunch of other stuff I should be doing.

2. She has 67 kids and a whole bunch of other stuff she should be doing.

3. We are over thirty-five now, and why are we texting in the first place?

So, let’s talk for a second about the barefoot movement. In a nutshell, feet weren’t designed to be in shoes any more than hands were designed to be in mittens. Our cultural habit of wearing shoes has left us with affluent ailments (osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, knee-hip-back pain, bunions) at much higher percentages than unshod populations. And you don’t have to be a genius (but you might be!) to go: Yah, I get it.

With kids, it’s even more important that they get abundant barefoot time because the proper development of natural gait patterns and deep body stabilization depends on the super-sophisticated feedback systems that come from the nerves sensing the ground and the brain.

This happens in two ways.

1. There are nerves that interpret the shape of the ground by how the bones in the feet bend at 33 different points (joints). This creates a mental image in the brain (similar to how a dolphin uses sonar to avoid obstacles). Wearing shoes prevents any motion in these joints (except the ankle) and leaves the shoe-wearer “blind” to the environment. This is what makes stiff shoes the worst when it comes to natural development.

and, P.S. This goes for adults too.

2. There are nerves that are sensing other things about the environment. Things like temperature and terrain. These nerves, designed to convey abundant information are now stuck just reading the inside of your shoes. And what is that environment like? Damp and smooth? Ew. The more you expose these nerves to the same input over and over, the more their information gets put on auto-pilot, into a part of your nervous system called an inter-neuron.

More about the inter-neuron: You know how when you walk into a room with a fresh baked pie, it smells delicious, but after a few minutes you don’t smell it anymore? Your brain moves information that is constant into a different part of your brain to free it up for other things, so the more similar your environment, the less your nerves work to perceive. And the less they work, the less healthy they are.

This is why it is important (for everyone, not just kids) to walk on different terrain, on a different path, in different weather. Carrying different weights, wearing different shoes, and eating different food. Habits are not great for biology.

Anyhow, this is why everyone – kids too – need lots of time to *feel* with their feet. Make the house a no-shoe zone and encourage the exploration of different areas sans footwear.

I brought up the nail-in-the-foot conversation because, yes, there are incidents that happen, but in the case of my sister – and her little girl – they WERE wearing shoes. Wearing shoes doesn’t prevent the one or two foot catastrophes that happen and wearing shoes only teaches kids how to pay less attention to what is going on beneath their feet.

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t going to be places for kids to go with shoes. But when they do, here are a few suggestions.

1. Select super-flexible shoes with no heels. My favorite company for better kids’ footwear is Soft Star Shoes.

Photo from SoftStarShoe.com

Keep in mind, shoes get expensive, and it’s important to not let kids wear shoes that are too small — this is where  toe-curling habits get started. So before you run out right to the store right now…

2. Don’t buy “fancy shoes” in the summer. Kids will grow a lot this season and will probably not fit into their shoes at the end of the season. Summer is also the best time to be barefoot, so maximize barefoot time right now.

The best footwear is actually (I’m not kidding) a swim-shoe.

Lightweight and flexible, breathable and super-inexpensive, get your kids a pair at the beginning of the summer to supplement their barefoot time, and donate them once they’re too short. Maybe even get the next size up while they are available, for Fall, if you live in a temperate climate. Swim shoes are much better than flip-flops as the biomechanical gait changes we do to keep flops on really messes with the natural gait pattern.

An interesting note: Neurologists will often recommend wearing swim shoes year-round in kids with any sort of neurological delay, as it improves neurological function of the feet for better gait (walking pattern) development. But why only improve the gait of some kids? Let’s all do it, shall we??

3. Play foot-detective games. Having your kids in their bare feet, try having them guess various objects using their feet only. The more the textures vary (wet, smooth, sand paper, yoga mat, carpet, wood) the more it will challenge their sensory nerves!

4. Have a little foot-massage time before going to bed. Just like book reading, put a 5-minute foot rub into the bedtime tasks. Skin on skin stimulation will help stimulate the movement of each foot joint, increasing circulation of the foot’s tissues.

*For those of you who don’t know, I grew up on an apple farm. The apples were sold in the apple hut. The Apple Hut was also the name of the business. Clever, right?

