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Enjoy my post about the best minimalist footwear for babies, toddlers and kids – scroll down for my top recommendations!
This post is NOT meant to be exhaustive. It's just my experience and favorites. I WANT you to contribute your thoughts & favorites in the comments!
This post is also NOT meant to judge parents who do differently. Non-minimalist footwear isn't the end-all, be-all of happy, healthy kiddos. Many a sturdy-shoe-wearing child has made it to Harvard with feet fully intact.
Above: my kiddo experiencing the environment under her feet in minimalist leather shoes with a nice, wide toe box.
“Your baby is walking! Looks like she's ready for some nice, sturdy shoes with arch support!”
If you're a parent, you've probably heard some variation of the above. But is it really true?
Do our precious little ones' feet really need outside help from a foot corset to do their jobs?
I'm being silly, of course. But if I'm honest, when I wear shoes with “sturdy” soles and arch support, I feel like my feet are completely immobilized in an old-school undergarment. (That's why I love Merrell Vapor Gloves.)
Perhaps that's because it's not natural to immobilize the 19 tendons and muscles, 26 bones, 107 ligaments, and 33 joints that all work together in our amazing, capable feet.
Our feet aren't just there to propel us from point A to point B. Their job is to provide sensory input that affects our entire body. Our feet connect our bodies to the earth so we can sense what's beneath us so that we can make the millions of tiny adjustments that propel us through the world. The sensory input to our feet, from heel to toes, changes the way the entire body moves (and the way our brains work)!
And a thick, rigid sole blunts a lot of those dynamic biomechanics and perceptions. There's no way around it.
Wait…are modern kids' shoes really all that bad?
I know, we don't typically think of kid's shoes as anything that out of the ordinary. It's not like we're putting them in five-inch stilettos.
So why, then, is traditional, “sturdy, arch-supportive” footwear being called into question by parents and podiatrists alike?
My first introduction to the idea that even standard “first shoes” can manipulate how a kiddo walks from the very start was this video.
Needless to say, I was pretty shocked.
When I had my own brand-new walker, I observed the very same thing I saw in the video: barefoot walking and minimalist shoes both made her look like a pro from pretty early on.
But as soon as I put on her cute, heavy-soled, inflexible, molded, arch-supported, “sturdy” new shoes we received as a gift, kiddo looked like she'd been over-served, then told to run the 100-yard dash across hot coals with her feet strapped together.
(I mean, I had always thought all babies walked like drunk coal-walkers. Not the case.)
I was on to something.
I'm certainly not the first to notice this phenomenon. Although the “old school” of podiatry is still recommending foot corsets for little ones, this topic has been addressed by minimalist-happy professionals for more than a decade. (And probably much longer than that.) Some good science backs the minimalist practice, too.
Science or not, though, this discussion could be founded entirely on the assumption that it's just good common sense to let the body do what it's meant to do, with as little interference as possible, from as early on as possible.
But I'm not the expert – I'm just here to share my experience as a parent and spark your quest toward the experts – so I'll give a few good starting points to start gathering information for yourself.
From there, I'll share my favorites for the best minimalist footwear for babies, toddlers and kids.
Please leave YOUR favorites in the comments – this list is NOT exhaustive!
Here's what the experts have been saying…
Here’s a 2010 article from The Guardian with experts discussing why barefoot is best for children.
I also love this fantastic, expert-and-science-filled 2008 piece in NY Mag. Quote:
“Admittedly, there’s something counterintuitive about the idea that less padding on your foot equals less shock on your body. But that’s only if we continue to think of our feet as lifeless blocks of flesh that hold us upright. The sole of your foot has over 200,000 nerve endings in it, one of the highest concentrations anywhere in the body. Our feet are designed to act as earthward antennae, helping us balance and transmitting information to us about the ground we’re walking on.”
An easy introduction to biomechanist and movement expert Katy Bowman's thoughts on this topic can be found here.
Your Kids Might Be Wearing Heels, Right Now is another great read from Bowman.
