A barefoot child at play is one of the most iconic images of childhood. It is also somewhat of a symbol of our school. Many parents have told me that they first wanted to check out our school based on the pictures they saw on our website of the children running around barefoot and that was true of both Jalene and I as well. But there are many more reasons beyond that beautiful image why children should toss their shoes aside when at play.
The first is sheer pleasure. It feels good to shed your shoes and feel the grass beneath your feet, or mud or sand or water. When they leave preschool most of our children will not have a choice about shoes on or off.
Bare feet are needed for improved balance and flexibility. Shoes keep children from feeling the ground beneath their feet and may cause stumbles or bumps as they look at the ground rather than where they are going and that can cause bumps or stumbles more so in a natural setting such as our yard. Playing in such a natural and varied terrain helps children build physical strength and flexibility, encourages exploration that leads to increased mobility, and provides challenge and risk that builds confidence and a sense of mastery. However, much of this kind of play, the climbing, balancing and jumping, is much better done in bare feet. Some shoes are fine for long walks but not climbing. Some, like Crocs, are great for puddles but aren’t secure enough for running. Bare feet are ever versatile and so just best for play.
Shoes on or off is also an issue of self-regulation. As with many aspects of self-care, at NHBCNS we encourage children to determine whether shoes are needed or not. “Am I cold or hot?” “Does the ground feel good or does it hurt my feet?” These questions can be left to the child at our school. Preschool children should be able to understand the difference if, on other occasions, parents need to insist that their child wear shoes.
Shoes can be restrictive. In active play even the most comfortable shoes can feel stiff, tight, or inflexible causing some discomfort. Now throw in a handful of sand (literally!) and they just don’t feel good at all. The small size of children’s feet means that a sturdy but flexible sole on an adult shoe is not quite so flexible on a child’s. The thickness to length ratio is just different. The time spent taking shoes on and off also interrupts a child’s play and as you know play is really a child’s work and deserves to be as interruption-free as a preschool can possibly be.
Although the condition of their belongings is not high on a child’s priority list, it is of great concern to most parents. Except for rubber shoes like Crocs, when children’s shoes get muddy and wet they may take days to dry and might remain stiff and dirty. Bare feet can be cleaned and dried much faster and have the added bonus of not being outgrown in just a few months. Save those neat boots or shiny patent Mary Janes for other occasions or at least let a child know they can put them in the basket until pickup time.
Of course there will be times when bare feet mean a stubbed toe or a painful sticker but as with so much of life there are some risks. Although some schools have tried to limit risk by insisting on shoes at all times, at NHBCNS the relatively small risk is far outweighed by the enormous benefits.