This post was updated 2019 and again in 2021. - 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 (here's a 6-year old explaining why), most of us have to wear shoes at least part of the time, and most of us most of the time. Thus, minimal shoes are an essential part of our daily gear—they offer foot protection while allowing foot mobility.
I've written to the effects of footwear on gait and body loads and what to do about in two books: Whole Body Barefoot and Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief. I've also gone into great depth about kid-movement and how to assess their entire wardrobe to see if it's hindering their movement in Grow Wild. Below is a quick list of tips and ideas from these books on how to select, size, and save on minimal footwear for kids.
#1 The best time to try on shoes for fit is at the end of the day, specifically after being up and moving around for a few hours. Your feet change size throughout the day, and depending on use. Fitting new shoes to early morning feet (after you’ve been lying 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. For kids, it's best to size after a day of being upright and active.
#2 Have kids step on a piece of paper, spread their toes away from each other, then trace their foot. Footwear needs to accommodate the width of our feet. Have this drawing ready and in your bag to let them quickly measure shoes they like to the drawing. This allows them to see if a pair shoes meet the need for their fully active and loaded foot width.
#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, can you 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.)
STRETCHING THE SHOE BUDGET
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 shoes quickly get expensive solution. Note 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 school 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 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.
You can 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. From what I've observed, my kids’ feet tend to grow more rapidly in the summer and slower in the cooler seasons. Winter shoes tend to last them the full season, especially when I size and order mid-fall.
MY FAVORITE BRANDS
These are brands that work for our family's little-feet needs, have used for years and love. These are not affiliate links, their styles just work for us:
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. Update: Now that my kids are older (8 and 10) they fit in small adult sizes which has really opened up the door to more brands. Check out our entire minimal footwear list for more options.
DEEP WINTER NEEDS
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!
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 grown-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.