Back-to-school SHOE shopping

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.)


#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):

Softstar Shoes
MyMayu Boots
Wildling Shoes

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.

Soft Star Shoes factory in Corvallis, Oregon.
In front of the Softstar Shoe workshop in Corvallis, Oregon, rocking our new shoes. (Update: Their workshop is now in Philomath, OR!)
If you're able to, I highly recommend a trip through this magical place.
If you’re able to, I highly recommend a trip through this magical place. Note: The shop was very neat and tidy (I SAID IT WAS MAGICAL!) when we got there. We promptly tried on 127 pairs of shoes when we got there, which created a sort of post-tornado look to the place. Yes, we cleaned up after ourselves before we left.


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.”softstar4


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!

gait-30 gait-56-2

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.

Learn about your own feet. Listen to these episodes of the Move Your DNA podcast: Whole Body Barefoot, All About The Base Part 1 and Part 2.

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.


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35 thoughts on “Back-to-school SHOE shopping

  1. The Minnetonka link goes to the MyMayu site.

    Thanks for all the winter ideas! I’ve been pondering what to do here in Minnesota for the kiddos.

    1. Look at Stonz Wear booties (Baby Steals recently had them for around $18 – they may still have some left). You can get fleece liners for them. My sister, who also lives in MN, recommended them to me for my little guy.

  2. Hooray for minimal shoes! I’m a teacher so I recently did some back-to-school shopping myself. I found two brands of shoes that I think are a very good compromise between foot health and aesthetics. “Me Too” is a brand available in my local shoe store and has a wider selection online. Their ballet flats seems to be minimal rise, and fit my crazy-wide caveman feet very comfortably. As a bonus, they are available in great colors, which makes getting dressed fun. They’re pretty well padded, but to me that’s important because I stand on concrete floors all day while I’m teaching. I also found a brand called “Ollio” on Amazon (search for “ollio comfort flat”) which has minimal padding and rise, and comes in SPARKLY colors!!! It’s got an elastic collar to hold it on your foot even when the fit is generous. It’s a real winner.

  3. We have struggled to find big kid sized shoes…seems many of the minimalist kid shoes end at size 2 or 3 (or age 8-ish). So frustrating looking for my sized 3.5 kiddo! Found one style of Plae large enough.

  4. Great post, as we’re just looking for shoes for our picky 12 year old boy. He’s way into the latest pump-em-up sports shoe and is clued into what these funny, flat, wide-toe box shoes look like, despite growing up with Vivobarefoot shoes. Also, by size 37 euro, the kids size lines are done, pushing him into an ever-girly women’s shoe. We’ve looked also at Lems (not sporty enough) and Softstar (no way! – wah! We live in Oregon and love local!). Topo Athletic does one zero rise womens in yellow, but it didn’t even pass the test. Help!!

    Any advice?!

  5. Seriously? Spread my toes??? But that makes my feet a full inch wider. How could I possibly find shoes that wide? And wouldn’t I just slosh around in them?

  6. Merrill makes great kid shoes too. Sporty style. Fits all the criteria: Wide toe box, zero drop, flexible sole. Nice sticky vibram style bottoms. Option of tie string or just the velcro strap along the top.

  7. Gretchen, Have you looked at Altras or Zems? Either company may have something your son would like.

  8. Michelle and Gretan…I totally agree. .my 13 year old son is in some vivo barefoot trai ers, size 37 EU but these were a lucky hand me down. It’s a ladies version for him now (ebay), until he hits the smallest men sizes. And don’t get me started on school shoes. There are no minimal school shoes in the UK for his size! If anyone can recommend I would also be grateful.

  9. These shoes are too cute, but i’m too big a kid for them. Where could i find a pair of flat, wide and flexible wellies like the MYMAYU ? I just ordered a pair of phoenix softstar but i need something really waterproof.
    Thanks for such a nice post.

