Indoor school shoes and the germaphobic gluttony of our time

Indoor school shoes waste

Image credit via Flickr cc license.

“Mom, my teacher says I need indoor shoes for school. Ones that haven’t ever been worn outside.”


This isn’t my first time around the grade school block, so it’s not that I’m surprised. It’s just that …


Every time I think about how utterly unnecessary it is for my kids to …

STILL. SMASHING …. OKAY. Now, I’m good.

Sorry ’bout that. I know from talking to other parents, and from airing out my grievances on Twitter last night, that you either completely agree with me and are in the midst of your own Hulk smash, or you think I’m crazy. So let me show you around my crazy.

First, you need to understand my absolute, undying, belief that good running shoes are the absolute, best, everyday shoe for growing kids of any gender. They need these shoes to participate in gym classes, but they also need them to support all the flat out running, jumping, climbing and playing they do all the time.

So my preference (and the obvious choice for most parents) is to buy each child one pair of quality running shoes at the end of every summer that they can basically wear all the time until winter. Then they will leave those shoes at school and wear boots to and from school until spring. This way I only have to buy one pair each per child per year of running shoes, winter boots, rain boots, sandals, dress shoes and assorted specialty items like skates, cleats and dancing shoes. I just feel like that’s enough.

But no. Many schools (but not all), and some teachers (but not all) within schools where there is no official policy, ask that children also bring indoor shoes (that really have to be running shoes for gym) to be kept at school during the fall and spring. So, if I want my kids to have good running shoes for gym class and for outdoor play, that means two pairs per kid per year!

When I was a child, I cannot imagine the schools demanding that families provide two pairs of the same kind of shoe for their child. Honestly, at our school, kids were lucky if they had warm boots in the winter. Of course, we also ate peanut butter everyday and thought that juice boxes counted as a “fruits and vegetables” serving or two. It was a simpler time.

Simpler time or not, buying extra pairs of shoes is still a stretch for many families. That’s, what, an extra $40 or $50 per child, that could go toward anything else. For a great many people that is money that would be better spent on groceries, rent, debt repayment, extracurricular activities, or things like books and schools supplies. For other people the extra cost doesn’t require such a personal sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean it’s less wasteful. To be honest, this year we can find the money for a second pair of runners for our kids. We’ll be all right. 

But that money could have gone toward further supporting our school’s fundraising efforts, sponsoring a friend who is raising money for charity, paying down debt, saving for the kids’ university educations, or helping a Syrian refugee. There are children in the world who have no shoes, but we need to buy our kids two pairs of the same bloody shoes?

That’s double the number of shoes that end up in a landfill, too, because we can’t bear the idea of wearing the same shoes inside and outside of a building. As I asked on Twitter last night, “When did we become so germaphobic that special inside shoes are always necessary?”

It’s not about the germs, many people said. It’s about the dirt. Okay, fine. Substitute “dirtaphobic” for “germaphobic” then. I think it’s all part of a general societal trend for increased cleanliness and over-sanitation. It’s a  trend, by the way, that scientists think might actually be making us sicker.

I mean, schools are public buildings that house hundreds of children all day, every day. Of course there’s going to be dirt! You can make the kids change their shoes outside their classrooms, but there’s still dirt in the halls. There’s dirt in the stairwells. There’s dirt clinging to their grubby little bodies. There’s little bugs living in their hair half the time, for fuck’s sake.

It’s kind of like when parents insist on spoon feeding their toddlers for months and years on end to prevent a mess. You know what’s easier? Letting them learn to feed themselves and then wiping everything down after.

I’ve also heard the theory that schools have cut back on custodial and cleaning services. I have no idea if that’s right, but it does seem plausible. It does not, however, follow that the cost of keeping the floors reasonably clean should fall onto the shoulders of the families. Let the floors get dirty, I say! And then have them cleaned every once in a while. They are floors.

Alas, it not up to me to shatter the prevailing orthodoxies of our time. All I can do is get all the complaining out of my system. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some shoe shopping to do.


