‘We wanted to go back to basics’: how two families reconnected with nature

When Jennifer Chilton and Graeme Thirde were looking at nurseries for their eldest daughter, Imogen, they quickly realised that the traditional approach to early education wasn’t for them. “We didn’t want her to be stuck indoors all the time,” says Chilton, an IT consultant from London. “We wanted her to be able to run around outside and climb and develop confidence in her body and the way it interacts with her surroundings.”

Finding a nursery called Little Forest Folk, which encourages children to learn by immersing themselves in the outdoors, was the first step on a path to the family reconnecting with the natural world on a more meaningful level.

Imogen, now seven, and her sister Florence, six, have continued their outdoor education at an independent primary school set in three acres of beautiful National Trust grounds. “We wanted to go back to basics with the way we raise the girls,” says Chilton. “When we were growing up we were always outdoors, but most children today no longer have that opportunity.”

For all four family members, this desire to live closer to nature is reflected in their choice of footwear. “We all wear Vivobarefoot shoes and absolutely love them,” says Thirde, who spent nine years in the army before retraining as a garden designer. “When you’re wearing them, you’re experiencing a connection with the ground the way we were intended to.”

Jennifer Chilton with, from left, Florence, Imogen and Graeme Thirde.
Graeme and Florence
QUOTE: "I can feel every aspect of the ground beneath my feet, which makes me feel more present"

Vivobarefoot was founded in 2012 by cousins and seventh-generation cobblers, Galahad and Asher Clark, part of the Clarks shoes family, who shared a dream of creating footwear that felt as close as possible to being barefoot. The brand’s philosophy is simple: modern shoes are bad for our feet and the planet. In contrast, Vivobarefoot shoes – which are made from sustainable materials, including leathers from wild-roaming cattle and recycled polyethylene terephthalate (polyester) – are designed to bring you closer to nature, and allow your feet to regain (or in the case of children, maintain) their natural strength and movement.

Thirde first discovered the brand when he was working part-time as a fitness instructor. “I had a history of lower back problems brought on by carrying heavy backpacks during my time in the army.

Florence's Vivobarefoot shoes

“My back would go, I’d see an osteopath and it would settle down, and then a few months later it would go again,” he says.

“Quite a few of the other instructors were wearing Vivos so I tried a pair. Now I’ve got about 10 pairs – from walking boots to running shoes. I think they’ve managed to fix my back by changing the shape of my feet and the way I walk; my toes have opened up and they’ve got more dexterity. I haven’t had to see an osteopath in years.”

The shoes have had a positive impact, too, for Imogen. “Imogen has sensory issues and can’t wear a lot of ordinary shoes, depending on how they touch her feet, or if they rub,” says Chilton.

Florence and Imogen climbing a tree
Florence in the woods
Detail of trees

“Vivos feel like she’s slipping her foot into a sock; there’s no pressure on her toes, or seams inside. She absolutely loves them.”

Beyond that, knowing their daughters’ feet aren’t being constrained by their shoes as they run, climb and play amid trees, fields and wildlife at the school they attend fits in with Chilton and Thirde’s philosophy of how they want their daughters to grow up.

“We want the girls to have the stress-relieving benefits of being in nature, and Vivos fit perfectly with that,” says Chilton. “When they wear their shoes, I know they’re using their feet properly. And they can barely feel the shoes, which helps them really lose themselves in their environment.”

Giles Hutchins, his wife Star and daughters Lilly-Belle and Hazel are another family dedicated to living in harmony with the natural world. For the past two years, they have lived in 60 acres of ancient woodland in West Sussex, with chickens and a vegetable plot.

The woodland is where Hutchins, an author, strategist and coach, runs his business, The Future Fit Leadership Academy, taking leaders through transformative experiences in nature to help them transform their companies into “regenerative, life-affirming” organisations.

Giles Hutchins and Star with their daughters Hazel and Lilly-Belle.

“We go off into the woods and I encourage them to notice the details of nature – the trees, the birdsong, the smell,” he says. “By the time we reach the main area, where they sit and talk and listen, they’re in a different space mentally, which they usually find means they have a clearer awareness of their fears, and personal and organisational challenges.”

Before he tried his first pair of Vivobarefoot shoes, Hutchins says he’d never considered the impact of traditional shoes on our feet. But once he did, the revelation was instant. “I realised that we’ve been lessening our connection with nature all this time, as well as deforming our feet and those of our children,” he says.

Now, he loves the sense of freedom the shoes offer. “They feel so much less tight – my feet feel as though they can spread out properly and breathe. There’s no bounce like with normal shoes, but over time you get used to that.

“Most importantly, when I’m walking through the woods, I can feel every aspect of the ground beneath my feet, which makes me feel more present in my environment and in the moment. It’s a calming sensation.”

Star, Lilly-Belle, nine, and Hazel, seven, are all similarly smitten with the shoes. “Star has been converting her friends to them, and the girls wear them everywhere, including school and in the woods. Children want to feel free to explore their surroundings without anything getting in their way, so Vivobarefoot shoes are perfect.

“Now that we know what it’s like to feel that connection to the earth with every step we take, we’ll never go back.”

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