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May 17, 2011

Minimalist (and Affordable) Shoe Options for Kids

One of the biggest discrepancies – or hypocrisies, if you’re more cynically-minded – about the minimalist shoe movement is this: virtually every manufacturer of natural footwear makes reference to walking or running “the way God made us” or “the way our bodies were designed to”, often noting that in modern society, our feet start out strong and healthy as young children, only to be progressively weakened and deformed by using traditional shoes.

The problem is that if you actually subscribe to this notion (as I do), and are inspired to find footwear for your children in hopes that they can maintain healthy foot development and function throughout their lives, you’ll be sorely disappointed at the options that are available. I’ve been searching and experimenting with various styles of minimalist footwear for my three children, and can attest that the process can be both cost-prohibitive and frustrating. In light of that, I thought a brief overview might help open some doors or create some new leads for anyone else out there who is facing a similar situation.

Before we proceed, some specifications and ground rules are in order. My 12-year-old son typically occupies the smallest size of the men’s footwear range (size 7-8), as does my 10-year-old daughter in women’s styles (size 6-7). My 7-year-old daughter is at the high end of most kids’ size charts (3-3.5). Since they’re all growing like beanpoles, they usually grow out of shoes before they can wear them out – so my wife and I try to be as budget-conscious as possible with shoe purchases. We typically look for shoes in the $20-30 range, and will only pay more than $40 if it’s a durable shoe that we can buy big in hopes of getting a somewhat extended lifespan. We look for bargains wherever we can find them: on eBay, through Google searches, or any other coupon or discount offers we learn about.

Also, for the sake of this discussion, we’re talking about all-purpose shoes that can be worn to school and used for any activity that comes up in the course of a kid’s day. We’re excluding any slippers (although my kids all love these) or any sport-specific demands aside from running, hiking, and climbing. It’s a lot to think about, for sure.

So here’s where we stand now, along with links to all of the products mentioned. I’ll detail each kid individually, but before doing so, one particular shoe deserves mentioning, as they’ve been on the feet of all my kids this spring:

The Saucony Kilkenny XC flat (spikeless). These have attracted attention from minimalist runners over the past couple of years because of their lightweight (average 6oz for adult sizes) construction and relatively low profile - about 15mm in the heel and 10mm in the forefoot by my measurements. My wife and I were drawn to them because of their aggressive outsole, which we thought would come in handy while hiking in Yosemite. We found a deal on them (from 6PM.com, I believe) and got three pairs for about $30 each.

The Kilkenny is a fairly popular shoe with high school XC teams, so it’s produced in large quantities; consequently, it’s usually easy to find closeout deals on the previous year’s model, especially in small sizes – for example, right now at the link I included above, you'll see them for $25 from the Saucony website. However, when purchasing, make sure you’re getting the SPIKELESS version – otherwise your kids might end up accidentally aerating your carpet or inflicting harm upon themselves.

Fortunately, my son has worn a pair of Kilkennys throughout the school year, so we were already aware of the one major quirk with this shoe: it runs incredibly small. As in, at least one full size – in some cases more. In fact, the shoes run so small that my youngest daughter who normally wears a size 3 kids shoe was able to fit into the women’s size 6 of the Kilkenny. They also run a bit narrow through the forefoot, so I don’t like them as an all-day everyday shoe, but for high-demand activity they’re really quite respectable. All of my kids now use these as their dedicated running shoes in addition to any hikes our family does.

Aside from the Kilkennys, here’s what’s in the shoe closet for each of my kids, from oldest to youngest:

My son loves his kigo edge shoes, which I reviewed here, and which typically retail for $70. The kigo blog often has coupon promotions, which is how I grabbed two pair of these for about $35 each. The second pair went to my middle daughter, who fits into the smallest women’s size. kigos also tend to run a bit narrow and quite small as well, and they have unisex sizing that sometimes requires a jump of a full size (instead of half-sizes) into the next model.

