We want shoes that encourage the development of her strong feet and that don't get in the way of her natural movement (well, as little as possible). And that's not so easy to find, particularly the older my daughter gets. Somehow the word got out that new walkers and toddlers don't need stiff shoes, but by grade school, apparently anything goes. I am struggling against the onslaught of glitter, bells, whistles, cowboy boots, flashing lights and the cool kids' shoes. (Right now, I am still winning that struggle, but I suspect the clock is ticking on that one.)
Below I have shared the more important characteristics of shoes I am looking for when I search for "barefoot styles" as well as some of the easier to find brands we have already tried and loved.
First, a little letting go
Before there were shoes, there were naked feet. And the cheapest, best barefoot shoe is no shoe at all. Of course, realistically, most of our kids do need to wear shoes sometimes and even if we are able to outfit them with barefoot styles shoes, they still need real, actual barefoot time.
Our kids need to go barefoot as often as possible. At home for sure. And possibly in the yard, at the park, etc. And that often involves letting go of:
- dirty feet
- splinters and sharp things we might step on (obviously that does not mean knowingly letting kiddos walk through broken glass)
- being the 'bad example' at the playground when other parents are trying to keep their kids' shoes on (you know our type -- we let our kid climb up the slide, too!)
A new paradigm of foot support
Any shoe we put on our feet interferes with our foot's ability to move and sense its environment. If we've got to interfere, let's do so minimally. Here are some of the major characteristics I am looking for:
- Go thin and flexible. Ideally your child should be able to feel the ground through their shoes. Step on a pebble? You need to feel that so your body can adjust. No more numb feet! And, by flexible, I don't mean just a little bendy -- ideally they should be this flexible. Here's a pair of Vivobarefoots all rolled up:
- Zero Rise: no more positive heels. A positive heel is anything that raises your heel above the height of the toes. Almost every shoe out there has a positive heel. Even a lot of shoes marked as "minimalist" have a very slight rise. Heeled shoes are EVERYWHERE. Even a few millimeters or quarter inch here and there make a difference in your kid's alignment and affect their walking and muscular and bone development.
- Nice and roomy. And, I'm not talking about "room to grow." I'm talking about space for those toes to spread out wide and really wiggle.
- No more flip-flops. This one is hard. We live in Southern California and everybody wears flip-flops all the time. But flip-flops -- while offering low profile, flexible soles and lots of room for the toes do not attach around the ankle. This shoe forces muscle recruitment from muscles at the top of the foot (you gotta grip your flip-flop to keep it on your foot) and interferes with natural walking. This actually goes for any shoe with out a strap or attachment around the ankle. Let's keep them restricted to the beach and pool.
Barefoot Shoe Options
Softstars: Handmade, soft leather shoes.
Vivobarefoot: This UK company has some great options for kiddos. We are on our second year of using their "watershoes." Open, airy and closed-toe for when sandals are not an option.
Vibram 5 Fingers: Yes, these can be aesthetically challenging to some, but they are fun. You can sometimes find "last year's model" for under $30.
Merrell: Not all of Merrell's shoes are barefoot, but they have historically had a commitment to their barefoot running line and some great options for kiddos, size 10 and up. They just moved their kids over to Stride Rite and seemed to have dropped "barefoot" language so it's a little harder to discern which are truly barefoot style. Check out the Trail Glove and search for "Merrell kids barefoot" to dig up older models.
Unshoes: We've gotten a lot of use out of our Unshoes. Here in San Diego, we can do sandals almost all year. I think the kids' versions are still custom sized -- you trace your feet and send it in.
Zemgear: These are next on our list to try! The colors are fantastic.
DIY. There are several other options out there for do-it-yourself sandals, including xeroshoes.com. And, if you're just a little bit handy, you can try re-soling or hacking a pair of shoes. Now that my daughter has moved out of toddler and into kid sizes, it is proving impossible to find completely zero rise rain boots and I suspect I will be trying to hack off the heel of a pair without
Other ideas: Sanuks are great, though the sole is a little less flexible than we are used to in my household. Toms and Converse have historically been making very flat shoes, though the restriction on the toes is pretty significant and the soles are getting more and more rigid. You can often find "water shoes" that can double as normal shoes -- many times they are super flexible and completely zero rise.
Do your own extra research. You can call or email a particular shoe company's customer service. Many shoe companies have these technical details available, though the customer service rep you are talking to may have no idea what you are talking about. Just push and nudge a little and you can usually find out. You can ask what size the heel to toe drop is, and also get specifics like how wide the toe box is.
Want some more reading on barefoot shoes for kids?
Dr Rossi, podiatrist articles:
Why shoes make 'normal' gait impossible
Footwear: the primary cause of foot disorders
Children's footwear: launching site for adults ills
Katy Bowman's Every Womans Guide To Foot Pain Relief