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35 thoughts on “Barefoot, not just for adults!

  1. Thank you for sharing all this info! I had wondered about buying our toddler swim shoes since they feel a lot like my vibrams but I’ve always thought they fit a bit too tightly. Buy the next size up–duh! 😉

  2. My house is a barefoot zone!! I have to sweep 2 or 3 times a day cause i HATE the feeling of crumbs on my feet, but it’s so much more comfortable than shoes. My 10 month old wears shoes so seldomly that she gets confused when we put them on her. we were trying on baby shoes at Payless the other day and each time i tried to get her to stand, she would kick her shoe-clad foot around like a cat with something stuck on its paw!! When it’s too cold to go barefoot, she wears these:

    https://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?fbid=195357920495169&set=a.123384557692506.12596.115709265126702&type=1&theater

    Love the posts about kids and biomechanics. I always think of you and frown when I see a 3 year old in a stroller.

  3. DS goes without shoes loads – his soles are like leather! (and he loves a foot massage) I spend a lot of time wanderng round playgounds lookng fo hsi shoes and socks!!

    Can you recommend a make of swim shoe please – the ones we have makes his feet sweaty.

  4. ..Oh and also I have been menaing to ask playing football with barefeet – (for little one) is it ok? He loves playin gbarefoot and we wonder if we should insist on shoes?

    1. Wearing shoes doesn’t improve anything about his mechanics (in fact, it will improve the tone in his feet and ankles). The one thing would be to make sure someone else isn’t wearing cleats though. I wouldn’t want some one with spikes to step on his feet. Maybe he could wear cowboy spurs or something like that just to even things up…

  5. love the new post. by the way i am fiinally standing at my computer 🙂 aren’t you proud. i had to share.

  6. Of course my 2 year old girlie adores her “flippy flops”. Wonder if they’re a little better because they have a strap around the heel? Will see if I can entice her with swim shoes, she was fond of those last year, pre-flippy flops. I remember reading in The Brain That Changes Itself that one of the reason elderly people are more prone to tripping is because of the accumulative affect of shoes and that their brain has gone on autopilot re: their feet due to lack of sensory input. Thanks for your post!

  7. I bought a pair of Vibram Bikila’s about 2 weeks ago and LOVE LOVE LOVE them – have hardly taken them off (yep, they’re stinky! but they do wash like a dream…) do you have any opinions on Vibrams?

    1. Yep — I love them. I have a hot pink pair, and, excited to announce they have kid’s Vibrams coming out this fall! Woo hoo!

      1. they’re out now! you can get them online at EMS!

        amber has a pink-and-purple pair and loves them. they are a little harder to get on for kids than grownups though – right now they only have the KSO version. i wish they’d have a more open version for kids…

  8. Great blog post! I just love hearing about inter-neurons and the interesting workings of the nervous system. God bless me dear old ma and pa for living near the beach and encouraging barefootin’.

  9. I don’t know why I put dada…maybe in response to mama…why did you put Yay!!?? nothing Yay about that-)

    1. I put YAY! because everyone survived. Plus, I am just a very happy person so I say YAY! a lot. Get used to it. 🙂
      YAY!

  10. I have water shoes for all of the walking grandkids! They love them. When Finn starts to walk he will get his first pair from Gaga!

  11. Great post! I bought my son (2yrs) Teva sandals this year, closed toe to protect him, and they rubbed his ankle raw. I think next year swim shoes! Why didn’t I think of that! $50 down the drain…

    Q. I spent most of my childhood barefoot, much to the disapproval of our next door neighbor, and received many a dreaded tetanus shot. But now I have functionally flat feet. Did I cause this in anyway? Can it be rectified with foot exercises (I’ve heard yoga may have a few techniques)? Thank you.

    1. Flat feet have multiple contributing factors. Shoes is one. Gait pattern is another. Inner tight tension and pelvic alignment is another. Yes, you can restore the arch — you can look through the blog for some foot exercises and there are also some on the foot DVD on this site. Good luck!

  12. Katy, I just love your site! Thank you for taking so much time to write the blog…I really do appreciate the info you share with us here.

