On Swim Shoes, Summer and “Seeing” What Matters

Hi Readers — Just got this poignant note from a young woman who sees life, risk and joy pretty clearly! L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am fortunate to live in a community with several wonderful county parks and, growing up, swimming in the lakes there was a  regular part of summer. But then life got hectic and I hadn’t been to the lakes in years, so to celebrate the 4th of July, my parents and I decided it was time to revisit one.

As a child, I never wore my swim shoes in to the water. My siblings and I would stake our claim at a picnic table or lounge chair where we would drop our shoes,  run across boiling hot pavement, sink our toes into to warm sand and  then bounce joyously in the water all afternoon. I could hardly wait to re-live those memories.

Unfortunately, since those days, Mom has heard stories of shards of glass, even needles, piercing children’s feet at the lake, so she did not want me to take off my swim shoes this time.

I am 21 years old, so I could have refused to listen, but I decided maybe she had a point. Maybe we DO have to be more careful these days. I kept them on. But then…something just wasn’t right. I couldn’t bounce around the way I remembered, or kick my feet to swim, because the shoes weighed me down. I found myself standing sullenly in the water thinking I might as well have just stayed on land.

“Can I please, please PLEASE take off my shoes?”

“Okay, but if you hurt yourself–”

“I will take full responsibility for it,” I promised.

Instantly, my shoes were off, my day was transformed and my feet were never even scratched. But after that experience, this blog came to mind.

I would say my mom was a Free-Range parent when my three older siblings and I were growing up. When the weather was beautiful, she would not allow us to sit inside, watching television. And although it wasn’t safe for me to do so, being totally blind in a community with no sidewalks, my siblings would frequently bike to the grocery store or walk to a friend’s house. So to learn that even my own mother had become consumed by fear surprised me.

Of course, those stories of children contracting diseases after stepping on a needle at the beach are horrible. [NOTE FROM LENORE: And rarer than shark attacks!] But while I don’t have statistics about this, the fact that this never happened to me or my siblings or anyone I know  makes me think that,  in the same way kidnapping is so unlikely that it is not worth staying locked in the house, the likelihood of stepping on a needle at the beach is not strong enough to justify missing out on the incredible joy of swimming barefoot. I hope today’s kids don’t.– Allison Nastoff

Allison is a college student majoring in journalism at Carroll
University in Wisconsin. 

Old-fashioned fun at the beach. (Before the needles stories...)

87 Responses

  1. Let me guess: the “needles” and “glass” stories coincided with those “other” (brown) people started going to the beach? That’s what I noticed around here – even though “those” people seemed more likely to pick up after themselves than the previous demographic group.

  2. That’s a pretty strange way of thinking, anon. The OP is 21 years old which means that her mother evidently thought there was no problem with the beaches as little as 10 years ago, probably less. I’m pretty sure “those brown people” were using public beaches most places way long ago back in 2001. But if all your sociological theories are the same brand of hammer, everything looks like a nail, I guess.

  3. Wait, what? She’s 21 years old and asks her mom for permission to take off her shoes? Huh.

    On the topic at hand, I’d like to dispell the myth that Germany is the land of enlightened free-rangers – it’s definitely not anymore. Every store that sells bathing suits also has swim shoes, and yes, people put them on their kids. Even in completely tiled indoor swimming pools.

    Shards, I understand, that really is a problem, depending on where you go, but needles? How likely is that? Hmpf.

  4. I make my kids wear swim shoes when we go to the lake. But that’s not because of needles, or even glass- although I think your chances of stepping on broken glass are far greater than stepping on a needle. I’m worried about them stepping on fishing hooks or cutting their feet on rocks along the shoreline, and since the lake we go to is a popular fishing lake and I’ve seen more than one kid with a fish hook stuck in a foot, I think it’s a justifiable safety concern (and who wants to end a fun day at the lake with a trip to the ER for a fish hook extraction!). Swim shoes are also good to wear in swimming holes because sometimes you have to climb a bit to get out and the traction of the soles is helpful to get in and out when climbing on slimy rocks. But I don’t worry about swim shoes at the beach.

  5. Ah, the days of burning hot pavement under your bare feet as you walked to the pool, I remember them well. It taught us that freshly paved roads were hotter than older (grayer) roads. That concrete sidewalks were better than roads, and grass was the best thing to walk in!
    By walking barefoot if we chose, and it was our choice, we learned to watch where you step. Pay attention where you go. And if the road is too hot??? Bring shoes the next time.
    I’m 33 now, these memories come from when I was 11 or younger and walking several blocks (a mile perhaps?) to the pool. No adults needed. With my younger siblings in tow.

  6. Sara, I think she’s blind – or am I misreading this sentence?

    “And although it wasn’t safe for me to do so, being totally blind in a community with no sidewalks, my siblings would frequently bike to the grocery store or walk to a friend’s house.”

  7. Realize this may be a bit difficult for little kids but when swimming with shoes on, ya gotta use the full reach of your arms and try NOT to paddle kick your legs like you were taught. Takes practice but I’ve enjoyed exploring all sorts of streams, rivers ponds and lakes this way. Mother Nature can pinch your feet just as bad as our trash.
    Don’t kids in The Netherlands have to prove they can swim with cloths and shoes before starting school? (And hope all those dikes hold back the North Sea.)

  8. I love swim shoes, so much better than your almost worn out tennis shoes, But we don’t wear them places, we wouldn’t have worn the tennis shoes 20 or more years ago.

    Climbing over rocks to get to the beach.

    Crossing the red hot (I’m in Texas) parking lots. Sorry when the tar is melting from the heat you need to protect your feet.

    Certain beaches that are known for having sharp shells. (My mom wore “beach” shoes in the 1930’s & 1940’s after getting a nasty infection caused by slicing her foot on an oyster shell.)

    When rafting or tubing, because you have to walk back up stream.

