My son is three months old. I gaze in adoration at this tiny miracle before me, fascinated by his flexible toes and soft feet, which he uses like hands to grip onto my sides. Springtime six months later, I watch transfixed as Ewan expertly crawls around our garden, using his toes to propel him forward, pulling himself up and beaming with pleasure at his new found freedom. On holiday at fifteen months, Ewan walks tentatively, steadying his balance on the deck of a ferry on the Saint Lawrence River in Canada. I almost cry with joy as he takes ten steps all at once, his little feet nestled in soft-soled slippers providing him flexibility yet protection from the ground. By mid-winter, at eighteen months old, Ewan walks confidently; beaming with pleasure as his vision and mobility reach new heights.
My gaze moves to the babies and toddlers around Ewan. Almost all are clad in Clarke’s crawler, cruiser or walker shoes. Some stumble around ungainly, struggling to walk. Clarkes have monopolised the children’s footwear market, aided by the propaganda that children need the support of shoes from a very tiny age. Mass-consumerism, relentless marketing, sentimentality about baby shoes and over-protectiveness of our children, have all contributed to this mindset. ‘Shoelessness’ may also still be an indicator of poverty. Whatever its causes, excessive and inappropriate shoe-wearing can have detrimental effects on children’s growing feet.
Allowing our son to walk barefoot as often as possible is one of the many natural parenting choices my husband and I have made. We also practice bed-sharing, sustained breastfeeding, child-led weaning and baby-wearing. Adele Coombs demonstrates the link between the barefoot movement and nature; ’Going barefoot is the gentlest way of walking and can symbolise a way of living […] that has the lightest impact, removing the barrier between us and nature’ (‘Barefoot Dreaming’). This movement can also encompass natural parenting, a lifestyle choice where our children are closer to ourselves and our planet.
It is our intention to bring Ewan up closely connected to and with a deep respect for mother earth, starting from within his own heart, developing trust in his parents as he slowly ventures forth into the world. Fortunately, Ewan ‘found his feet’ and honed his balance barefoot during the summer months, an ideal time in England when it is drier and warmer underfoot. I researched the children’s footwear market, whilst listening to my instincts and to my child. I let him be. By questioning our consumer habits I began to learn about the alternatives, seeking wisdom from our ancestors and guidance from indigenous cultures in my quest for how best to protect my child’s feet.
Travelling has opened my eyes and heart to different ways of living. On holiday in the Shetland Isles we visited Old Scatness, the archaeological remains of an Iron Broch and Village. Our living history guide wore replica Iron Age clothes, including soft wrap-around leather shoes. These moccasin-type shoes enabled him, like our ancestors before us, to feel the ground whilst also protecting him from hazards. Moccasins are the traditional footwear of First Nation and Native American peoples. In the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa, Canada, I noticed many of these beautifully decorated yet infinitely practical shoes on display. In North America moccasins have gone mainstream, for sale alongside trainers and high-heels on the high-street. They are also still worn by indigenous peoples in some of the harshest environments on earth.
On honeymoon in Kenya groups of children ran barefoot on dry scrubland to school. I wondered which of these children would later represent their country as world champion runners, still barefoot. As an English teacher in Nepal and in Vietnam, I would automatically remove my sandals before stepping over the threshold into my host’s home. It is a cultural taboo to wear shoes in many Asian homes, even more so in places of worship.
Amongst the Northern hill-tribes in Vietnam I noticed many children barefoot or wearing only sandals. Similarly, my students on a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal played football barefoot on rough, stony ground. One of my abiding memories of the Himalayas is of a barefoot porter expertly carrying a large pane of glass up a steep incline, his toes gripping the muddy ground. Calm, he never faltered on his difficult journey. To all of these people, past and present, I marvelled at how resilient their feet were, yet for them it was just part of normal life.
Enlivening our feet
Because we encase our feet in rigid, close-fitting shoes, they lie almost lifeless, the soles soft, unacquainted with the myriad of sensations the ground has to offer. This is why in yoga we practice barefoot, allowing our toes to strengthen and come alive through various poses and foot exercises. When children strengthen their feet through barefoot exercise, such as gymnastics, yoga and martial arts, their feet are able to breathe and move freely, alleviating the detrimental effects of countless hours wearing shoes in day-nurseries and schools.
Barefoot and minimalist running movement
Why do I practice yoga barefoot, yet I run in supportive trainers? Influenced by ‘Born to Run’, Chris McDougall’s story running with the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, a tribe who have run virtually barefoot over great distances for millennia, I began researching the barefoot and minimalist running movement. Barefoot runners train without any footwear on their feet, whilst minimalist runners typically wear thin-soled trainers. My husband is a fell-runner who has always worn a fairly minimal shoe for his sport. Recently he has extended this approach to his road running, with promising results, including the improvement of a long-standing issue he has had with a collapsed foot arch.