    Much to the chagrin of my flat-footed, farm-raised, walk-with-his-toes-sticking-out-to-the-sidet, tender-footed, achy kneed, unable-to-squat husband, our six children are constantly barefoot. I don’t think they would wear shoes to play out in the yard for an hour if I offered a monetary reward. And that is saying a lot because our grass is dry, pokey and generally rather unwelcoming to the discalced foot. But, thanks to you I no longer feel any guilt about their barefooted preferences.

    Anyway, today my 14yo son walked across the street with me to a neighbor’s house and we were both barefooted. The black top is rocky and extremely hot! We live in Texas and the temps have been 100+ for weeks now, so I ain’t whistlin’ Dixie when I say the blacktop is hot. I could barely tolerate and was yelping and hopping every step of the way. My son, however, took a leisurely pace and tried in vain to assure me that it “isn’t that hot, Mom.” The heat nor the sharp little pebbles cause him to even flinch; his feet are apparently well adapted to their native environment.

  13. I would love to be comfortable going barefoot outside as I did in the suburbs as a kid, however now I live out in the Arizona desert where the soil is rocky – not smooth water-washed rocks – and cactus spines are both on and off the plants. I am sure that even the walk down my long driveway would result in wounds and embedded spines. Barefoot indoors is fine but the Native people who lived in this area used rawhide-soled shoes to protect their feet from these injuries long before anyone showed up from Europe. Any solutions for those of us who don’t live in urban or suburban places to include more barefoot time?

    1. Increase your BF time as much as you can around the house, and then opt for some minimal footwear (like Vibrams) that allow your feet to move freely while being protected from the chaparral! Or, see if you can score some rawhide footwear (or make some at a local leather shop!)

    2. I find Softstarshoes.com, made in usa by small biz using made in usa materials. very similar to what AZ’s first peoples probably wore, at least in materials and level of protection. I wear mine every day, any time I cannot be barefoot. Yearround in the Ozarks, famously rocky and stickery terrain.

    3. My brother recommended I might like this website.
      He was entirely right. This post actually made my day.
      You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  14. As usual, great timing on your posts! My kids shoes are all busting at the seams, and that is unusual. First time for us really. We’ve used soft star shoes since my first was a wee toddler and never anything else. I guess they are just playing too hard this year. LOL. So now I know to get swim shoes as an alternative while they get their soft star shoes repaired.

    –yvonne

  15. Katy, what about kids with flat feet? My 16mo just started walking (he’s never worn shoes) and I plan to keep him barefoot as much as possible, but it looks like he may have inherited my flat feet (and possibly my mild osteogenesis imperfecta which besides making brittle bones, makes for poor muscle tone.) Is there anything to do to encourage those arch muscles? Where do shoes with good arch support come in, if at all?

    1. Hi Emily,
      Really flat feet (like pancake feet!) have nothing to do with the strength of the feet but with the tension in the inner thigh muscles. Check out All About Your Knees Blog Video — you can see that pancake feet are caused by lots of internal rotation of the hips and lots of tight foot muscles. I have had a lot of people with “my feet have always been this flat..” and have found arches after 50 years.
      And, P.S. Many people are told they have Type I OI when they really have hypermobility syndrome and low tone muscles. You can tell, usually, by the eyeball color (are the white of the eyes blue?) Either way, there are LOTS of things you can do to minimize bone fractures and stabilize joints via muscle action, BUT alignment is critical and understanding muscle physiology important! SO for your son, lots of foot massage, inner thigh stretching and hamstring stretching are important (for you too!) You also might want to consider our certification — you will learn how to work with you and your entire family!

      1. Thank you so much, Katy! I really do have OI (really dark sclera), but no fractures since I was a kid. My son’s eyes are pretty dark, too, which is what worries me, but so far he hasn’t had a fracture, and I haven’t had him tested to see if he’s got the gene. I will definitely work on those muscles (for both of us). I will think about certification, too – I don’t know how I would fit it in, but I really want to try. I’m so glad I found your site. So great to think that I don’t just have to accept osteoporosis as my fate, and that those little flat feet are not inevitable!

  16. Got these for my daughter to use in PE. They are well made shoes, and I really like the bungee cord closure because she can put them on herself. However, this shoe runs a full size too small. I had to return the first pair we bought and replace with a larger size. I would have rated this 5 stars if it wasn’t for the size issue.

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