  1. Thank-you, Rebecca, for this long overdue article! This is a ridiculous policy as far as I’m concerned, and problematic for many parents who may not have the means to purchase various pairs of shoes for their kids. It’s especially hard for those who have more than one child in school. This germaphobic parenting model needs to stop!

  2. Megan

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone on the same tirade. As a long-term student myself (aka victim of the never ending doctorate program), raising two kids on my own, now, AND living in a “high SES” neighbourhood, I am frequently annoyed at the little things the school here does that make it difficult for families trying to live on a budget. Your rant was funnier than mine, though – perhaps you could also rant on the obsessive fundraising that goes on at school and which purposely set kids up to feel left out and distraught if they can’t access a good hundred dollars or more each year, by making sure that there is tangible evidence (or obvious lack thereof) of each donation (i.e. keychains, prizes, etc.). If you actually SET OUT to ostracise low income children, you couldn’t do a better job than these fundraisers. And we still get asked for money for each field trip, so each kid who doesn’t have it has the pleasure of approaching the teacher, principal, or VP to subject themselves to what can often feel like the humiliating experience of identifying yourself as low income and unable to afford what everyone else can. I’ve been lucky – I have been able to (with significant stress) pay for field trips, etc. But those fundraisers are brutal – there’s nothing like the feeling of not being able to do enough to make your kid feel a part of. Instead, my kids feel left out and frustrated every year, even with the $100 I can put in over the course of the several fundraisers. There are other kids who literally have none of whatever they are handing out (usually key chains with toys on them at our school). I am, however, proud to say that my kids will often give up one of their own 3 or 4 to kids who are really upset about it. Anyway – I’d love to hear someone cover some of the ins and outs of the fundraising system we have these days (ostracising being but one…let’s not forget the unequal distribution of wealth becoming even more extreme, or what that money does (or doesn’t) get spent on, etc., etc.)

    • Mandy Guthrie

      Many school boards are now turning away from the if you raise so much money you will get this prize. Our board now has if you participate your name goes in the draw and you win something but not necessarily the prize that would have gone with that amount. So even if you raise $1 and someone else raises $100, both have the chance to win a great prize

  3. I don’t remember having indoor and outdoor shoes when I was a kid, but I do remember having “gym shoes”. Gym shoes were not worn in the hallways or the classrooms where the dirt had been tracked in from outside. Gym shoes were only worn in the gym.

    So it was the same number of shoes as kids are having to buy today, but I do think it made more sense. It made sense because if there is dust and dirt on the gym floor that does make it dangerous for many gym activities. Having a clean floor and proper footwear was a safety issue.

    But I agree that the way indoor shoes are used now doesn’t really make sense since lots of dirt is tracked into the school hallways from outside and kids then walk in those same hallways with their indoor shoes.

    • Rebecca Cuneo Keenan

      Yes, good point. I don’t think I had gym shoes until high school at which point I wasn’t wearing runners as my everyday shoes anymore anyway. My feet were also not growing (or much) so they could last a couple years.

  4. Beckie

    I don’t really mind having to get indoor shoes. But my kid never had them last a whole year…they either wear out or are outgrown. Or both.

  5. Sarah

    Seriously?? This is what you’re complaining about? That the school needs to be a safe (no wet and slippery floors so that our children don’t fall and hurt themselves) and clean learning environment?
    It’s almost as if the school year started too well for you and you had to find something to complain about. Also, you can get good quality shoes for very reasonable prices. Hand me downs, thrift stores, Once Upon a Child, larger retail stores, etc.
    Do you allow your kids to wear their outdoor shoes in your house? No? Too much to clean I’m guessing. But it’s fine for you to make the custodians do more work…interesting.
    No respect. Disappointed in you.

  6. Bryn

    As a mom, I completely understand what you’re saying from a financial perspective. As a teacher, I have to say that indoor shoes make a big difference to the cleanliness and usability of our schools. If you have ever seen what outdoor shoes look like after children have played on a playing field covered in damp, freshly mowed grass, mud from last night’s rainstorm or dust from a dry field, multiply that by 400-500 and you might be able to appreciate why indoor shoes are important. A carpet, which makes your child’s story time cozy and inviting, costs around $600; cover it in wet, grassy shoes and you will be buying a new one each year. That money is better put towards keeping a bin of cool spare shoes in a variety of sizes that kids can choose from, thereby not perpetuating the gluttony (your word) of replacing the carpet every year. Instead of writing blog rants, consider speaking to your child’s principal about ways that the school can make it easier on low-income families…trust me, the school is always looking to help out!