  9. My daughter and I both wear swim shoes, but not becasue either of us want to, its becasue of zebra mussels (google it). The Finger Lakes are unfortuinately being over run by them. They cluster on rocks underwater and are literally as sharp as a razor blade. They will slice your feet to shreds if you happen to step on a rock that has them on it…and anywhere there is a slow current (most beaches), they will attach themselves, including on dock posts, boat lifts, etc… My parents live on the lake, and have to have their water lines re-run annually because the zebra mussels will clog the ends of the lines. They came from the Great Lakes in the late 1980’s and were in Europe before that. They spread like crazy from boats going from one lake to another and I think eventually most fresh water lakes will have them. Sad…

  10. There is one thing to use common sense, but that should be the point. If the tar is melting, protect your feet. When we go to the beach, where we happen to go the beach gets VERY hot by mid-day and a good section is mostly broken up shells/rocks. So .. we wear shoes then. Same thing when we’re out climbing over rocks in streams and rivers, though I’ve often taken off my shoes because I trust my bare feet more.
    But it is about looking with your eyes, or if you physically can’t, then trusting your other senses (and others’ eyes), determining whether it is safe or not (for whatever reason), and THEN making a decision based upon those factors.
    Slightly similar issue with goggles on kids. We never wore them growing up, they were such a pain. If the water you’re swimming in is so bad that you HAVE to have them, then should you be swimming in that water to begin with?? Why, all of the sudden, are ALL kids wearing goggles when around water?

  11. Common sense dictates the gear depending on the water location.

    Water shoes are great for “mucking” in water with rocks and debris. Are they necessary at pools and pristine beaches? I personally don’t think so.
    We spent the week at the beach and I can say I saw a lot of “geared up” little kids (shoes, floaties, etc.) Problem was, the kids had no idea what to do when the current pulled them out. I watched a kid get pulled out in the water, and the parent freak. Kid was screaming and crying.
    I thought how it could have played out better- maybe no gear, stay in the shallow until you get comfortable, feel the water pull you and pull against it, etc.

  12. “Why, all of the sudden, are ALL kids wearing goggles when around water?”

    Probably because a lot of public pools are way over-chlorinated, and it DOES hurt many kids’ eyes. After that, it’s just habit. It makes more sense in a way just to have the habit of wearing goggles if you swim some places where you need them, than to expect people to decide whether or not they “need” their goggles at this particular place or not, if they’re used to wearing them.

  13. This is a really poetic post and I cant thank the writer enough for sharing it with us. Reading this strikes home how much the sense of feel from the writer’s feet are her conduit to the beach. While all of us feel from our feet, we so often ignore those receptors because we use our sight. What an amazing perspective to make us stop and think about those sense memories of feel from our feet.

    The perspective shows us that while it might be easy to conclude “well wearing shoes doesn’t really change the experience at the beach SO JUST IN CASE…” in truth we are binding a sense by doing so. Sometimes it might be necessary to wear shoes; but when its not and we go barefoot, we experience the world through additional receptors and more completely. Its making me want to go find a lake on this steamy day in Gotham.

  14. I’m with kherbert, there are places you really do need shoes around water, and it’s so much nicer to have water-ready shoes then wreck some keds.

    The beach we go to requires us to cross a zone that is, in fact, studded with broken glass (go new jersey!!). Once we are safely past it and in mostly clean sand, my daughter is allowed to kick off her shoes (although she knows to watch for glass, because there are still shards scattered about.)

  15. Et tu, Ma, eh? I know the feeling.

    When I told my mother – wait we need to pause a sec and emphasis, this is MY mother, this is Ma: she. wrote. the. book. on. freerange (before it had, or needed, a name that is, of course) – that my second grader was riding the tram to school alone, and she asked: “Is that safe”?

    What the . . . ? Has there been an invasion of the body snatchers in the New York metropolitan area? Have they been replacing women who had a “Vulcan” response to illogical fear with fuss-pot grannies?

    But I have a good idea who it is that has to answer for this, and, no it’s not extraterrestrials, rather older sibs. Ma was made to realize that she was being far too relaxed with the grandkids (would do things like leave them sleeping in car), and she was finally convinced she needed “reconditioning” to bring her up to speed with “today’s world”. But, brainwashing being what it is, she just needed the proverbial water in the face to come to her senses: Me, saying “Ma, you”? (see title). A little explaining about the modern rage of over-parenting, and telling her about this blog, and the mind was sprung.

  16. Re goggles, I think it’s because goggles have become so much more handy and cool than they used to be. Back when I was a kid in the stone ages (read: late 60’s), the only available goggles were big and ill-fitting and would have made me an object of ridicule. Now we see cool, sleek athletes wearing cool, sleek little goggles. It’s also made swimming more fun, at least for some of us. Swimming as a kid, it was a pain to open eyes even in non-chlorine water, but now the goggles make it a comfortable, clearer experience.

    The only real drawback to goggles relates back to the original post: They do put a layer between the person and the water, and that can detract from the “touch” part of the sensory experience, even as the “sight” part is enhanced. So if I’m wanting to dive into a lake and feel part of nature, the goggles will stay on shore.

  17. Stepping on broken glass could be a definite possibility at the beaches in Chicago where I grew up (despite laws against glass bottles in city parks). Then again the one time one of my kids sliced their foot open on glass it was in our front yard. Some idiot tossed his beer bottle out his car window while driving and it shattered in our yard. We didn’t realize it was all over the grass until she stepped on it. Morons.

    But, I’d like to say not all moms are worried about that stuff all the time. We live in Washington state now and just yesterday took the kids to play in the river that runs through our town. They ran all over the rocky shore sans shoes (most of the time) despite the very slippery rocks, were jumping in the deep areas and just generally enjoying the cool water on a hot summer day.

    Even the baby who sat on the edge with his legs in, splashing, tossing rocks and just having fun. He’ll be 1 next week and at home he throws a fit in the bath but set him by the river and he tries to crawl into the deep areas, lol. And no one really hovered over him. I just stood to the side so he wouldn’t attempt to crawl into the areas that were over his head but otherwise I left him to his own devises while I watched the other kids jumping and splashing.

    Did they get hurt? Yep. My 9yo son slipped on the rocks into the deep end, scraped up his legs and jammed one of his fingers (still complaining about that) but it didn’t stop him from jumping in a few minutes later. Everyone got a few scrapes and bruises on the slipper, sharp rocks but we survived and plan to go back next weekend… in our suits so we don’t have to ride home soaking wet, lol.

    There were lots of families there, all up and down the river (there are falls all over and they create little pools to swim in) just enjoying the water. Some had water shoes on mostly because it hurts adults to walk on the little river rocks and they offer some traction on the slippery surfaces.

    Oh, and on the hike back through the woods to get to the car my son didn’t wear any shoes despite the broken glass we did see and all the other rocks, pine needles and other hazards. We warned him but he took off anyway. Shrug. He watched where he stepped and survived the climb.

