This post was updated August 7, 2018 for better organization and to replace and update minimal footwear brands. I also fixed some typos and smoothed out the writing because why not?! - KB
The winding up of summer vacation means a lot of things, and for many of us it means back to school shoe shopping. Although the anatomy of our feet require lots of movement to keep them functioning well, most of us have to wear shoes at least part of the time (and most of us most of the time). Minimal shoes, then, are an essential part of our daily gear--they offer both foot protection while allowing foot mobility. I've already written this out in two books, Whole Body Barefoot and Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief, so I won't bore you with more details on the science of it here. Instead, here's my guide to Back to School (Minimal) Footwear Shopping. (In addition to helping you figure out how to get more movement, I'm also hoping to save you time sitting in front of a computer, trying to figure out what to order. Which is just another way to help you move more.)
KB's SHOE SHOPPING TIPS
#1 The best time to try on shoes for fit is at the end of the day, specifically after you and your kids have been up and moving around for a couple hours. Your feet change size throughout the day, and depending on use. Fitting your shoes to early morning feet (after you’ve been laying down) or after work feet (after you’ve been sitting for hours) can skew your foot size. If you’re purchasing footwear for exercise, sizing your feet right after the bout of exercise will give you the best sizing data.
#2 Step on a piece of paper, spread your toes away from each other, then trace your foot. THIS is a width of your foot that your foot should be allowed to achieve while moving. Your shoes are likely to be too narrow for your foot. Keep this piece of paper in your wallet and before you buy a pair of shoes, set the shoe on top of it to see if your shoe is actually too small for your foot to do its foot thang.
#3 Traditional guidelines say that kid’s shoes need to be at least ½-inch longer than their feet. Given that children's feet are constantly growing, anyone else see the challenge in this recommendation? A well-fitting shoe can quickly become too small. (P.S. Buying shoes a size larger than what they need is also not good. Too-big shoes affect whole-body movement just as ones that are too small.)
There is no way around the fact that most kids will likely need more than 2 pairs of shoes per year. They probably need more like a new pair every 3-4 months, which can get expensive. Here is my solution (which means that it works for where I live—seasons, with regular wet/rain, and occasional freezing days):
Buy a pair of water (swim/pool) shoes at the beginning of the year, and again mid-year. Water or pool shoes are super inexpensive (typically less than $14.00) and you can get at least two pairs throughout the year, accommodating foot growth. They’re fine for wet-ground walking (not great for puddle stomping) and paired with some wool socks, my kids are happy even in really cold weather, as long as it’s not currently raining. These are the most affordable, easily findable, and water-resistant minimal shoes I’ve found for children. I got these at a thrift store for $0.99 last week.
INVEST in a pair of well-made minimal shoes slightly later in the season, as late as November if you can get away with it. My kids’ feet tend to grow more rapidly in the summer and slower in the cooler seasons (from what I've observed). Winter shoes tend to last them the full season, especially when I buy late Fall.
Minimal footwear brands I can recommend because they meet the guidelines in my books. Most of these brands we've bought multiple times for our kids (note, these are not affiliate links):
There are also many brands that carry styles that have the minimal features I'm looking for (see my list of features below). I have found great options at Minnetonka, Livie & Luca, and on the website Happy Little Soles.
If you winter hard (I’m looking at you, Nova Scotia) foot warmth is high priority. Again, buying later in the season can be your friend here. Invest in a pair of boots and better yet, find a community that invests in their footwear and trade or buy used shoes. Because I get lots questions regarding hard winters and boots, here is a testimonial from an actual maritimer:
"I live in a Maritime province that has seen some brutal winters in recent years and my kids and I basically live in our Softstar Phoenix boots from late October to May, except when it's rainy out (they're fine in slush if we keep up with the waterproofing). Until it goes below about -15°C, we don't need socks, and with wool socks we've been comfortable down to around -30°C, at which point we sensibly hibernate."
KB's HEALTHY FEET TIPS
Pair minimal footwear with barefoot exercises. Minimal shoes offer more movement than traditional ones, but you’re still shod. Foot-strengthening exercises are great, but telling kids, “Hey, guess what, we’re going to do some foot exercises, aren’t you excited!?”— rarely works; and throwing a “Foot Exercise!” themed birthday party might be a dud, even if you get a huge foot piñata.
What kids DO like are obstacle courses. Create sensory paths, balance beams, and pillow trains and get your family move on, even if it’s freezing outside. Especially when it’s freezing outside. You know who else likes obstacle courses – adults!
Teach them about their feet. If you homeschool or teach health/anatomy/basic science at a traditional school, add a unit that covers one quarter of your body: the feet (calculated by number of bones and muscles). I’ve prepared one for you here. You can also go through your closets together to see if your kids are wearing heels.
Read both Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Healthy Feet and Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear. They make great grow-up textbooks for fall. After all, getting educated is for everyone and learning about yourself always pays off.
Fine, if you don't want to read the entire book, you can check out this cheat sheet to help you. EVERYONE KNOWS that the notes aren't the same as the book, but until they make my foot books into a movie, it might have to suffice. You're welcome.