These are my son’s everything shoe – even for mountain biking - and he absolutely loves the minimalist construction and flexibility of them. However, you can see the wear he has put on them in about three months; for the price we paid, these were a great deal – but if we had to pay full price, they may not justify the cost.

Another shoe that my son wears on occasion is a Sockwa Amphibian that I received as a test pair, but never officially reviewed here (for various reasons, too complicated to go into now). I really like the Sockwa company, and I’ve had several discussions with the owner about the direction they’re heading; I think they’re on the verge of producing a great minimalist product, but the Amphibian wasn’t quite it for me. My son likes it, however, and I’m eagerly awaiting Sockwa’s next generation minimalist shoe.

My middle child’s collection looks very similar to my son’s:

She’s got the Saucony Kilkennys - still sporting the race chip from her most recent 5K, which she wears like a badge of honor – as well as the same kigos that her brother uses. The edge is an everyday shoe that she alternates with the other model pictured: the Simple Satire, which I reviewed here after we scored a closeout pair for $20 from REI (whose inventory is currently limited, but I found them for $18 to $26 at Amazon.com). The shoe has a zero-drop platform with a standing height of approximately 1”. It’s not purely minimalist or super-flexible, but it bends well enough to allow natural foot movement, and it has a great fit and decent traction for P.E. class or just kicking around the neighborhood.

Simple makes grown up versions of the Satire as well, but my daughter still fits into the “big kid” sizing, which is nice because it saves you a few bucks. The kids shoes come in some cool color patterns such as a leopard print from REI or a giraffe print from Amazon - but before you buy any pair, make sure that you identify the right size in the Little Kid, Big Kid, or adult models, because a lot of the colors and patterns are the same in all three categories.

Considering that she’s the youngest kid in the family, my 7-year-old has a shoe collection that puts her brother and sister to shame:

You see the aforementioned Kilkennys, as well as a pair of low-cut Converse Chuck Taylors that are very similar in construction to the Simple Satire, with a flat 1” platform, fair flexibility and good outsole traction. We got ours at Target for $20, and the Amazon link above has them for $18-$30 depending on size and color.

The pink shoes above are a pair of Speedo Surfwalker water shoes, which you can buy for less than $20 here at Amazon.com, and are definitely the most minimal shoes in the collection. They’re super lightweight and completely flexible, and my daughter loves wearing them as an everyday shoe, even wearing them for day hikes before she had the Sauconys. The only caution I’d offer is that with excessively rugged activity like climbing trees or scrounging in the dirt, their durability shows some signs of strain, especially where the upper meets the outsole.

The other shoes in her assortment are from Terra Plana’s VIVOBAREFOOT kids collection: the Pally model I reviewed here, and the Oaky model I reviewed here. Granted, we received both of these free of charge, and Terra Plana isn’t exactly known for its bargain pricing – but to their credit, the kids’ models aren’t nearly as steep as their adult versions, and the company frequently has coupon offers like they did in conjunction with each of those review posts. If you had used the 50% off coupon that went along with my review, you could have picked up the very fashionable Pally for $30 – which is a fantastic deal when you consider how versatile and comfortable VIVOBAREFOOT shoes are.

The best case in point is my daughter’s Oakys, which are noteworthy for a couple of reasons:

1) These are far and away her favorite everyday shoes, even after the laces have frayed and the insoles have holes in them thanks to constant use since she received them last October. She’s worn them in the sandbox, in mud puddles and playing in the river, and for pretty much every activity you can imagine. When it comes to all-purpose durability, these have to rank near the top. However …

2) They’ve also been the topic of a year-long argument between me and the P.E. teacher at her elementary school, who sat her out of class a few times for having “improper footwear”. During one phone conversation, when I asked the teacher why they weren’t acceptable, she replied that they weren’t athletic enough. When pressed, she clarified: you know, something with a heel and good support and cushioning. After a few back-and-forth exchanges, she was finally agreeable to let my daughter participate in P.E. class in the Oakys, but still directs occasional comments toward her like “maybe you should wear some regular sneakers next time.” Needless to say, it’s been a little bit frustrating.