  18. As for all types of protection, swim shoes should be worn when needed, ie. beach with sharp seashells or melting pavement. I believe the point the author was trying to make was that the beach she had grown up going to was always safe for bare feet in the past, so what had changed in the 10 years since her childhood… and obviously nothing as she was able to eventually enjoy the water in her bare feet again. What has changed is the unfounded fear that something has changed. As for goggles… I remember envying other kids and wishing I had them while my eyes burned from chlorinated pools or while I was unable to see in murky, muddy waters that I was free to swim in whether dirty or not… I think they are tons of fun and possibly just cheaper and more readily available these days.

  19. The only thing I can agree with in regards to swim shoes (or aqua shoes as I remembered them), is in public facilities in pools or beaches. Particularly in the washrooms and change rooms. With many people walking in and out of there, and being constantly wet, bacteria will always be present, good and bad. And all it takes is a small cut to get infected or to infect. Some times all it takes is contact. Even when I was growing up, we were always recommended to keep our flip flops on when using the shower and washroom facilities. But once we were in the main pool area or beach, they came off with no repercussions.

    Reason…when your outside most of the area (except for in the pool or in the lake/ocean) is dried up by the sun. Most bacteria and fungus cannot survive in dry hot surfaces. So there is something to be said about keeping your flip flops, sandals, swim shoes on in certain areas. But not everywhere.

  20. Actually, while we never encountered any sharks (haha, joking), my son did step into broken glas in the water once… but we still don’t have swim shoes. None of us really likes to wear them.

    So long,

  21. Goggles – kids just like them. My daughter wants goggles because she thinks they’re cool. She doesn’t need them, nor so I think she needs them, but she wanted them and I saw no reason to prevent her from spending her own money on them.

  22. Every store that sells bathing suits also has swim shoes, and yes, people put them on their kids. Even in completely tiled indoor swimming pools.

    I felt that swim shoes and flipflops were silly at my local Y – until I slipped and fell HARD on the floor. Apparently the floor and the tiles on the pool are really, really slippery. Bad design choice there.

  23. Each to their own. As someone who has feet that are MAGNETS for glass I am happy wearing my swim shoes and putting them on my kids. Not sure if they have my bad luck with stepping on glass but it makes me feel better. They wear crocs outside and in the water. For actual swimming they can take them off but need to wear them on the ground so I don’t hear whining about glass, rocks, shells, etc hurting their feet.

    I had glass medically removed from my feet twice. One time was when I was a child and was going barefoot around a pool and some drunk broke a glass. It was a sliver of glass microscopically small. It hurt worse than anything! Every time I stepped I felt a shock of pain shoot up my leg. After it not coming out for weeks we had to have it looked at. Turns out they had to use a microscope to remove it and it was right on a nerve. The stuff to deaden it hurt like heck too. I learned my lesson after that.

    Or did I? Did it again multiple times. But they were from my own house where I broke a glass and missed one tiny sliver. Had another removed as an adult. Had others get in there but come out on their own or did not go in deep enough so I pulled them out right away.

    So from my personal experience I encourage swim shoe wearing. But if you want to let your kids go barefoot, have at it. When they are teenager or older they can make the call themselves but I am keeping my flip flops on as much as I can!

  24. For us the concern is zebra mussels. Read what Lisa wrote. Just the other day, my son cut his foot on one in Canandaigua Lake. It’s not fun! So…sometimes moms suggest and wear water shoes for a reason…the same moms who allow their kids to bike to the lake by themselves for a swim (although the kids do not always listen).

  25. I never even heard of swim shoes before this post! When I was really little, we had flip-flops (not the trendy kind they have now, the kind that were sold in drugstores in a giant bin for $3 per pair). When I got older, I just used my own sandals. I don’t recall ever taking them in the water, but they were good to walk along the beach, or from the car to the beach. Swimming with shoes on seems weird to me, although the zebra mussel thing is a good point.

  26. Yep, I see nothing wrong with swim shoes where needed – though I’ve never bought a pair for myself. The poster who talked about experiencing the world through touch expressed my feeling about any sort of footwear in most situations. At 40, I’m still the one taking my shoes off on a city street, and picking my way over the sidewalk, avoiding glass, but not worrying about rocks too much. The feel of the concrete (or sand or grass or dirt or rocks) is pure decadence to me, so long as the temperature is within range, and a path exists that won’t get me cut up. At the beach, I’ll remove my shoes as soon as I possibly can – my feet are tingling with the anticipation of sand in my toes, just thinking about it.

  27. Oh, this takes me back to high school float trips-each year that was the end point for the previous year’s tennis shoes. We would take them off some for swimming, etc. but for climbing around on the rocks, etc. some type of protection was useful. I would now use swim shoes just because they get less waterlogged.

  28. I remember my inlaws trying to get my kids to wear swim shoes in their pool. That didn’t go over well! Goggles are requested sometimes by the kids, but mostly they’ve learned to cope.

    I can see using swim shoes when conditions warrant, but not otherwise. Probably don’t need them on a sandy beach, short of seeing a problem with glass or other sharp items.

  29. I am definitely a free-range parent but I bought my 3 year old son a pair of swim shoes two days ago. Why?
    1. The sand at the beach was so hot the other day it literally burned the bottom of his feet and he cried for hours.
    2. They don’t fill up with sand and make it hard for him to walk when we get to the beach and are walking to find a spot.
    3. Since they have no straps or velcro he can put them on and take them off himself which makes him happy.
    4. He can wear them to camp and also play gymnasium games in them since they are rubber soled and his flip-flops make aren’t.

    On a side note: He doesn’t wear them in the water.

    We need to remember not to vilify products. It’s not the swim shoes that are a problem, it’s the paranoia that makes us use them inappropriately. Discerning doesn’t only apply to risk assessment, but also to chilling out over chilling out… if you know what I mean.

  30. “Why, all of the sudden, are ALL kids wearing goggles when around water?”

    Because we’ve figured out it’s a hell of a lot easier to swim with goggles than without them, and we can buy them cheaply in any color or size we want?

    “never even heard of swim shoes before this post! When I was really little, we had flip-flops (not the trendy kind they have now, the kind that were sold in drugstores in a giant bin for $3 per pair).”

    You mean the kind that are sold in drugstores in a giant bin for $1 a pair today? Gotta love free trade.

