Photo above: my first kiddo experiencing the environment under her feet in minimalist shoes for babies – leather Bobux brand shoes with a nice, wide toe box.
Note: this post is NOT meant to be exhaustive! Brands are entering the market all the time, so consider this my experience and my favorites. Add your thoughts & favorites in the comments!
If you’re a parent, you might have heard something like this from well-meaning friends or relatives:
“Your baby is walking! Looks like s/he’s ready for some nice, sturdy shoes!”
But what do they mean by “sturdy” shoes? 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 used to wear shoes with “sturdy” soles and arch support, I felt like my feet were completely immobilized in an old-school undergarment.
Perhaps that’s because it’s not natural to put a laced-up casing around the
19 tendons and muscles,
107 ligaments, and
that all work together in our amazing, capable feet.
Our feet aren’t just there to propel us from point A to point B like trains on a track. Their job includes locomotion, of course, but they also provide sensory input that affects our entire body – connecting 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, impacts not just how the entire body moves, but also how our brains work!
And “sturdy” sole – which really means a thick, rigid sole – blunts a lot of that.
So how does this affect kids?
I used to think that most kids’ shoes were fine and dandy – by virtue of the fact that they aren’t five-inch stilettos or some of the thick-soled Herman Munster shoes I wore in college.
I guess I wasn’t thinking all that hard about it.
But the truth is, traditional, “sturdy, arch-supportive” footwear is being called into question by parents and podiatrists alike.
I was first introduced to this concept when I ran across this video, which shows the stark contrast in gait (walking pattern) between minimalist and “sturdy” toddler shoes.
Needless to say, I was pretty shocked.
When my daughter was a 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 the cute, heavy-soled, inflexible, molded, arch-supported, “sturdy” new shoes we were gifted, kiddo looked like she’d been over-served, then told to walk the plank with old, sticky bubble gum attached to her soles.
(I mean, I had always thought all babies walked like drunk bachelorettes. Not the case.)
Check out this video I made, featuring my 1-year-old in a variety of shoe types.
I was on to something.
I’m certainly not the first to notice this phenomenon. In fact, 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.
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 go-to 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, years 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, jagged cracked acorns, 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
What to look for when choosing shoes:
- Flat, thin, flexible soles: the sole of a minimalist shoe 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.
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, flat and flexible is the ticket.
- 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.
- 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. (Internet search: “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 foot biomechanics.
Minimalist shoes for babies, toddlers and kids: my personal favorites
Below you’ll see our (partial) stash of different options. Sadly, a few of the companies have gone out of business since we bought them for my first daughter; happily, since the first version of this post, a lot of new companies have started making minimalist shoes for babies, toddlers and kids.
While I’ve tried tons of brands, my favorites are the ones below – most of them are from Bobux USA, with a few boot options from other brands.
For boots, we mostly use the black ones in the center (Bogs), which aren’t exactly minimalist – they’re pretty inflexible – but they do have a zero-drop sole.
Here are my absolute favorite minimalist options for babies, toddlers, and kids.
Their Soft Soles and XPlorers collections are my favorite!
I absolutely adore both the style and fit of these collections. With the exception of the two higher-topped winter boots, all shoes pictured in this post, including the fur-lined boots, are from Bobux. The white polka-dot shoes are Bobux IWalks, which are a bit too thick-soled for my taste, but 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 a leather sock. Like a flexible, breathable, protective layer. I love them!
They last forever, too – we’ve now handed them down to our second daughter. 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.)
- 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.
- Robeez. Similar to Bobux and Soft Star. Super cute designs!
- Ulla Viggo. Adorable, handmade minimalist leather shoes.
- Plae. As my first daughter grew, we ended up buying a LOT of Plae shoes. While they’re not as flexible as I’d like, the toe box is wide enough, they’re generally zero-drop, they’ve got rain boots, and the styles are great!
- 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.
- Water socks. You can buy these in multiple brands on Amazon and in most stores, especially around summertime. Most of them are thin-soled, durable, and affordable. They’re wide in the toe box and – bonus – they’re waterproof and hose-downable!
Minimalist winter boots for babies, toddlers, and kids
Winter shoes for little ones are a bit tougher. We’ve tried Stonz Booties, My Mayu boots (now out of business), Plae 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. (While I love the brand, many of their other options are inflexible with positive heels.)
Stonz rain boots also look, at the very least, zero-drop, but they are less flexible than the booties.
- 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!)
- Plae also carries waterproof winter boots from time to time!
I hope these options are helpful! If you’re overwhelmed, try not to stress: many a maximalist-soled baby has gone on to have productive lives, large stashes of Bitcoin, and Ivy League degrees.
What are your favorite minimalist footwear options for your little one? Leave your suggestions below in the comments!
Thanks for reading!
Thanks so much for mentioning MyMayu boots to your readers. 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! We hope you’ll give us another go!
Have a wonderful summer,
Suzanne Solsona, Founder & CEO, MyMayu
Fantastic, thank you Suzanne! I will update the post 🙂
Thanks Liz! We have exciting things coming up, so stay tuned and thank you so much for your support. From our family to yours, we thank you whole-heartedly! =)
Thanks for this great post! I’ve been trying to find good shoe options for my 6-year old daughter, and I love these ideas 🙂 Have you found any summer/sandal kid shoes you like? Unfortunately, barefoot won’t work at camp.
Ugh, sadly I really just haven’t! I think Soft Star probably has the best options. It would be hard to keep minimalist soles from folding/becoming a trip hazard if they weren’t closed-toe. Maybe someone else who reads this post will have ideas!
I’d check out Luna Sandals, they now have a kids’ option and I love my adult Lunas. They’re on my list for when my son gets older. Sock Doc (sock-doc.com) also has some great kids shoes ideas. Wildlings are another, pricey though.
