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Monday, June 27, 2011

The MGBG Guide to Happy Barefoot Children (okay...maybe just barefoot...for happy, you're on your own)

My daughter was a late walker.  She didn't crawl until around 12 months, and didn't even think about walking until after 15 months.  Even as she was coming up on her second birthday she wasn't very good at it.  She still walks like she's about to fall down a hill.  She flails her arms every which way, and kicks her legs out just as randomly.  She looks more like she's doing a combination of prancing and tripping than walking.  And since she is usually hoots and cheers when she walks anyway, it's easy to mistake it for some sort of tribal dance. 

Just like any parent with their first-born, I worry about everything that could go wrong with my daughter's health.  I'm sure that most parents think about their child's foot health, but as a barefooter I probably focus on it a bit more than others.  I know more about what bad shoes can do for a child's foot development.  So as soon as she started to walk, I was watching her stride to pick up potential problems.

I could tell that those stiff-soled Target shoes we bought her were causing her problems.  She looked like she was fighting to keep her balance and walk in a straight line.  I could only imagine how much they threw off her still-developing sense of balance, and starved her feet muscles of their right to grow properly.  Like every parent, I want the best for my child.  The fact that I knew that these shoes were bad for her, and that she was wearing them nonetheless, broke my heart.   

Sometime last summer, we took my daughter Clara to a company picnic for my wife's work in Eden Prairie.  Again, she was walking funny in a pair of crappy thong sandals my mom had bought for her.  Of all the shoes she owned at the time, these were my least favorite.  I knew they gave her more problems than the rest of her collection.  So I did what I should have done months earlier....I took them off.  I expected her to complain about the prickly asphalt beneath her feet.  Instead...this happened:

Absolute joy. 

Just look at that forefoot strike!  Her stride tightened and her posture straightened.  She started walking easily in a straight line.  And she smiled from ear to ear and laughed at the new sensations beneath her feet.  At that moment, I vowed that I would do a better job of caring for my daughter's foot health.

And for me, that meant encouraging my daughter to be barefoot as much as possible. 

Why Your Children Should Be Barefoot

It's hard to find a podiatrist who will tell you otherwise.  A child's foot should not be confined to stiff-soled shoes.  The reason is pretty simple: their feet aren't done developing yet.  According to the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, the 26 bones in our feet are not fully hardened until age 18. In fact, children's feet are composed of relatively soft and flexible cartilage which gradually converts to bone with age. While children's feet are developing, the soft cartilage centers are fusing together. As such, the foot is at risk from injury and deformity due to ill-fitting footwear. Any postural foot abnormality can have an effect further up the body, permanently altering posture and walking style.

In short, by putting your kids in crappy footwear now you're setting them up for problems down the line. Do you want to be responsible for a life filled with chronic foot pain? I know I don't.

So what kinds of shoes do Podiatrists recommend that you buy?  They've actually been recommending for several decades that your children go without.  Here's a couple of quotable quotes:

"Children with the healthiest and most supple feet are those who habitually go barefoot, according to Dr. Lynn T. Staheli and a growing number of other pediatric orthopedists. His studies of developing nations show that non-shoe-wearers have better flexibility and mobility, stronger feet, fewer deformities, and less complaints than those who wear shoes regularly. He says that, when a child must wear a shoe, it should be lightweight, flexible, shaped more or less quadrangularly, and above all, should not have the arch supports and stiff sides once deemed necessary to give the foot support. Many pediatric orthopedists strongly oppose "corrective" or "orthopedic" shoes for straightening foot and leg deformities like flat feet, pigeon toes, knock-knees, or bowlegs. Dr. Staheli and others contend that there is no evidence that corrective shoes correct anything, and that most of the supposed deformities correct themselves in almost all cases." New York Times, August 14, 1991.