  31. I would have loved swim goggles as a kid, would have gotten me and my cousins out and in the pool more instead of sitting inside with blurred vision recovering from chlorine burns on our retinas.

    Swim shoes are nice sometimes, like for taking long walks up creek beds when the going is too slow and painful to enjoy the walk without them. Wetsuit booties are nice too in parts of the ocean where the water is cripplingly cold. In both those cases though the foot protection facilitates more play. On nicer surfaces, where the risk is slight or the sensations dampened, barefoot is the only way to go. Nice callouses kept my feet mostly safe when I was a kid and my mishaps made me aware and competant on a broad range of surfaces.

  32. Yeah, this one is pretty silly complaint — it totally depends on the situation. We often wore old sneakers in lakes/streams with sharp/slimy rocks. Modern shoes would be a LOT more comfortable.

  33. Right on to Allison!

    I seem to be in the minority here with other posters, but I for one vote AGAINST the usage–or the implied need–for swimming shoes. Maybe to wear when the sand is hot or the shore-line is rocky, sure, but once you’re actually in the water? For goodness sake, take the darn shoes off, enjoy the feel of the water on your BARE feet.

    Swimming with shoes on is like watching a video of a roaring fire on television as opposed to actually standing in FRONT on a LIVE one, or wearing a helmet when doing any activity at all (helmets for bikes comes to mind, although for kids it’s not a bad idea), or buying a convertible but never taking the top down even when it’s sunny and 70’F outside–it’s totally beside the point. Even more so, it’s “sterile” and takes most (if not all) of the fun out of it. To me it’s a form of “bubble-wrapping.”

    Same goes for how guys these days (but not me) wear long shorts that come down almost to their knees while swimming, and other people who wear “regular” clothes in the water vs a swimsuit–all that extra clothing makes it harder to move (kick your legs etc) and takes away from the invigorating feeling of water soaking BARE SKIN. Me: I’m 42 years of age, I wear absolutely NOTHING in the water but shorts that look straight out of the 80s for swimming, and do so with PRIDE, ha ha. (I even take off my waterproof watch so as to be as “bare” as possible.)


  34. I’m with Renee, I opt not to wear shoes whenever possible. I usually wear flip flops or other shoes that are easy to slip out of, and that’s what I do. Pretty much everywhere I can. When I was a kid, shoes came off as soon as I got home from school and didn’t go back on until the next morning. There is nothing like feeling the world with your feet as you navigate it. And I really hate swim shoes too. Who can actually swim in those things? If anything I think they are more of a drowning hazard because they make it more difficult to swim and stay afloat.

  35. My son and I wear water shoes because most of the beaches we go to are so pebbly they’re hard to walk on, much less run across in joyful abandon, if our feet are bare. When we get to the smooth sand, we take them off — unless it’s very cold out, or it’s a beach where those nasty weever fish are lurking. 🙂

  36. Funny, I was just bemoaning having to go buy each of mine a pair of water shoes because their camps require them! Just as they require them EACH to have their own sunblock and bug repellent. Chaching!

    On a side note/complaint: the one with the sure sense of adventure and lacking sense of balance and gravity wiped out at the pool today and busted her lip. The camp is *required* to take her to the ER, even though the (perfectly competent) nurse (whom we know from school and therefore trust) says she’s fine. Required! My wife is there with her now and probably will be all evening. What a waste of everyone’s resources and energies.

  37. Now I’m sitting here thinking, hm, maybe if she had those shoes she wouldn’t have crashed and burned and this whole ER mess could have been avoided. :p

  38. The thought of needles or glass in a lake never even occurred to me. We have a lake with a sandy beach near us that we go to quite a bit during the summer. We all wear crocs with our swimsuits to get there but as soon as we’re their the kids ditch them till it’s time to go home. I keep mine on, I hate the slimy bottom of the lake, it’s gross! I have no fear of something bad happening, I just don’t like the feeling, so I wear my crocs. I also like how it makes my feet float 🙂 I’ve got my noodle behind my neck and my feet up from the crocs, it’s a nice comfy way to float 🙂 My daughter loves to run around shoeless. Even after getting stung by a bee on the bottom of her foot. I thought she’d want shoes after that, but she loves to run barefoot. Who am I to stop her, she’s the one who will have to deal with the pain if she steps on another bee. If she wants to take that risk, it’s all good. Now for me, I’ll be wearing my shoes, I don’t want to step on a bee!!!

  39. I too am with Renee. Barefoot! Love it! I have messed up feet now at 45 from being a food server in crappy shoes in my youth, but the less covering the better. Love my Chaccos. LOVE!! They can go in water if needed (yup to the zebra mussels and sharp rocks) and come off in a hot second anywhere it’s suitable. Which, to me, is pretty much everywhere.
    My daughter, at 11, was in a local park wearing flip-flops. The cheapos, but that’s beside the point. Walking back up a path, her flip-flop got stuck in the mud, and when she took a step back to retrieve it, she hit a piece of broken glass. A big one. Nearly severed a toe, cut through all layers and severed a nerve. Surgery. That was fun. BUT… let me also say that she was at the park with a friend who was 10, no parents. There was a knock on my door, and a man unknown to me said he had my girl in his car, that she’d cut her foot, and I might want to take a look. He’d carry her upstairs to our apartment, or put her in my car, whatever I decided. One look, car please! But yes. That’s right. A man who’d been picnicking with his girlfriend was the one who heard her yelp, and saw her friend come running up out of the ravine looking panicked. He scooped her up, stuck her bleeding, muddy self in his car, and asked her where she lived. Done.

  40. We were just at the beach this past week and my boys decided water shoes were just for walking across the sand. Once we set up our base camp they were off, in the water for hours, with no shoes. This was also after a 10 year old girl was bitten by a shark two days before. It didn’t stop us from getting in the water – although we were probably more watchful.

  41. About goggles, I hate them because they give me a huge sinus head aches. I use a mask if I want/need to see under water. My cousin wears goggle because she is legally blind w/o her contacts.

  42. When I was 7, my older sister and I – being free-range due to having a single working mother – went for a creek walk. I stepped on a broken bottle that went through my shoe. It required 12 stitches, kept me home from school for a week (by myself some days!) and was my favorite show-and tell EVER. It’s fun to gross out the boys.

    Clearly, I turned out fine. The only concerns were an up=to-date tetanus and damage to the tendon (minimal.)

    But if the option had been No Creek Walks, or Many Creek walks resulting in skinned knees, wet clothes, and one incident requiring stitches…I’ll take Creek Walks, thanks.

