Having come to the end of a wonderfully rewarding and just plain fun summer at Barefoot Nature Play, we are receiving lots of questions about dates for more activities in 2016, types of programs and the locations we will be running them. Surprisingly, one of the questions we’ve also been asked a lot and was less expected is “are the children allowed to play barefoot?” We’ve found ourselves staring quizzically and on one occasion with a gaping jaw, before regrouping and answering “but, of course!” We’ve been left with a feeling that perhaps the joys of walking on grass barefoot or feeling mud squelch between your toes, not to mention the indisputable health benefits of walking barefoot, have become yet another victim of our risk adverse society.
Throughout the summer, we have watched many children arrive on the first day of a Barefoot Nature Play program determined not to take their shoes off. After a few hours, they might reluctantly remove their shoes at the creek and sometimes forget to put them back on again. Often by the last day, the children would race down the hill to reception, rip their shoes off and remain barefoot for the entire day. Now, some of these children were adamant that they would not remove their shoes….ever. So to watch this transition in such a short period of time, in itself suggests the experience of being barefoot is a good thing! Our Barefoot Kids seemed to demonstrate an innate knowledge that being barefoot would make it easier for them to clamber up the hill, climb to the highest branches of a tree or negotiate the rocky creek bed. They didn’t need to read the research, they seemed to just know what would be best.
But to add to intuitive wisdom of our Barefoot Kids, I have drawn on my experience as a Paediatric Occupational Therapist along with that of colleagues including Physiotherapists, Podiatrists and General Practitioners. Overwhelmingly the evidence supports what the kids knew all along. That is, that walking barefoot is an integral part of normal development and has broad, long term health benefits and here are some of the reasons why:
Walking barefoot develops a sense of body awareness or proprioception
Babies and children learn about their bodies, where different bits are and what they can do with them through all the sensations they receive through nerve endings. Feet and toes are jam packed with nerve endings so that children can feel the ground beneath them in order to develop a sense of where their body is in space and how they can move to safely negotiate their environment. By placing shoes on our children’s feet we are reducing the amount and quality of sensory information the child is getting about their environment and body. This in turn limits the development of sensory pathways that promote healthy and functional movement patterns. When wearing shoes, we get less information about where we are walking and therefore need to look down to get this information. This increases the risk of losing balance and falling, particularly for toddlers and young children.
Walking barefoot develops a natural, healthy gait
Barefoot walking promotes better biomechanics in terms of distributing weight evenly and efficiently throughout the body. When children are born they do not have bones, but only cartilage in their feet. It is not until the late teenage years that the 28 bones of an adult foot are fully ossified. Up until that point forcing feet to conform to the shape of a shoe will ultimately result in permanent changes to the shape of a child’s foot. Changing the shape of our feet will in turn alter how effectively and efficiently our feet work.
When we are barefoot, we develop a more natural gait which is gentler, has a shorter stride and less pressure through our heels. When barefoot, our knees bend more to cushion each step and our toes work to help us grip and move forward. Many of the functions of our feet are altered when walking in shoes. The resultant gait is much harder on many joints throughout our body and can result in both pain and deformity.
Walking barefoot strengthens the feet and body
When walking barefoot we can grip the ground more easily using the muscles of our feet and toes. Our feet are designed similarly to our hands and have lots of small muscles that allow us to develop finely tuned movements with small muscle adjustments. When we are barefoot, the small muscles in our feet adapt the shape of our foot and body position to the surface we are walking on. This not only strengthens these muscles but also results in more effective grip and balance thereby reducing the risk of trips and falls. When wearing shoes, our feet stop working in the way they were designed resulting in reduced strength and agility. It is only through walking barefoot that we are able to maintain the full function of our feet.
Walking barefoot improves safety
Apart from the freedom that we feel when we throw our shoes off, it also teaches children to assess a situation and adapt to it. For example, if there is a rocky surface children quickly learn to slow their pace and look for and tred on the most stable surface. When walking barefoot we tend to step with less force and are more likely to notice if we are putting our feet on something sharp, therefore avoiding injury. A heightened awareness of surroundings and ability to react adaptively in many different situations are skills that will help children assess and adapt to risk in other facets of their lives. Research also suggests that children who are barefoot tend to be less clumsy and use a more natural gait making them more stable and less likely to trip.
Walking barefoot provides a direct connection to our natural environment
Walking barefoot provides a direct connection to our natural world which in turn allows us to blow off steam, relax and reawaken our senses. Research and experience tells us that children and adults thrive in the outdoors and natural environments. Wearing shoes places a barrier between our feet and the natural world reducing the health promoting effects of spending time in nature. Walking barefoot promotes an affinity for nature which is not only good for our feet, but does wonders for our physical development and social and emotional health and wellbeing.
Our Barefoot Kids knew it intuitively, the professionals have proven it through research and we here at Barefoot Nature Play promote (not just in name but in practice) the development and health promoting benefits of walking barefoot.
We are very excited by the enthusiastic response to the summer programs at Barefoot Nature Play and are busy planning and preparing for lots of programs both at St Paul’s School, Bald Hills and some new locations throughout 2016. We look forward to seeing you soon at one of our upcoming Barefoot Nature Play programs. All the information about what’s coming up and the answers to these ‘easy’ questions can be found on the Barefoot Nature Play Facebook page and www.barefootnatureplay.com.au.
Barefoot Nature Play is an official Nature Play QLD Activity Provider.
http://movingsmartblog.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/barefootin.html Friday, April 22, 2011
Thanks also goes to the following for so graciously sharing their professional knowledge and experience:
Thea New, Paediatric Physiotherapist
Dr Brian Donohoe, General Practitioner
Glen Evangelista, Podiatrist, Balance Podiatry