"Style and price are not nearly as important as fit when it comes to choosing a good children's shoe. In fact, the best shoe for a child is often no shoe at all, according to Dr. Carol Frey, associate clinical professor of orthopaedic surgery in Manhattan Beach, Calif.. "We are no different from any other animal. We don't need shoes for proper foot development," explains Frey. Walking is a collaborative effort requiring constant communication between the brain and feet. Nerve endings on the bottom of the feet sense the ground beneath and send signals to the brain that help it determine how and where weight should be distributed with each new step. Shoes alter that feedback to the brain. The thicker the sole, the more muffled the message. "Children are forced to walk with their feet further apart to keep their balance," Frey says.
Frey has just compiled a list of shoe-buying tips for the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society. "Shoes are not necessary for support or development of the arch, they only protect the feet from the environment," said Fry, who routinely treats foot deformities caused by ill-fitting shoes. Babies and crawlers need only wear socks or booties to keep their feet warm, she said. Toddlers, too, should be allowed to go sans shoes whenever they are in a protected environment. Going barefoot helps children develop stronger and more coordinated foot muscles, Frey explained. Studies also show that barefoot children learn to walk more quickly and have fewer falls.
Besides growing up around man-eating lions, there’s a good reason Kenyans have won the last 10 consecutive Boston Marathons: They rarely wear shoes. This makes their feet extremely strong and far less susceptible to disorders such as fallen arches, says Dr. Frey."

All of that sound familiar? Children should go barefoot for the same reasons I encourage all of you to go barefoot. Except in their case it's even more critical, because they're still growing and developing.

Encouraging Your Child to Go Barefoot

So great.  Barefoot is best for children.  So is having them eat their vegetables.  Everyone knows that ain't happening.  My daughter isn't doing anything that she doesn't want to do.  She can, and has, thrown a dozen separate tantrums about not getting her way in the span of 15 minutes. 

So your child won't be going barefoot just because you take away their shoes.  Sure...you could do that, but you'll just have a whole new meltdown on your hands; this time about how they now don't want to go outside.  Kids aren't going to just leap out of the door and bound down the street now that their unshod any more than you wouldn't the first time you took your shoes off.  The ground can be all sorts of uncomfortable things from rough, to hot, to just plain icky.  And their feet are in the same state of unpreparedness that yours were when you first started barefooting.  You need to do this gradually.  Here's how to grease the wheels:

The Repeater:

My daughter is at the age I refer to simply as "The Repeater".  She's the kind of kid that you can't swear around, or else you'll have a 2 year old dancing around yelling four letter words.  She says and does everything that my wife and I do because she thinks that's what she's supposed to be doing.  She likes make-up because that's what she sees her mommy doing every morning before she goes to work.  And she likes being barefoot because that's what she sees daddy doing.

If you want your children to be barefoot, you really need to go barefoot yourselves.  Toddlers will do whatever you're doing.  Older kids who see their parents shod are going to wonder why they can't wear shoes too.  You set the best example here, and you know its as good for your foot health as it is for theirs.  Kick them shoes off people!

And she doesn't just learn what is best from her parents.  She learns things from her friends as well.  That's how my kid learned how to hit and pinch (thanks Kyra!).  We've been lucky that the kids in our neighborhood generally play barefoot, and have parents that support that sort of thing.  But just because your neighbors aren't as supportive doesn't mean you have to keep your kid away from them.  Kids are pretty accepting of differences at a younger age, so if one kid is barefoot and the rest aren't, it probably won't be a huge deal. 

But if it is, maybe its as simple as suggesting that the kids go play some place more barefoot friendly.  Some parents might not be keen on letting their kid barefoot on the street, but I don't know many who aren't cool with barefoot kids on the beach or at the playground. 


My daughter won't do anything that isn't her idea.  She won't get dressed unless she gets to pick her clothes.  She won't eat unless she gets to pick the color of her plate, fork, and cup.  And she definitely won't go barefoot outside unless she thinks it's a good idea.

Of course, every parent of a toddler has already learned how to stack the deck.  You give them no more than two options, and all of the options are those that you can live with.  When I want my kid to go potty, the question isn't, "do you want to go potty?"  It's "do you want to go potty upstairs or downstairs".  So when we're picking shoes, I always give her the option to go barefoot when I think it's safe to do so.