    Incidentally, when I was in middle school, my little brother and I were swinging from a rope swing over a different creek. It broke and I needed 14 stitches in my back. Also – requiring me to stay home from school and when I was IN school I got to have the CUTEST BOY carry my books. So really, sometimes the risk is worth it!

  43. not completely the same, but there is a small bay beach near us where you have to literally walk out over half a mile before the water reaches an adult’s knees… I LOVE this beach because I can safely let my 3 yr old play out in the water where he is comfortable, and feels a bit of independance, and I can stay closer to shore with my 1 yr old who likes to sit and splash in the shallow wake area. Earlier this week I witnessed a mother with 3 children between the ages of probably 7 – 11 and all three had these water wings attached to what looked like a chest diameter water wing…. for a moment I thought this woman must think I am so irresponsible to let my toddlers out into this water virtually unassisted (certainly my 3 yr old was even beyond my reach, though not unsupervised) And then I thought, why are those children so fearful of water that is not even deeper than thier bathtub at home?? maybe the don’t take baths either, only showers? though my mother would say you could just as easily slip and fall in the shower as drown in a tub…
    anyway, I am glad my children feel safe enough to step out on thier own, knowing I will always be there to catch them when & if it’s necessary, but also knowing that they can usually pick themselves up just fine on their own!

  44. I think swim shoes have their purpose but I don’t suggest them for things like glass or needles. We used them in lakes that are really rocky, but if you are actually wanting to swim, well then swim shoes are super annoying so you might just have to suffer the sharp rocks until you can float.
    I don’t let my kids take off their shoes at nearby parks/playgrounds because I constantly see broken glass lying around. But we use our discretion, some parks seem cleaner then others so shoes can come off sometimes.

  45. Goggles, as pool water is so chlorinated.
    As for footwear, fav family beach as a kid, you needed them as jelly’s often (well, nearly always) washed up, tentacles can be 2-3m long and invisible, and still sting like *&%$ only took one sting to have shoes back on for rest of summer. We make the kids wear them when jelly’s are washed up on the beaches where we are now, as it can totally ruin the day at the beach.
    Oh and I needed them as a kid on the one holiday we did to the US, when in Hawaii we found out I’m allergic to coral, even dead and in teeny tiny little bits.

  46. I prefer to go without the swim shoes. I refuse to wear them at the pool or let my kids wear them there. When in Santa Cruz, I once burnt my feet badly trying to get a kid to the bathroom without my shoes on. Hurt for several days. (And in case anyone is wondering, it was #2. Bathroom necessary!)

    But, I think part of the point here is that the woman writing this is 21 and her mother is telling her to wear swim shoes.

    We lived in a yard with many goat heads (a nasty, nasty plant that will pop bike tires) and loads of glass. The rule was, wear your shoes out back. If a kid cut their foot, I did not do a pity party. My youngest however, has a gallon jar full of broken glass that he started collecting when he was 3 from that yard. I figured if they wanted to take the chance, they could deal with the consequences. Most of the time, they wore their shoes, sometimes they didn’t. I didn’t sit beside them every second because I had other things to do.

  47. I would have loved swim shoes where I grew up – there were sharp rocks on the shore, so it was yelpy tip-toeing to the water for me… of course, where there were sandy or grassy beaches, I went barefoot.

    Speaking of barefoot, I walked barefoot in New York City this past weekend. It rained, and my sandals got soaked, and got tree seeds and sand there, so my feet would be raw had I worn them. So I shlepped around barefoot (watching where I stepped) until I got to the nearest bathroom where I could wash my shoes and my feet.

  48. We often wore shoes when we swam in the river (though not at the beach). For years my old sand shoes would be demoted to the rank of swimming shoes.

    However this really has nothing to do with the point of this article as in our case sharp rocks and branches would leave our feet in shreds.

  49. I am with Elizabeth. I am not against most products in themselves. It is all about how you use it and moderation.

  50. @Danielle if by water wings you mean the same thing as floaties – that mom was being irresponsible. Floaties are horrible. I’ve been in several situations where a child nearly drowned because they and the “parents” thought those stupid things would keep the child safe. Floaties ARE NOT a life saving device. In each case the floaties deflated. Thankfully either a life guard or a member of my family spotted the child slipping silently under the water and rescued the child. The parents didn’t even notice their child was in trouble. When told what had happened and that the child needed to be checked out (if they had aspirated water they can suffer from dry drowning later), the parents always says, “But they have their floaties on”. (This has happened 3 times when I was there, and has happened another 2 times when I wasn’t there but a family member was)

    In my extended family we have a rule non swimmers stay in water no more than knee high on the non swimmer – or they are in life jackets. Real US Coast Guard Approved (or Canadian equivalent) life jackets. All kids in our family can pool swim by 3 years or so. By middle elementary they know the rules and can judge their abilities in sheltered open water. No matter how rebellious they get in their teenage years (and we have had some real hell raiser) those water rules are as ingrained as looking both ways before crossing the street.

  51. Cheryl W, on July 7, 2011 at 06:46 said:

    “But, I think part of the point here is that the woman writing this is 21 and her mother is telling her to wear swim shoes.”

    The woman writing this is also blind. My blind 40+yo friend will often ask me if it is safe for her to go shoeless on beaches and in parks/backyards as well.

    She, like us all, enjoys the feel of sand and grass, but since she can’t see the dangers she has to trust her friends to tell her if it is safe. If she is with her mother, I’m betting she will ask her mother the same thing.

    I know she often depends on her children for the same advice – which you have to admit is pretty free-range… trusting your kids with not only thier own safety, but your own too!

  52. My brother and I used to have to wear our Keds in the water. I love swim shoes! But, my son goes barefoot.

  53. Jynet, thanks, somehow I missed that point in the essay. And yes, all the more important that she have contact with her environment. And that those with her use all of their senses to ensure that she is safe – a needle or glass will go right through those shoes.

  54. My sister & I were just talking about this – my mother bought my kids (ages 2.5 and 17 months) beach shoes, and they have been wearing them – partly because the sand gets pretty hot during the day & partly because of the rocky beach here in East Sandwich – because they are so small. But I’ve told my oldest that in another year or two she’ll be expected to toughen up & go barefoot on the beach like we did as kids – and be grateful there aren’t barnacles all over the rocks like there used to be… xo

  55. Kherbert, I agree with you that floaties give a false sense of safety. But then, I worked as a lifeguard when in college. I get nervous when I see kids with them on because the parents feel like they can look away.

