Why Kids Should Go Barefoot – Avoiding modern foot binding

Most parents don’t realize that wearing shoes (too often or the wrong types) can lead to what some experts call modern foot binding. Here are the many benefits of going barefoot, especially for the developing feet of babies and kids.

barefoot child in nature

Americans are often shocked to learn about the ancient Chinese tradition of foot binding, or the practice of tightly wrapping young girls’ feet to change their size and shape. Small feet were thought to be a symbol of femininity and social status among Chinese women.

After ages of deformities, pain, and infection, the practice was banned around the turn of the 20th century. The West applauded the end of a barbaric tradition.

What is Modern Foot Binding?

The irony is that although we don’t walk around with literally bound feet, modern shoes have changed the shape and alignment of our feet. And our fascination with narrow high heels and stiff, structured shoes that allow little movement aren’t doing our bodies any favors.

“In essence, we still practice the ancient art of Chinese foot-binding,” explains Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners.

After working with a number of African runners who grew up barefoot, Dicharry, came to the conclusion that the feet of modern people were unnaturally narrow and deformed.

“Infants are born with excellent foot alignment,” writes Dicharry. “Soft tissues and bones remodel based on the way they are loaded.”

Of the barefoot runner, Dichary observed, “Years of barefoot movement have resulted in robust muscular attachments to anchor and stabilize the foot. The average Western foot — having grown up dependent on shoes — pales in comparison.” (source)

He notes that the widest part of a newborn’s foot is not the ball of the foot, but their toes. He says of adult feet, “The narrow toe boxes in athletic and fashion footwear have changed the alignment of our feet, just like braces once did to legs.”

Why Are Most Shoes Problematic?

“Typical running shoes are produced for a man weighing 150-plus pounds and a woman weighing 130 pounds,” Dicharry shares. “Many of the same materials are used in the construction of shoes meant for kids who weigh a fraction as much. And the smaller physical size means that all that stitching and those material attachment points net a much stiffer shoe than the adult versions. Kids don’t have the physical weight to flex these shoes.”

This is a problem, because the foot is designed to move at many different points. The big toe is wider for a reason – to provide leverage. These movements help strengthen different muscles, affecting whole body alignment.

The Benefits of Kids Going Barefoot

Going barefoot is important for infants and toddlers who are learning to walk. Podiatrist Tracy Byrne told The Guardian that when toddlers learn to walk barefoot, they experience more stability and fewer falls.

“The feedback they get from the ground means there is less need to look down, which is what puts them off balance and causes them to fall down,” she explains.

Byrne adds that going barefoot is important for muscle development. It strengthens your child’s foot arch, and it helps with posture.

Even More Barefoot Health Benefits

  • Proper development occurs when the feet aren’t constricted or bound.
  • Walking barefoot outside helps kids connect with nature (which can lead to more positive mental health outcomes).
  • Going barefoot strengthens the feet and helps muscles develop better.
  • Walking barefoot improves balance.
  • Research shows going barefoot may lead to better brain development (more below)
  • Walking and climbing barefoot improves proprioception (the body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location).
  • Going barefoot gets more blood flowing to the feet and legs.
  • Walking barefoot stimulates reflexes on the bottoms of your feet, helping to decrease blood pressure, inflammation, reducing stress and tension, and stimulating other healing processes of the body.
  • Researcher Stephen Heppell examines the effects of barefoot learning and shoeless classrooms. His studies show significant improvements in behavior, learning, and classroom dynamics when students AND the teachers are barefoot in the classroom. (source)

And just a bit of common sense advice… be sure to teach your kids how to clean their feet properly after playing outside. Filthy floors or furniture don’t help a child’s development or a parent’s mental health.

How to Choose Shoes That Support Proper Development

This fascinating Instagram post highlights the issue with the average shoe made for kids. They posed the question: why is it that 98% of children are born with healthy feet, but only about 40% of adults still have healthy feet?

They explain that the wrong footwear is to blame. And they removed the soles of two toddler shoes to illustrate their point. The shoe on the left is an example of modern foot binding.

modern foot binding child shoe toebox without room for proper development

Image via @barfussfreaks on Instagram

“The toe box is one of the most important criteria for barefoot shoes. In an ergonomic toe box, the feet have space and the toes can unfold freely, thus the feet can roll down healthy and the muscles have room to work. Feet are in a stable and secure position. In a tight and narrow toe box running in front, the toes are pressed together. It’s no longer possible to roll off healthy, the muscles can’t work properly.”

“A narrow, inappropriate toe box can also lead to malfunctions and/or deformations of the toes. This can be avoided by paying attention to the proper shape of the toe box and also to ensure that it gives enough space for the feet. The shoe should match approximately the shape of the foot.”

Fellow eco enthusiasts will appreciate that they used old shoes for the experiment because, “It would not be ecological to cut new shoes.”

What to look for in Barefoot Shoes for Kids

Whether it’s a safety, weather, or hygiene situation, there are times where kids need to wear shoes. Here’s what to look for in a proper footwear.

Wide Toe Box – As highlighted in the images above, choose a shoe that fits the natural shape of the foot, including plenty of room for the toes. This prevents the likelihood of bound foot issues.

Flexible Soles – The soles of kids’ shoes should provide protection but should follow the shape of the sole of the foot. Flat, thin soles allow your child to still feel changes in the surface below their feet.

Flat – Find shoes with no heels or raised areas. Flat soles allow the same position as no shoes. And it’s really best to avoid high heel shoes for kids.

These are the brands we’ve found to meet the criteria above.

Vivo Barefoot Shoes – you’ll find some options via their Amazon store and many others at their website.

Merrell Bare Steps

Wilding Shoes – this brand uses sustainable materials like organic recycled cotton, linen, hemp, and wool.

Splay Athletics

Xero Kids, Xero Women and Xero Men

This quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer feels like a good way to sum all of this up. “If you walk around in shoes all the time, the whole earth feels like leather.”

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