I'm never going to force my child to go barefoot. Ultimately I want her to make that choice for herself. But since she has a lot of shoes still that I don't agree with, I tend to stack the deck. I usually phrase the question, "Do you want to wear shoes, or go barefoot like daddy?" If you have a Repeater for a kid, you already know the answer to that question. She's out the door barefoot, and thinks it's the coolest thing in the world.

For older kids, this obviously won't work. But you can help the issue by letting your kid know that being barefoot is okay, and then letting them make their own choice. If they live in a house where you're always yelling at them to put their shoes on, their not likely to do it. But if you let them make their own choice, they'll do what's most comfortable for them. And if they've grown up with good barefoot experiences, their likely to stay that way.

Playing = Barefooting

Speaking of positive association, what better place to form a positive association with barefooting!  In fact, I've found in talking to people that the association of of play with barefoot can be very powerful.  I've talked to several folks, especially those who grew up during World War II, who will tell me that they remember fondly going barefoot during their childhood.  They didn't necessarily remember what they were doing, but they remember not wearing shoes.   

Here's a quote I love from Bernd Heinrichs, "Why We Run",

"It was summer, and I was barefoot as always, feeling the warm and soft texture of the sand with my toes...  Memories flood back.  Looking down I almost expect to see bare little feet." 

What a great sensation to remember.  Who wouldn't want a memory like that? 

I imagine that folks remember being barefoot so well because of all that tactile stimulation they received from their feet.  You have more nerve endings in your feet than almost anywhere else on your body.  People are more apt to recall strong sensations like that.

When Barefoot Isn't Best

Just like I won't suggest going barefoot in all circumstances for an adult, I definitely won't suggest that barefoot is always best for our children.  If anything, there are more circumstances when some sort of foot covering is appropriate.  An experienced barefooter knows to scan their surroundings so that they don't step on debris and injure themselves.  Kids don't have that same level of awareness.  So there are some circumstances when I suggest you not take any chances:


Children aren't able to regulate their body temperatures as well as adults.  They also don't have as refined coping skills when its too hot or too cold.  For example, they might not know to go find shade to stand in when the pavement is too hot.  For that reason, I become extra vigilant about my child's comfort level when it gets too hot or too cold.


A lot of parents that I know make their children wear shoes all the time because there "might be glass".  I think that's being a little too overprotective.  But I do recognize that occasionally there really is too much debris to safely walk barefoot.  If I can't walk on a surface without discomfort or lots of scanning to avoid debris, I generally assume that my child can't walk on that surface.

The Shoe Police

I remember going out to dinner with my friend Katie and her family right before the Med City Marathon.  I noticed that all of her children had flip flops as they came into the restaurant.  Then as soon as they got in the door, they kicked them off and started walking around barefoot.  I also noticed that no one seemed to care.

Kids can get away with a lot more barefooting than adults can, especially in the summer.  That's because barefoot is more socially acceptable when you're young.  But I still hesitate to let my daughter go barefoot in situations where I'd feel socially awkward doing so.  If I start getting ugly looks, I'm likely to whip a pair of shoes out of a diaper bag.

If Not Barefoot, Then Minimal

My daughter in her Softstar Shoes.  Or as she calls them, her "Floo Shews" (translated from Clara to English is "Flower Shoes")

It used to be that if you wanted healthy shoes for your child, you were SOL after about age 4.  Companies like Softstar and Robeez made infant and toddler shoes, but after that you had to make due with traditional shoes.  However, now that the minimalist shoe market is on fire, we've seen an explosion of children's shoe offerings from those same companies.  Some of my favorites are the Merrell Pace Glove Kids and the VIVOBAREFOOT Pally.

Now I get that these shoes cost more than double than those stiff POS shoes from Target.  And you'll just have to replace them with another pair in a few months.  I consider it an investment in my child's health.  You want the best for your kids.  If you know that the best shoe is a minimal one, why wouldn't you give it to them?  And if your kid has 10 pairs of shoes like mine does, why not spend the money on just a few pairs of good ones instead of 10 pairs of crappy ones.