    My kids, I let them go in as deep as they want, but I watch like a hawk so that I can help if needed. My kids would never have learned to swim had they been confined to water up to their knees. And since I have one that will not let “mom” teach him, trial and error is what it actually takes. The youngest, the unteachable one, would not go beyond his safety zone. He pushed it as he felt more confident. As he mimicked other kids, he learned to swim underwater, and later at the top. He is now pretty safe in any depth, as long as it is not too far (as would be the case for ANY swimmer.) He did scare himself a couple of times, but did learn from those mistakes, without drowning. If in trouble, I would not hesitate to get in.

    I must say that I also hate family gatherings at swimming pools because parents are so into talking to each other that they do not watch their young swimmers enough. We now belong to a pool at a RV park with no life guard that is 5 feet deep. At times I have to leave because the parents (who are required to be there) are not supervising and I don’t want to be there when the kid gets hurt.

  56. Why is everyone having to justify wearing proper equipment for the environment at hand? I wore boots in the Army, because that is what you wore. I wear flip flops at the Y, because 27000 other people are in there showering. Could I have marched bare foot? My podiatrist would say, theoretically, yes.Would it be smart, now, given current conditions and a few hundred years of evolving out of walking without shoes? No.

    Wear them if you need them, don’t if you don’t. It doesn’t make you any less of a ‘free-range’ parent. Coming into a blog to justify yourself before herd mentality makes you less of a free range parent, though. Why not focus on things like not being able to ride bikes to school because of stupid administrators, or HOA rules against playing outside, instead of individual clothing choices?

  57. Great blog, but in defense of swim shoes, I’ve been in some gyms where the locker room was so scuzzy I’d never walk barefoot. Of course, that is a visible risk- you can see the scuzz- as opposed to the “maybe there are tiger sharks in the kiddie pool” kind of risks.

    But I have to wonder about a 21 year old begging his mother for permission to take off his shoes at the beach.

  58. Sorry, “her shoes,” not his.

  59. My kids and I wear swim shoes because the lake at our cottage is full of zebra mussels and we’ve had guests who didn’t wear them and ripped the skin on their feet to shreds. I’ve brushed against zebra mussels on my arm and that was a nasty burn/cut that I could imagine would be horrendous if on the soles of your feet. They also make the trek back up the cottage a lot easier to manage as you climb uphill over rocks and trees on a dirt path.
    My kids are so used to wearing water shoes at the cottage that they’ve asked to wear them when we go to the local splash pad. My son told me it was because water shoes makes it easier to a) climb the water sprayers and b) climb on the regular playground and avoid getting sand on your feet. He can easily go from the splash pad to the playground and climb to his heart’s content.

  60. While I would never think about needles in the water, I have sliced my foot on stuff (shells/rocks) in the ocean before and subsequently wear shoes and have my kids wear shoes. I think it depends on the beach.

  61. While I never had swim shoes, I did, and still do, spend a LOT of time in water in sport sandals from the time I was old enough to have a preference. We spend a lot of time in creeks and rivers with a combination of very sharp and very slippery rocks. It is simply smart to protect your feet, and sport sandals (or water shoes, as some of my friends wore) gave you traction and protection without weighing you down as much as last year’s Nikes did. I also prefer sport sandals for white water rafting and boating, for the same reason. Never wore sport sandals or any footwear at pools, although flip-flops have always been mandatory in shower/ locker/ changing rooms, due to athlete’s foot and other germy issues. To this day I prefer to go barefoot whenever possible. I have callouses on my callouses from walking on hot pavement. Sport sandals are simply proper athletic equipment when I wear them, same as a bike helmet (which I chose not to wear, incidentally).

    I’ll add, however, that I was a senior in high school before I got to go to an ocean beach on vacation (Wildwood, NJ, as a 1 day stopover), and 27 before I got to really spend a lot of time in the water at an ocean beach. That sand at Virginia Beach last summer was HOT, and flip-flops didn’t do shit. Water shoes might have been tempting to get from the boardwalk to the edge of the water, where the sand cooled off.

    As for goggles, I prefer to be able to see underwater when I’m swimming. With contact lenses, I can’t open my eyes in heavily chlorinated water or in mucky lake water without risking problems. Without contact lenses, I can open my eyes, but my vision is bad enough that my hands hit things before I can see them anyway. Hence, I wear goggles.

  62. @Cheryl W – Sorry the water to the knees thing is for open water while they are running around and playing. Pools they are fine in deeper water with an older family member who can stand. Open water with unsure footing, changing currents is a completely different matter.

    Part of the reason for the knee thing is that there are two places we frequent that drop off pretty quickly. One is a river. The other a beach. The river has a bank and kind of rock shelf that drops down to the deeper channel. The beach at high tide has a pool area, sandbar then drops off.

  63. .Would it be smart, now, given current conditions and a few hundred years of evolving out of walking without shoes? No.

    1. Human evolution simply doesn’t work that fast. Our childhood and lifespan is too long.

    2. Even if it did, it is only very very recently that most people have been able to wear shoes (able and willing!) most of the time in the West. It’s not even the case everywhere yet! Human feet are still evolved to be bare.

    2a. Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t good places and times to wear shoes of various sorts, but we certainly haven’t “evolved out of being barefoot” or anything of that sort. What nonsense!

  64. “Would it be smart, now, given current conditions and a few hundred years of evolving out of walking without shoes? ”

    Besides what Uly said, traveling long distances without pause at a steady rate with a heavy pack on your back is not “natural” behavior. Of course you need special foot equipment for such heavy-duty work, just as you need other kinds of special equipment.

    I don’t think that anyone’s saying that footwear has no uses, just that bare feet are probably good more of the time than we tend to think, when we’re not doing heavy-duty work, traveling long distances on foot, and so forth. I’m sure even the barefoot advocates would agree that ancient people who were forced on long marches would have been the better for shoes, but the fact is that most of our lives most of the time don’t put that kind of stress on our feet — bare feet are fine as long as there are no particular hazards on the ground we’re covering.

    “Even if it did, it is only very very recently that most people have been able to wear shoes (able and willing!) most of the time in the West. ”

    Little House on the Prairie references seem to come up a lot on this blog — the Ingalls girls even with their very proper Ma did not wear shoes in summer except to church until they were teenagers. They lived pretty tight economically, but were by no means destitute — they’d have had shoes if was considered a real necessity. It just wasn’t considered necessary.