This more minimalist approach to footwear has also impacted on our parenting choices. We provide Ewan as much freedom to walk barefoot as possible and to wear soft soled, flexible shoes when this is necessary. This is to allow his feet to grow and develop as nature intended, not within a close-fitting, ridged structure. The one pair of shoes we have bought Ewan look almost new because he rarely wears them. However, because we are outdoor enthusiasts, no matter what the weather, there are occasions when putting Ewan in wellies is the only real practical option!
Children’s feet are still developing during the first few years of life. A number of podiatrists advocate keeping children barefoot and wearing minimal impact footwear as much and as long as possible, to aid this growth. Poorly designed or incorrectly fitted footwear can have serious consequences on our feet. It is difficult not to be influenced by marketing which boasts their shoes are the best for your feet. Shoe manufacturers will always be concerned with their company’s profit margins no matter how strongly they insist they care about their client’s health.
Research indicates that foot problems, such as bunions, ingrown toenails, corns and ankle fractures, are all common due to wearing unsuitable footwear. Footwear can also affect our posture and gait (how we move our limbs). ‘The Society for Barefoot Running’ website cites some interesting research on this topic, some of which is discussed below.
In his article ‘What are the best shoes for children?’ Dr Nirenberg passionately advocates keeping children’s shoes off as much as possible, in order to foster the ‘development of their foot’s muscles, ligaments, and balance’. Similarly, the orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Carol Frey, argues that ‘children learn to walk more quickly and have fewer falls’ when they go barefoot, because they have been given the opportunity to develop ‘stronger, more coordinated foot muscles’.
Dr William Rossi describes the moment a child wears shoes for the first time; ‘suddenly, the infant, having successfully launched its walking career barefoot, finds itself struggling to maintain balance and locomote with stiff, constrictive, alien objects on its feet […] “foot” steps and the “shoe” steps are two alien motions and opposing forces’. For this reason, he supports the shoeless-at-home movement. In this environment, children’s feet develop naturally whilst the number of foot related deformities is reduced. When it is necessary to wear shoes, advice from paediatric orthopaedists, such as Dr Lynn T. Staheli, is to buy shoes which are lightweight and flexible; ‘shoes should not have the arch supports and stiff sides once deemed necessary to give the foot support’.
This research suggests that our feet, and therefore our bodies, are healthier the freer they are. By letting our children go shoeless inside and out whenever possible we are offering them healthier feet and more freedom.
Ergonomically-designed shoes are the closest possible alternative to barefoot walking, fitting the human foot snugly. These thin and soft-soled, flexible shoes are not widely available in the UK, although they can be purchased online. It is also possible to buy vegan shoes for children, for instance ‘Green Shoes’ sell homemade soft children’s slippers made from the vegan material Lorica, a mixture of micro-fibres and resins.
Informing other parents
Wearing his squeaky, soft-soled shoes, Ewan has received many positive, inquiring comments from friends and passers-by. This has given me the opportunity to share with parents the advantages of buying minimalist shoes, and even of going barefoot. So has this article! However, I do not wish to judge or criticise any parent for the choices they make. We all want the best for our children. Many parents simply aren’t aware of the benefits or the possibility of going barefoot or of buying alternative footwear.
The feeling beneath your feet
Kirstie Clarke, a friend of mine who introduced me to minimalist footwear, commented on how this has benefitted her two-year-old daughter; ‘Rowan loves running about barefoot, and will cross gravel and grass with no shoes on, because she’s used to the feeling of different textures under her footsteps. I have seen one of her little friends “trapped” at the edge of a gravel path because he was flummoxed about how to walk on it!’ Ewan similarly walks confidently across different terrains, such as forest floors and garden paths, receiving sensory information about the ground beneath his feet and how he should react to it.
The more naturally I parent, the more conscious I am of Ewan’s every move. Just as I know when Ewan is ready for another feed, or can sense when he approaches our stairs at home (there is no stair-gate), I am alert to the ground he is walking on, scanning it for hazards, such as cut glass or discarded metal. With safety in mind, Ewan is provided the freedom to discover the ground beneath his feet.
It is my hope that more and more parents in the UK will wake-up to the idea of barefoot babies and soft-soled shoes. My image is of children exploring the world unencumbered by sensory-numbing material; their feet free to move, touching mother-earth lightly, feeling the soil, the wetness, the grass, the hardness of the stones, all the many sensations nature has to offer, with the ground really beneath their feet and all the delight this brings.
Dr Michael Nirenberg: ‘What Are the Best Shoes for Children? (the answer may surprise you)’; http://www.americaspodiatrist.com/2009/12/what-are-the-best-shoes-for-children-the-answer-may-surprise-you/
Dr. Lynn T. Staheli; quoted in ‘The New York Times’, Aug 14, 1991; http://www.unshod.org/pfbc/pfmedresearch.htm
Dr. William A Rossi; ‘Children’s Footwear: Launching Site for Adult Foot Ills: It’s time to advocate shoelessness for kids’; http://nwfootankle.com/files/ChildrensFootwear-LaunchingSiteforAdultFootIlls.pdf
Society for Barefoot Living; http://www.barefooters.org/
Parents for Barefoot Children; http://www.unshod.org/pfbc/
Green Shoes; http://www.greenshoes.co.uk/index.php