I use minimal shoes for my daughter the same way I do.  I carry them along just in case.  I want my child to feel safe while barefooting, and I want her to have good experiences.  If she feels like she needs extra protection on her feet, I want her to know that she has it.  But if you're more conservative, I encourage you to make minimal shoes your children's primary footwear.  Their feet will thank you for it later!

Here's to happy, healthy feet!  Cheers!


  1. This is something that's often at the forefront of my mind, too. After a nasty splinter incident when my oldest was barely 2, my wife and I swore he'd wear shoes everywhere. Now, almost four years later, of course, my perspective has changed.

    I try to lead by example, too; leaving my shoes inside when I walk out into the yard. I've noticed that my 20-month old is more inclined to follow my shoe-less lead than my oldest...

    I'm rambling now. Sorry. Great post MGBG!

  2. I say all this stuff even after my daughter's best friend stepped on a thorn bush and needed surgery. I'd rather risk that kind of injury than a lifetime of foot deformity and pain. Glad to hear you're taking the lead with your children Ash!

  3. My wife found these interesting shoes (since I left on deployment), I don't know where but they look a lot like VFFs but the toes aren't really separate. Well, apparently my older son loves them, I assume because they look like daddy's funny shoes. I don't know for sure but judging by the pictures they look very minimal! Score!

  4. As a barefoot/minimalist runner with three young children, I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts. I constantly watch our 4-year-old son's feet and how he runs. His feet are pretty flat, and I am hoping that his arches are just slow to develop. Yesterday, while running around barefoot, he developed a nasty blister, right where his arch should be. The only thing I can do for now is encourage him to go barefoot, get him a good pair of flexible shoes, and hope the muscles and tendons in his feet start forming arches soon.

    Before I saw your post, I looked up some information about arch development on the interwebs and saw that it is somewhat normal for young kids to have flat feet up until age 4-6. It is also common for kids do form arches late. My fingers are crossed.

    Despite my comments above, it is hard to justify spending $60+ on a pair of good flexible shoes for our kids when I know they are going to outgrow them quickly. Luckily, we can hand some footwear down to our 8-month old son one he is old enough.

    I wish that Merrell would drop the price of the kids version of the Trail Glove in the interest of getting kids in better shoes.

    With any luck this post will make it into the hands of kids' footwear designers.

    Keep up the great work, MGBG!!


  5. I'm a primary school teacher in New Zealand, and at my school (of about 700) I would say about 80-90% of the children are barefoot all day. Even in winter (which is pretty mild, around 16 deg C. I think it's great. We have a 'shoes off in the classroom' policy, but the kids are happy to spend their time outdoors shoeless as well. We get some pretty dirty feet, and the occasional stubbed toe, but other than that, it's all good.

    Could be a cultural thing here too. In New Zealand it's not uncommon at all to see people barefoot, even in supermarkets and shopping centres. We grow up mostly barefoot and try to keep that relaxed way of life going. Don't get me wrong - most people do wear shoes! But bare feet are not uncommon. On the other hand, I don't see many (any?) barefoot runners at all. Hmmm...

  6. I once heard a friend comment that she couldn't wait for her boy (a month old) to get old enough to wear shoes. When I asked why she just said that it's cute. For some reason when kids wear something that looks "grown-up" we all think that it's cute.

  7. Your daughter's adorable, Chris! She looks like she's walking the runway. :)

    My nephew has been seen going barefoot in our yard these days...following in Auntie's footsteps. Makes me proud.

  8. I realize this is an old post, but I just wanted to comment that unshoes sells children's sizes also. I am excited to try them out for my 2 year old because they are half the price ($26!)of soft star, preschoolians, etc. We'll see how it goes. :)

  9. In my experience, encouraging the kids to go barefoot was absurdly easy. Every evening after their bath, I'd just carry them to bed and play with their piggies. Since they don't wash their feet when they wear shoes, I only did this if they'd gone barefoot for the entire day. After awhile they caught on and insisted on going barefoot everywhere, Lol!

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