  65. And I meant to add — that was less than150 years ago.

  66. Societally, in the US, we have. Many of the posts here support that. Most any business will not allow a person to enter with no shoes. Being barefoot is considered in some circles to be crass, poor, distasteful, ‘hillbilly’….need I go on? My point was that it’s ridiculous to pretend this is a ‘free-range’ issue, when there are so many other much more pressing issues attempting to restrict how I raise my kids. I really don’t consider whether or not they wear shoes in a body of water to be that much of a liberating accomplishment.

  67. Well, if you want to prove that we’ve now evolved to not need shoes – yes, you need to go on. Because you haven’t really tackled that issue at all.

    You also haven’t touched upon why people are framing wearing shoes in a place where typically people go unshod (not stores, but at beaches and pools and whatnot) as a modern safety issue. The OP’s mother didn’t want her daughter to go barefoot, not because going barefoot is “tacky” or because they were in a store, but because she thought there might be glass or needles in the lake… despite the fact that she was okay with it only ten years ago, when her daughter was a child.

    It’s possible for that lake to have become more contaminated. I don’t know what the situation here is. However, there *is* a legitimate free-range concern when people are seeing danger where they did not see danger before.

  68. Sorry, evolved to need shoes, I meant to say.

  69. Darn it, lost my last comment. For crying out loud, it only had ONE link! Lenore, could you unscreen it pretty please? I happen to like that link.

  70. I wear my goggles so I don’t lose my contacts, and because I’m sensitive to bright sunlight, hate squinting and can’t swim freely in sunglasses. My niece wears goggles because she likes to do what I do. Who cares?

    Ditto the pool shoes. Since I was a kid in the sixties my family has used them (yay for modern sport sandals!). We wear them at splash pools because they are less slippery and falling on concrete hurts. We wear them in locker rooms because we don’t want plantar warts. We wear them at the lake because the surface underfoot is uncomfortable. Some of us take them off in the water, some of us don’t. Who cares?

    It does concern me that a 21 year old, blind or not, is asking if she can “please, PLEASE” go barefoot. Maybe the beach is more dangerous, things do change, and she can’t see that for herself — but asking if it’s safe is different than asking permission…and if it weren’t for the asking of permission, well, who’d’ve cared?

    We talk about the good old days a lot on here — but I’m not convinced that a little increased safety awareness is actually a bad thing. Lots of preventable injuries are now prevented. How is that, in and of itself, anti-free-range?

  71. Kherbert, it is certainly fine. What gets me is that most of the parents who say that they want the kid to only go to the knees are actually afraid of water themselves. Parents do need to be aware of their own limitations, and if they are scared of the water, they need to be where there are lifeguards. But they still need to watch their kids because the lifeguard can’t look everywhere at once. I may have a different tolerance for what I will allow because I have been trained and know what to do (even without a floatation device) should someone be drowning. Now, as I get older, and my kids get bigger, well, that may change some too.

  72. I agree with Uly.

    This young woman was not encouraged to wear swim shoes because of zebra muscles, or slippery rocks, or obvious glass, or foot fungus of any type…it was because there might be a needle on the beach. It is a Free Range issue because it is an example of inflated/exaggerated perception of a risk that “could be prevented”. Wear swim shoes because there might be….

    People start defending their status as a Free Range Parent by explaining why they NEED to use water shoes (or leashes or anything else) by outlining what they perceive as real risks. Sometimes, they explain how they are Free Range specifically because they use a safety device to allow them to have experiences other parents would avoid because they are “too dangerous.” For example wearing swim shoes where there are jellyfish or those zebra muscles, instead of just not swimming, or, my favorite, attaching a toddler in a life jacket to a leash so they could experience rough surf.

    It is about the perception of risk, what makes it “real” vs “minimal” for someone. How risk averse or tolerant a parent is (or school/daycare/camp is, or public pool is, or whatever is) ….. What makes it okay to take risk? What is the tradeoff to avoiding/reducing risk? How much risk is too much?

  73. I will say that I’m very stern with NOT letting either my 2 or 4 year-old just take their shoes off spontaneously, because I don’t like “orphaned” shoes (where one of the 2 is missing). I even discipline for it. I absolutely can’t stand things being lost.

    Still, I do have them ALWAYS swim bare-footed period. To me anything else is just abnormal. If a given spot isnt suitable due to rocks etc I just won’t swim there at all–me or them. If shoes are required for swimming in a given spot then the spot isn’t a suitable swimming spot AT ALL in my book. Swimming any other way besides bare-footed is like going out on a date with a woman “as friends”–think what you want but you are NOT on a real date and you might as well have just stayed home & dropped the pretense. You’re settling for a cheap imitation of the real thing.

    Android VM

  74. Actually I find that swim shoes and goggles can help a kid be more free-range. For example, one of my daughters hates getting water in her eyes, never wanted to go near a pool etc as a toddler. Once she got her goggles that all changed, and she loves the pool now, fooling around with her friends, doing underwater gymnastics etc. I remember my own brother as a child trying to swim keeping his eyes above water, and think if he’d had goggles then he’d be a much better swimmer now and able to enjoy water much more. And swim shoes are great for allowing a kid to explore water in its “wild” state, i.e. lakes and streams, without worrying about rocks and glass. I’d never actually swim in swim-shoes (but then I don’t know how men can swim in knee-length baggy shorts either).

  75. I agree with Uly & Taradlion here (and others I’m sure).

    To use or not use swim shoes should be a CHOICE. A decision that is reached as a result of logical reasoning of the circumstances. NOT one made out of fear of what “could” be lurking out there.

    As per googles – again, I understand why some CHOOSE to wear them and where they are beneficial. What I don’t understand is 1) why people would continue to choose to swim in water that is so chlorinated as to burn your eyes (and damage hair and so on), or, more to the point why suddenly they seem to be mandatory for children to use.
    When we were little some chose to wear them, some (most) didn’t. I realize they’ve changed since then and are more comfortable now. However, the way I see them being passed out at pools for kids to wear, as if they were as essential as the bathing suit itself is what makes me go “Huh??”

    It is wise to examine and be aware of real dangers and make decisions based upon that. But, letting potential, possible, could be, boogey-man-esque fears manifest themselves to the point that we change our day to day lives is what is the issue here.

