Being Barefoot – reconnecting with the earth and developing strong minds

As Nature Connection Mentors a lot of our time is spent barefoot. In fact, any chance we get to kick off our shoes, whether it be at our school holiday program (a whole day outside), our afterschool sessions or our school-based incursions, we try to find time to be truly connected to the earth under our feet and remove the barrier shoes create.

We have observed a trend in our work with schools which involves supporting educators to take learning outdoors and help children reconnect with the natural world. Children are often scared, or incredibly reluctant, to take their shoes off with a preference to explore natural spaces with shoes firmly on their feet. Even indoors many children show a preference for leaving their shoes on. We’ve observed children with a preference for shoed feet even when exploring the river’s edge! A preference to play in soggy shoes and socks because the sensation of sand on their feet and wet feet is more uncomfortable.

(We acknowledge sensory preferences and profiles differ from person to person. For example, some may seek the experience of wet sand between their toes at the beach, while others would avoid this experience entirely. We are not suggesting children should be pushed to distress when providing tactile experiences).

When I recently presented the challenge of removing shoes to a class of 7 year olds before we ventured outside for a Nature School session, many horrified children shared with me that it would be way too dangerous. There was very real concern they might cut their feet, particularly on glass. One child elaborated on this by sharing the glass might come from shattered glass windows. There was consensus among the group of children that their parents would not be happy with them taking their shoes off.

There seems to be a developing sense of fear surrounding taking shoes off and it’s interesting to observe an increasing number of children reluctant to go barefoot. When children aren’t given the chance to experience walking on a variety of surfaces from a young age, when they aren’t given the opportunity to develop a sensory appetite for their sole, they are likely to be less willing to take the sensory risk as they get older. If we, as adults, are not modelling this behaviour and supporting them to be in spaces where they can be barefoot, we are contributing to a generation that will feel less comfortable with naked feet.

We feel a strong sense of responsibility to the children we work with to passionately advocate for opportunities to connect and reconnect with the natural world and we know that being bare foot is a simple way to start this reconnection.

There are so many incredible benefits to being barefoot, both indoors and outdoors, that support brain development, connection, awareness and even safety! We’ve compiled a few of our favourites and hope these resources can support you in encouraging barefoot play and experiences.

Check out the resources at the bottom of this blog if you are keen to delve further into the information out there to support you to join us on this journey of being barefoot advocates.

Being Barefoot Builds Strong Brains

There are over 200,000 nerve endings in the sole of each foot (which happens to be one of the highest concentrations of nerve endings in the whole body)! So, when we stick our feet into shoes, we are suffocating one of the most nerve-rich parts of the whole body. Those cute baby sneakers or glittery gumboots are actually wiping out our children’s opportunities to develop new neural connections in the brain and develop in a variety of ways.

“Encouraging enjoyable activities that stimulate the basic senses is, of course, important, yet we may underestimate the value in supporting proprioceptive and vestibular activities as well. One of the simplest ways to motivate proprioceptive and vestibular development is to let our babies be barefoot as much as possible! Feet are one of the most sensory-rich parts of the human body. The soles of the feet are extremely sensitive to touch, and there are large concentrations of proprioceptors in the joints and muscles of the feet. In fact, the feet alone have as many proprioceptors as the entire spinal column!” – Kacie Flegal

Connection leads to Concentration

When children have nothing on their feet they slow down and their bodies (unconsciously) become more aware of their surroundings. Think of a group of children playing in a space with wood chips. The speed at which they move through the playground of wood chips with shoes on is going to be much faster than if they removed their shoes and walked on the surface, activating proprioceptors and nerve endings in the soles of their feet. Their brain is taking in a lot more information, they need to navigate the big chunky, sharp edged wood chips and the areas of softer smoother chips. They get to an edge of sand or grass and their speed can increase; they develop a sense of tactile discrimination under foot and engage their brain in the process.

As teachers we’ve experienced the deep focus and concentration that comes when a class has the opportunity to go barefoot in the classroom (as long as good foot hygiene is taken into consideration, especially for year 5 boys after lunch in summer!).

Scientifically speaking, when we take away the insulating barrier of a shoe, our feet have the opportunity to soak up negative ions from the ground too – so going barefoot can help with emotional regulation (see more information in this article from the Washington Post.

“Earthing or grounding is an effective tool to support nervous system regulation by increasing the ‘calm rest and digest’ part of our system (parasympathetic nervous system). Good for shifting a bad mood, a ‘wound up’ child (or mum!) or to increase the feel good vibes, going barefoot is an incredible tool to have in the self-regulation toolkit. Bonus points if it’s on the sand by the ocean or large body of water.”  Dr Amanda Watson

Physically Strong and Able to Balance

“Children have been moving in sneakers for physical activity for so long we seem to have forgotten that feet do have sentient qualities. They can be used to grip the floor for strength and balance, and their different parts (toes, ball, sole, heel) can be more easily felt and used when bare. Furthermore, there is evidence indicating that going barefoot strengthens feet and improves body alignment. Young children feel a natural affinity for the ground that can be enhanced by removing all the barriers between it and the feet.” – Rae Pica

Children’s shoes often have very static soles that limit the movement of the foot. When barefoot, children can utilise the full mechanics of their feet as a dextrous support for movement. They can grip on to trees when climbing, they can navigate more quickly, they’ll have better grip with the ground when the terrain changes.

“When a child is allowed to be barefoot, her tactile pathways feel the surface of the ground, proprioceptors respond to pressure, and the terrain creates slight imbalances that create neuromuscular strength, spatial orientation, balance, and coordination.” – Kacie Flegal

Safe and Aware

Further to the benefits for balance and developing strong, dextrous feet and toes, when children are bare foot, they develop a deeper awareness of their surroundings. Their toes, foot arch and heel feel their way and send strong messages about where the foot is in the environment. Through proprioception, the brain becomes more aware of its surroundings and can make more informed decisions about the way it interreacts with that environment. Our children rely heavily on their adults for cues about the hazards and risks in their environment, that places the responsibility of ‘staying safe’ outside of their own capacity. When children are barefoot, they become more connected, more aware and more invoiced in self risk assessment.

“I view nature as the ultimate sensory experience for all children and a necessary form of prevention for sensory dysfunction.” – Angela Hanscom

We continue to be Barefoot Ambassadors, to model and encourage children (and their adults) to find opportunities to be connected with the earth and their surroundings and to help the Free The Feet movement and we invite you to find ways to do the same.


Katy Bowman, Biomechanist

This is great resource for working with children to become comfortable to go barefoot and strengthen their feet muscles. It’s called Foot School!

Angela Hanscom, Occupational Therapist & founder of Timbernook

Angela Hanscom’s book – Balanced and Barefoot is an incredible resource to support educators and parents to see the benefits of play outdoors, especially barefoot. This link is a great summary of the main points she shares in the book.

Rae Pica, Early Childhood Education Consultant

Barefoot Benefits Brain Development

Kacie Flegal, Chiropractor

How keeping little feet in the buff encourages a strong foundation for optimal brain and nervous system development