Thank you, Bess!
Vivo Barefoot has a few good summer/sandal shoes. https://www.vivobarefoot.com/us/kids/exercise/ultra-kids?colour=Green
Those Ultras are awesome! My son wears those now and he really loves them. The holes are great for breathability but not so huge that sticks and rocks can readily get in. He loves them for whatever reason, though he can’t tell us why yet since he’s 20 mo.
I went with Jack & Lily shoes for my toddler. A bit of a compromise, but they are very thin soled, super flexible, and very durable. Wide toe box and zero-drop. They go a little larger than some brands out there, but we are sizing out of them now. I can see them move as she steps on rocks or trees/branches, but they do ‘protect’ from smaller pebbles and such. http://www.jackandlily.com/
Considering Plae shoes now. They do not look as flexible, but do have large toe box. We’ll see.
We tried the Stonz boots early on and they made walking very difficult for my 1+ year old. Plus, they started to leak. Thrift store find, so I couldn’t complain too much. Had to move to Bogs for inclimate weather for my now 2 year old, but Bogs have no traction on ice. 🙁 Considering MyMayu for this next fall/winter/spring.
Also, my kiddo is required to wear slippers at ‘school’ and it was really hard to find affordable ones after she sized out of the Robeez 24 month ones. It took a lot of work to find the larger sizes, even on Amazon. Not sure what we’ll do when she grows out of her current pair. Don’t really want to spend $50+ on slippers.
Thank you for the great suggestions and experiences! I’ve also considered Plae, but they don’t look very flexible 🙁
I just ordered some Roobeez in the 2/3 and 3/4 year old sizes – they don’t have many styles, maybe 2 that come that big, but affordable enough!
Just wanted to update that I got my kiddo a pair from Plae. I think they’ll definitely last longer than some minimal shoes especially now that she’s been pushing around on bike/tricycle. Overall, and for general gait, they are flexible with nice large toe box, but they are not very flexible right under the ball of the foot. There is a band of harder rubber there. Don’t love and will keep looking for something else, but way better than anything I could find locally in my small town.
Thanks for this feedback on the Plae shoes!
Jennie, we bought Vivobarefoot Ultra Kids for my 3yo & 6yo for their summer sandal alternative. It’s definitely not a dressy shoe but would be perfect for camp.
I’ve got a pair of Vibrams (Bikram) which I love and wore through two tough mudders as well :-). I purchased a pair of New Balance Minimus runners, (they have a vibram sole) last fall and absolutely love them. They look very similar to the Merrils in your post and I also love the wide toe box, they are super comfortable and you can wear them for hours without your feet feeling sore and tired. LOVE minimalist footwear!!! I’ve worn my vibrams on class trips with my kids too, through the woods on trails, just great and it feels great to be connected with the ground when walking, especially on trails 🙂
Thanks so much for this great article! Finding minimal kids shoes is so hard! I feel like there are fewer companies doing it. My understanding is that Merrill, New Balance and Vibram all discontinued their kids lines. I’ve been worried that Vivo Barefoot’s are on their way out. If you go to buy their kids shoes, very few are actually in stock. I think the brands you stated above are all great. Another brand my kids have used is Tsukihoshi http://www.tsukihoshi.com. They are really light and flexible. Live & Luca is another brand that looks good. Though I have not personally used them. https://www.livieandluca.com.
Thank you SO much, Ashley!
Yes, I also noticed that Vivo seems to be phasing things out! Let’s hope not!
Sorry, the second brand I listed should read “Livie & Luca’.
Thank you Liz for all of this information! So helpful and eye-opening. As I’m doing some research, a quick correction that Ulla Viggo shoes go up to 7 inches (size 10/11). Also, I received a recommendation for larger minimalist shoes that may be helpful to those interested: seekairun.com But I have not tried them myself…yet 🙂
Thanks Allison! I didn’t notice any pairs going up to that size, so I’m glad you caught that!
I’ve been wrestling with this issue for the past 11 years since my first child was born. Softstar shoes and vivobarefoot have been the thin line keeping my children shod. There was a brief burst in the market about five years ago when barefoot was at a peak but now the availability for flexible soled shoes for youth is a HUGE issue. My older children have so little to choose from. I’ve recently stumbled across Tadeevo from Poland which may just be what my children wear until they can fit the adult shoe line from vivo. How do we reach those markets (shoe companies) that need to hear it?
Are the Step Up shoes in the Bobux line in the minimalist category?
We have lots of rain, so don’t want the soft sole shoes for the slippery outdoors.
And how do the Ulla Viggo donoutdoors with a running toddler?
I don’t think they’re SUPER minimalist, but we’ve owned a pair and they are more flexible than most! Ulla Viggo have leather soles, so not sure if you’d want those either 🙂
Thanks for the reply. I got some Soft soles and one Step ups. The step up I haven’t decided yet wether to use or not.
Can the Soft Soles be worn outside in minus weather, cold/ wet ground, or not? What would you recommend if not? Winter is coming soon in Montreal.
I live and Canada and I’m trying to find minimalist winter boots for my 16mo (who has very small feet, but walk like a pro). I am curious, the black one you say you use, what brand are they? I am looking for something as warm as possible, and negative heels. For the other minimalist characteristic, I can forget if I can’t find the perfect boots with all characteristics!
Those are Bogs! Not perfectly minimalist but they do the job and I think with how bulky many of the options are, it’s best to have something that hugs the foot a little better even if you sacrifice a few other things.
I agree, HUGE Bobux fans here (particularly as we lived in New Zealand for the last five years). We’ve continued into the iwalks as we’ve found them more flexible than most… not as easily affordable here though. As far as bigger “xplorers”, have you tried the Aktiv line by Bobux?