    A final bravo to Allison, the woman who wrote the original piece. Her writing is very eloquent and beautiful. Good for her.

  76. For teenagers at least they might be wearing goggles because they have contacts. If you open your eyes under water with contacts in they come out.

  77. @Sara — do you live in Germany? This sentence isn’t true:
    “Every store that sells bathing suits also has swim shoes, and yes, people put them on their kids. Even in completely tiled indoor swimming pools.” And who said this one was?: “Germany is the land of enlightened free-rangers”. And last but not in the least, least, were “the myth” true, why would children wearing swimshoes in indoor swimming pools dispell it? Athlete’s foot is a real, very contagious (albeit, probably eventually unavoidable) condition. Being stuck in the foot by a needle sticking up out of the sand is, a Lenore put’s it, rarer than a shark bite.

  78. I got a plantars wart on my foot once in college. I was living at home so it was not from shared bathrooms or anything like that. Not sure how I got it. By God that was the most painful thing! I thought it was glass forever and finally had a podiatrist diagnose it. The way to cure it??? Some kind of juice from a beetle in the rainforest. I kid you not! It was like $200 a drop or something crazy like that. I had to have two applications to rid it but it worked! Crazy story! Sorry for my unrelated foot story LOL!

  79. Well, My kids have never worn swim shoes in the water, lake beach, or pool. The all can swim, and when the were younger went in deep water with me or their mother close by. As for my childhood, well neither of my parents could swim, at all, when we went to the beach, they would come in with us, but really, what could they do if there was a problem? My mom insisted on swimming lessons from a very early age. My sons are all teenagers now, I don’t watch them too closely, as they are confident strong swimmers, but they are never out of my line of sight. My mom, however watches them like a Hawk. My youngest at 13 is beyond excited that he can go to the pool on his own now.
    Swim shoes are fine if you want to wear them, in fact there are some places I swam as a kid i would have loved to have them(rocks etc) but really to each his/her own

  80. One day, in 7th grade (when I not only walked myself to school, but also woke up on my own and was more or less home alone for an hour) I couldn’t find my shoes. The shoe gremlin had came and stolen one of each of them, apparently. So I wore my water shoes. With several layers of socks, given that is was winter.

    This is the only memory I have of actually using water shoes. I had them, and each summer started with the intent of using them, but they were always a bummer.

  81. I was just thinking about how many foot doctors cry out against shoes as being harmful to the development of young feet…

  82. Emiky: that is right. I never put shoes on my kids till they actually were walking around outside. No need for it. I know baby shoes are cute, but i found them a complete waste of money plus not good for their developing feet and it can actually make walking take longer since kids need to feel the floor to learn to walk. So mine just wore cute socks out in public. I don’t care if people find that tacky. I was not spending money on shoes that would never touch the ground and get outgrown quickly for two boys. If it was cold I put 2 pairs of socks on them and a blanket over their feet. Shoes though, no.

  83. Of course, it’s not just water shoes.

    As a child, I liked to go barefoot. (I still do as a grown-up, but that’s not relevant here.) So I *did* go barefoot around my block. Not a day went by without several well-meaning grown-ups telling me I should wear shoes “so you don’t step on glass”. Or on a nail, or on a cigarette. And every time I’d point out to them that there WAS no glass on the sidewalks. “But there could be!”

    Because I’m so stupid that I’m going to see glass or nails or dog poo or whatever on the sidewalk and step right on it. Heck, I don’t even do that in shoes! The one time something on the sidewalk went through my foot, I was shod. I hadn’t realized that bit of wood was so sharp, and it went RIGHT through the sole of my shoe and into my foot.

    It took several years for the grown-ups to stop trying to “help”. I think they eventually got tired of being wrong. I’m sure it would’ve pleased them immensely if I’d ever gotten some tragic injury that could’ve been averted if only I’d taken their sage advice. Alas, it never happened – and even had it, I would not have told them. I wasn’t that dumb!

  84. I had to buy water shoes for aqua aerobics (college, 5 years ago). They do help prevent slipping when running in the pool and reduce callouses from rough pool bottoms. I assume they also help prevent athlete’s foot in the locker room. They would be virtually useless for protection from rocks or glass though. That requires serious old shoes or sports sandals.

  85. I didn’t have time to read all the comments so sorry if I’m repeating someone else. If you habitualy don’t wear shoes you, surprise surprise, grow accustomed to walking without shoes. You don’t step on things that are going to hurt you excepting *very* rare circumstances. I was barefoot as both a child and up into my early 20’s whenever possible because I have problems with my feet that shoes aggrevate (I spend less time now barefoot just because I *must* legally wear shoes to drive or go into a store and that’s most of why I am out and about, but still take my shoes off at playgrounds, parks, or when just walking), and my feet where tough enough (from a pretty young age) to not need to worry about thorns or slivers or shards of glass, and when I was on sharp rocks, shells, larger broken glass, etc you shift the way you walk so that your weight kind of drifts around the sharp edges. You just find the safe pathways. On the other hand people accustomed to the protection of shoes have a great deal of difficulty paying attention to their feet without actively staring at them and, of course, they lack the solid pads needed to traverse the ground safely.
    My point is: if you wear shoes everyday, for your own safety, you should wear shoes at the water, be it pool, sandy beach, or craggy shoreline. If you don’t wear shoes everyday, they those places aren’t any more dangerous than anywhere else you don’t wear shoes, so don’t worry. Makes no difference in your age (above say 2 or 3). Going barefoot is wonderful, but going barefoot only rarely is a good way to get yourself injured! (Btw, the only time I’ve ever stepped on anything that truly hurt me was when I was wearing shoes! Because I wasn’t paying nearly as much attention, the shoes were supposed to protect me after all!)

  86. (I spend less time now barefoot just because I *must* legally wear shoes to drive or go into a store and that’s most of why I am out and about, but still take my shoes off at playgrounds, parks, or when just walking

    Jespren, it is NOT a law in ANY state that you must wear shoes to drive. It is NOT a law in ANY state (although individual stores may refuse service to you) that you must wear shoes inside the store.

    Don’t believe me? Write to your local health department and ask. I did!

    Barefooters.org actually did the legwork for you, though. These are urban myths. They’re not true.

  87. However, if you are at Grand Lake in Oklahoma, you might be at risk for stepping on the hook attached to the fishing pole I lost to the lake 🙂

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