Those who come along to GymbaROO and KindyROO know how insistent we are at having babies and children remove their socks and shoes for playing and climbing. Bare feet not only stimulate healthy development of the muscles and tendons in the feet and legs, but also provide us with important balance and navigation skills and, as new research tells us, improved memory!!
Specialists working in the area of foot development and health attest to the benefits of bare feet for all ages. Walking, running, climbing, jumping and pushing along in bare feet develops the muscles and ligaments of the foot, increases the strength of the foot’s arch, improves the awareness of where we are in relation to the space around us (proprioception) and contributes to good posture and balance.
Bare feet play a key role in maximising both static (standing still) and active (moving) balance in people of all ages. Alain Berthoz, a neuro-physician who specialises in the study of the balance mechanisms in the brain1 tells us that a child’s first ability to control balance upright against gravity develops, in conjunction with the vestibular system, through the feet. The toddler’s wide-apart-legged balancing act is guided by ‘eyes in their feet’, so when toddlers wear shoes, it’s like they have eye shades on. The sense of touch is dampened and the messages to the brain are diminished.
Bare feet in infancy and early childhood also plays a very important early role in helping our youngsters learn to navigate their bodies through a space and to organise patterns of movement that are appropriate to any given situation.
Interestingly, recent research tells us that running in bare feet has also been found to improve more complex thought patterns, particularly working memory.
A group of researchers from Florida University have found that barefoot runners had better working memories than those running in shoes2. Working memory is our ability to quickly recall and process information, and we use it to learn new things throughout life. By improving it, we may be able to realise gains in key areas, from school to work to retirement. The researchers suggest that running in bare feet most likely requires a more intensive use of working memory because of the extra tactile and proprioceptive demands associated with barefoot running, (dodging sharp objects, and having to have a more precise foot placement for example), which may account for the working memory gains. “If we take off our shoes and go for a run, we can finish smarter than when we started.”2
Do bare feet matter for non-walking babies?
Yes! Babies who have lots of bare foot tummy time can dig their toes into the mat and get a tremendous amount of traction that helps them push along the floor. Crawlers and creepers use their feet and toes to push themselves up to cruising and just like toddlers, they are learning a lot about the world around them through the sensations they receive from their feet. Also, think about what body parts a baby learns about first – it’s the hands, and then it’s the feet! Knowing that you have hands and feet helps with the development of hand-eye-foot coordination fundamental to the development of intelligence.3
To help your baby find their feet
- Avoid using leggings with built-in feet covers if you can. Save money by not purchasing socks or shoes for your little one. (Myth buster: this is perfectly safe for health. Babies do not catch a cold through their feet!)
- Whenever you feed your baby, massage his or her bare feet, or at nappy change time play games like ‘This little piggy went to market’. This directs baby’s attention to their feet and toes.
- While your baby is playing on their backs, encourage them to kick at a hanging toy, scarf or balloon.
- See many more fun and loving ideas for proper foot development in our online Active Babies Smart Kids video: Your baby’s feet: Foot development
Toddlers and preschoolers
- Provide as many opportunities as possible to walk, run, jump, climb and hop while bare footed.
- Take children’s shoes off as soon as they arrive home – in my house we don’t wear shoes at all inside… and it saves a lot of cleaning! The lineup of shoes at the door is impressive (and rather messy) and visitors get the message as well… ‘Shoes off here please!’
- Find different surfaces for your barefooted child to walk on – carpet, tiles, wood, grass, cement, stones, water, sand, gravel, bricks, squishy spaghetti, mud etc.
- Play stamping, jumping and running games in bare feet.
- Pick up marbles with your toes… and if you are very clever, drop them in a small container.
- Fold a scarf with your toes instead of your fingers.
- Ride your trike, bike or scooter bare footed.
Being bare footed really is best for babies and children, so get those shoes and socks off for as long as possible every day.
Dr Jane Williams (PhD, BMgt, RN(Paeds)) is the Research and Education General Manager for GymbaROO and KindyROO. Dr Williams is one of Australia’s leading experts on baby and child development.