  10. Dear Katy, Thanks for this post.
    I am hearing a lot about foot care in your website. Is there anything to stop cracks and corns in the foot? I keep getting cracks and corns in both of my feet. How can I stop getting them? Is there anyway by which I can get permanent solution to this foot cracks and foot corns? I have tried foot creams and ointments for cracks and corns. But it gives only temporary solution and again after some time, I get foot cracks and foot corns again. So I would like to know what is the permanent solution for foot cracks and foot corns. Please reply back. Thank you for all your great posts.

  11. Thanks for the tips! I just found some water shoes 50% off at my local Target. 🙂

    The shoes you’re wearing in the Soft Star picture…are they the Soft Star ballet flats? I’ve had my eye on those but wasn’t sure about the toe box. I need a pair of shoes for this winter and those would be perfect (or something similar).

  12. Excellent read ,will pass on to my daughter who has three energetic boys.My son ,A woman’s Gym owner, loves your books and is constantly pushing family and clients to buy shoes with minimal support( he highly recommends your books to all).Great foot advice.Thank you

  13. Hi! I’ve just started buying shoes for my son, and I’m worried about buying them in the right size lengthwise. So is 1/2 an inch of room at the toes a good guide? Is less room too small? Is more room too big? Thanks!

  14. Have some questions about shoes when there is leg length differences due to an injury and ligaments that have been cut in the feet.

    Thank you.

    Dr. Kareen

    1. You can submit questions via the website! Check for the lime green “submit a question” tab on the right of this page!

  15. Since this is the blog referenced in the podcast, I will put in my 2 cents. Most water shoes have marking soles and cannot be worn in most schools. As the to-school option, with the dew they are wet by the time they get to school, then you have kids in wet socks who are mad they have to change their socks every time they come in from outside.
    Moccasins are a no-go in public school as indoor shoes as the soles are too slippery.
    If you can find them, indoor soccer shoes tend to be unheeled and come in school-fashionable colours that are acceptable to preteens, tweens and teens.
    I have 3 kids who need 2 sets of indoor shoes, cold weather footwear and I buy footwear almost every season. I store the outgrown stuff and I let the kids know they can ‘shop’ the shelves when they start to outgrow the old stuff. Yes, offering up the old worn shoes with wear patterns can be a no-no, but for the most part, they have been worn just a few months. I just have to watch the eldest like a hawk; his selection is really limited. It’s getting better there tho, he’s almost my size! I also buy multiple sizes of preferred shoes when they are on sale at the end of the year to keep costs down.

  16. What about Converse? Lately I’ve heard that Converse isn’t bad for your foot, the problem is undeveloped muscles in your foot because of the use of stabilizing footware. Would be nice to buy some more Converse… 🙂

  17. Hi1 thanks for this, super useful!
    one question: I have always heard that you should always buy new shoes for your child, and not buy used shoes, so that the way the shoe was used does not influence the way your child walks…not sure if this is clear, but do you have any info on this? it will save me money if it is not true!

  18. Hi

    6’3″ single Dad with little girl who needs barefoot shoes! Trying to find second hand warm and cold weather shoes for my 3 1/2 year old little girl. She’s size K9.5 US (26EU or 16cm).

    She’s grown out of her Vivobarefoot shoes and anything her size or bigger would be great!

    Not sure if this was best place to put comment, will add to FB as well.

    Ben 🙂

  19. 6’3″ info was in regard to feet size… my little girl has big feet too and has outgrown the little vivo barefoot shoes already!

  20. Help!!! Does anyone know where I can get minimal (or at least wide-toe-box) soccer cleats for a 4-year-old? (He’s currently wearing size 8 Fisher-Price sandals… not sure whether that’s UK or US sizing…)

    My son starts soccer training mid-April (we’re in Perth, Australia… just in case anyone from the northern hemisphere is scratching their heads at that…) and I am currently hitting a blank trying to find (a) small enough, and (b) non-tapered-toe, boots!

    Thanks in advance! 🙂

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