And, of course, for everything you need to know about what the feet are, how they work, and how to quit “footcorseting” (yeah, that's a word), try Bowman's book: Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief (less technical) and Whole Body Barefoot (more technical).
My experiences & favorite minimalist picks
A personal anecdote: when I switched to minimalist footwear, my lifelong issues with shin splits completely resolved. Merrell Vapor Gloves are my absolute favorite because of the wide toe box, which lets my toes do their thing(s).
Now, many of the objections to minimalist footwear deal with the potential for injury during the transition from standard footwear (that was the entire origin of the Vibram lawsuit awhile back), but that has nothing to do with minimal footwear being “bad.” It has to do with undoing the long-term effects of not allowing our feet to do what they're supposed to do.
While adults are generally told to transition to minimalist footwear slowly to prevent such injury (it takes work to undo a lifetime of unnatural footwear), if a kid wears minimal footwear from the beginning, I don't see a cause for concern.
But, as always, talk to your pediatric podiatrist before making any changes (because, you know, we all have one of those on speed dial).
I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE GOING TO SAY: why not just let kids be barefoot? Welp, most childcare facilities have a rule against it, for one. Personally, for outside, I like to have a little extra layer between kiddo and random thorns, biting insects and unexpected bits of glass and metal. But when we can, yes – we go barefoot. (And diaper free, but that's another discussion.)
Minimalist shoes for babies, toddlers and kids: what to look for
First off, we have a MAJOR problem: sadly, as kids reach about age 2.5 – 3, many of the brands below stop making their most minimalist options in their sizes – with the exception of Soft Star and MyMayu. WE MUST CHANGE THIS. Email them, comment on their social media accounts, and let them know WE WILL BUY MINIMALIST SHOES FOR OUR OLDER KIDDOS!
Right up-front, I'll say that there might be a few compromises you'll end up making between cuteness and affordability. Just sayin'.
For the most affordable option, go to a thrift store and buy some Aqua Socks or water shoes. Peel out the insole, and voila – you've got a minimalist shoe.
What to look for when choosing shoes:
1. Flat and flexible soles: the sole shouldn't be an inch thick. The thinnest, most flexible sole possible is ideal. Some shoes achieve this with simple leather soles (like my favorite from Bobux, listed below), others with rubber or synthetics. My favorite baby/toddler shoes have a leather sole, which protects from the basic outside dangers yet remains amazingly flexible. The top photo in this post is a pair of Bobux's red leather Mary Janes.
2. Avoid a “positive heel.” To avoid stress on tiny feet, you want your little one’s heel to be at the same level as their toes. (The term is “zero-drop.”) In most shoes and boots, the sole of the heel is thicker than the sole at the toes. Not ideal, and I can't for the life of me understand why this is the case.
3. Flat, wide toe box and a close (not tight) fit through the heel. Make sure little toes have plenty of space to spread out within the shoe without sacrificing a streamlined, close fit. (Google: “proprioception”). The toes need plenty of room to move, but the shoe shouldn't be so loose that the feet have to “grip” them to hang on.
On that note: No flip flops! Yes, they might be totally flat, but just observe how your foot has to move to keep them on at every step. It's like a weird, unnatural “gripping” action that interferes with normal footie biomechanics.
Minimalist shoes for babies, toddlers and kids: my personal favorites
Below you'll see our (partial) stash of different options. While I've tried tons of brands, my (our) favorites are the ones below – mostly from Bobux USA, with a few boot options from other brands.
For boots, we mostly use the black ones in the center, which aren't minimalist, but do have a zero-drop sole.
Again, I've noticed, sadly, that many of these companies stop making soft, flexible, minimalist shoes at about size 6-7, so when my kid is 3, we'll be forced to find another option – and currently, it's slim pickens.
HOW CAN WE CHANGE THIS? DEMAND! Reach out and tell them you want your toddler in simple, minimalist shoes as long as possible and into their post-toddler years. I see no reason why a 2.5-3 year old suddenly needs to be relegated to thicker, less flexible soles, especially in indoor environments like home, daycare, and church.