    • Rebecca Cuneo Keenan

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Bryn. One thing I’m noticing in the response to this post is perhaps a difference between city schools where kids almost always play on a paved playground and schools where they play on fields. I can see that making a difference, especially for younger grades that still sit on the floor.

      “Instead of writing blog rants …”feels a little insulting. I was addressing a wider cultural issue rather than trying to solve an individual concern. I’m sure most schools have help available for parents who are willing to come in and ask for it. I will comply with the teacher’s request, but I should also be free to start a discussion about whether it’s a reasonable policy to begin with.

  7. Wendy

    I have 3 kids, and end up buying 6 pairs of shoes every fall for school too. If I am lucky, the kids can wear last year’s runners as their inside schools, after a spin through the washer. A lot of kids use crocs or fake uggs as their inside shoes, even though it is frowned on by our school. I do understand the point of keeping the classrooms clean-as most of our classrooms have a big carpeted area for sitting and playing. But very few of our classrooms have doors that lead directly outside, so everyone is walking the halls in their wet and dirty shoes in the morning, recess, the school is not staying dry and clean. The gym-yes. Unless parents are coming inside! Those classrooms with outside doors have their cloakroom area on the opposite side, so the dirty shoes track all over the classroom on their way to the clean shoes every morning, recess…lunch. My son often forgets to change back into his outside shoes and comes home from school wearing his inside shoes too!

    • Danielle

      My children are in after-care (inside the school) which requires a 2nd pair of indoor shoes – so yes 3 pairs of runners per year.

  8. Sherissa Microys

    I do not agree. You say so much dirt gets tracked in and then they walk on it with their ‘indoor shoes’ that it does not make a difference – you are wrong. Can even be proved scientifically. They are not keeping the floors perfectly clean but rather cleaner, and last longer. I think you are being selfish, typical of your generation I guess. There are many ways around the cost issue as already mentioned. Consider the many tax payers who pay for school renovations and upkeep or the kids who have to play or sit on floors, and not just of yourself.
    Did not appreciate your swearing in the article either. Do you swear in front of your kids? How about a little respect for other humans?

  9. Sabrina

    I am a Mom of two boys. Never have I been able to pass on a pair of their shoes past size 6mths… I have extremly active boys; that means that they not only wear through the soles, but that they pick at stitching, rubber toe gaurds, etc, when they are sitting on those expensive classroom rugs… I have also never bought a pair of strictly indoor shoes. My boys have running shoes (and if I can find them on sale for $40 or $50 I have scored big time!), rain boots and winter boots. Until the schools set up a foyee for the children to take off their outside shoes upon immediate entry of the school I will not spend an extra $120-150/shoe size (and my eldest has gone through three of those in school year before). The “damage” is done on the way to the classroom. Should they have clean shoes to go into the classroom, yes, but that is why they have the rain/winter boots.

    p.s I am also in my mid-thirtes and I only remember having to have “non-marking” soles for gym class (totally agree with), and suitable outside footware…

  10. I’m not at all arguing with you. You raise some points I hadn’t ever considered. Mainly, I didn’t consider t because having inside shoes for my kid was totally normal for me. Unlike you, I grew up going to school needing inside shoes and outside shoes in elementary. Once I hit middle school I believe that’s when we needed gym shoes. So all throughout my school life I needed sneakers for inside to keep at school. Which is why I just have never questioned it.

  11. As a parent, it’s a pain to have to purchase two pairs. But having worked in a school office, I can see why they enforce this rule. We have a grassy area for recess and the kids play soccer. The mud that is tracked through the school halls alone is a mess. I’d hate to have kids sitting on carpets where there’s mud and who knows what else.

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