Yes, we need to use caution and possibly thicker soles when playing outside in giant thorn bushes or among poisonous snakes and rusty nails (also: don't do those things), but for the most part, older toddlers and post-toddlers can benefit from truly minimalist shoes, too.
Here are my absolute personal favorites.
1. I'm in LOVE with Bobux USA‘s Soft Soles and XPlorers collections (style and fit).
I absolutely adore both the style and fit of these collections. All shoes pictured above, aside from the winter boots, are from Bobux. The white polka-dot shoes are IWalks, which are a bit too thick-soled for my taste, but as I said – options become limited as feet get bigger! The rest of the shoes are all from their Soft Soles collection. We've sadly sized out of the XPlorers, but we had a pair of those, too.
The seam on the Soft Sole shoes faces inward, making the shoes look super streamlined and nice – they're great for playing outside (even though they're listed as being for inside use – #offlabel) and for Sunday brunch! They're like little sturdy foot sheaths. Like a leather sock. Like a flexible, breathable protective layer. I love them!
They last forever, too – the only reason I have so many is because the only thing I like to spend more money on than food is baby clothing. (Capsule wardrobe my arse.)
I'm devastated that we're starting to “size out” of both collections now that my kiddo is 2+. While a few of the Soft Soles are now available in XXL, my favorite styles aren't yet, and the soles on the older kids' lines are just too darn inflexible.
Truly, the XPlorers have the PERFECT soles for kiddos 3-5 years, yet the sizing ends at early toddler.
A desperate plea to you, Bobux: MAKE THE FOLLOWING ADORABLE SOFT SOLE SHOES IN BIGGER SIZES – I WILL DO ANYTHING for a 2XL, 3XL and beyond:
2. Soft Star Shoes. This is a great USA-based company and a big favorite of many minimalist-leaning parents! The only reason I put Bobux first is because we love the style(s) and the fit – it's perfect for us, but that doesn't take anything away from Soft Star!
Another GREAT thing about Soft Star: they make shoes all the way up to adult sizes. That's pretty amazing.
3. Robeez. Similar to Bobux and Soft Star, with the same sizing limitations as Bobux. (blah!) They only offer a couple of minimalist leather-soled shoes above age 2. (These offerings, however, DO get pretty big! We have this shoe waiting in the wings in size 3/4.)
4. Ulla Viggo. Adorable, handmade minimalist leather shoes up to 6.5″ or size 8/9.
5. Vivo Barefoot. This appears to be the next most viable option for the post-toddler years. Synthetic soles, but a company dedicated to minimalist locomotion.
Minimalist winter boots for babies, toddlers, and kids: my picks
Winter shoes for little ones is a bit tougher. We've tried Stonz Booties, My Mayu boots, and Bogs. All of them are great, though no toddler-friendly winter shoe is going to be truly minimalist-friendly in every single way. And that's OK!
Stonz booties, when paired with liners and wool socks, are fantastic for playing in the snow. The only con: they're slightly bulky. (Avoid the Winter Bootz, which appear to have a positive heel.)
Stonz rain boots also look, at the very least, zero-drop, but they are less flexible than the booties.
My Mayu boots are super cool, but the soles in the pairs we tried don't fully fit that special, adorable shape of the toddler foot – I found my toddler was mostly walking ON the sole material rather than IN it. I'm sure they're fantastic for older kiddos, however. (And their wool socks are FANTASTIC!)
Update: I heard from MyMayu, and here's what they said (yay):
“We have a new line out that I am absolutely positive you will love. We have retained the super flexible soft sole and made wider toe boxes. We also changed the shape so that the toddlers won’t walk out of the size 7/8 boots. They also go up to size Youth 3, so about a 9 year old!”
Bogs have a much less flexible sole, but they fit snugly, which means I know my kiddo's feet are facing the right direction (laughs). These have become our go-to boots for rainy days. (And I love my Bogs, too!)
For more discussion on minimalist footwear for babies, toddlers and kids, plus LOTS of recommendations, check out these posts from Katy Bowman:
What are your favorite minimalist footwear options for your little one? Leave your suggestions below in the comments!
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