A funny postscript to the whole story is that about a month ago, wearing the same Oakys that weren’t athletic enough for elementary school PE class, my daughter took second place among all first-graders in a city track meet. No, she didn’t bring her medal to school to show the teacher afterward … but the thought definitely crossed my mind.

The overall minimalist market for children continues to expand, with new entries from major players like Vibram and Merrell this spring, although they might be priced a bit too high (FiveFingers for kids are $60) for cost-conscious shoppers right off the bat. Hopefully after they’ve been on the market for a year or so, or if they get updated in the near-term, this spring’s models will eventually become available at more affordable prices. In the meantime, the good news is that there are several good options out there if you’re willing to do a little bit of bargain shopping.

Healthy foot development is indeed a gift we can bestow upon our children, and fortunately, it appears to be one that’s becoming easier for parents to provide with each passing year.


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mtnrunner2 5/17/11, 11:17 PM  

Runners such as Anton K, who you probably know helped develop NB minimalist line, would be surprised to hear they are running 50+ miles in shoes that are not "athletic" enough.

mtnrunner2 5/17/11, 11:19 PM  

Not to mention your own long runs/races. Good grief.

Donald 5/17/11, 11:31 PM  

mtnrunner2: Yup, that was definitely part of the discussion. I was careful not to compare myself too closely to Anton, however :)

Turi 5/18/11, 4:51 AM  

Complicating it for me is the fact that both of my kids need black uniform shoes that can double as athletic shoes. And my daughter is so hard on her shes that I actually have to paint the toes with work boot "toe armor." But they do have a pair of more minimal shoes for weekends...

Richard 5/18/11, 6:16 AM  

Thanks for the great input. I have a 13 month old boy and have a hard time finding shoes for him. We were given a lot of used ones but they are huge and heavy!

He is currently going either barefoot or in the softstar you linked. We love them but I think they'll be a bit too warm this summer. The links you provide will be usefull. Thanks to you I'm now looking for a discount on the simple weetire infant. The price is usually a big problem for me since I have to have the shoes shipped to Canada...

Michael Shane Helton 5/18/11, 7:12 AM  

I spent 3 hours last weekend trying to find shoes for my son and nothing. I could MAYBE stomach the horrifically expensive minimalist online options, but my son burns through shoes like Nascar goes through tires.

However, I have had to make the investment because I am watching his feet change shape and bunions developing from the shape of his shoes. This is actually an important topic that no one talks about in depth.

Tuck 5/18/11, 7:28 AM  

She wore through the insole at the ball of her foot, not the heel. How odd. Perhaps you need to inform your daughter that she should be running heel-to-toe?

Or just let the PE teacher do it... ;)

My daughters get upset when I try to get them to wear anything other than the Vivos.

Donald 5/18/11, 8:09 AM  

Tuck: great observation! Good thing she doesn't always listen to teachers.

tdomina 5/18/11, 9:11 AM  

Really helpful post. Thanks! My 4-year-old is currently wearing (and enjoying) the Nike Sunray (http://www.zappos.com/nike-kids-sunray-protect-toddler-youth-stealth-team-orange-dark-shadow-dark-grey?zlfid=111). Flat, flexible, and wide enough in the forefoot. I wish they made them for grown-ups!

MattK@GearGuide 5/18/11, 10:26 AM  

Great post. My daughter has been stuck in a pair of Simple Macaroons -- a Mary Jane verison of the Satire -- for the past six months or more. They're suitably girly but still wear pretty darn well.

Andy 5/18/11, 10:36 AM  

I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that the Sockwas arrived atrociously small, hence why they're on your son's feet and not yours.

They're a good concept but the first production design and run was a fail.

JimDog 5/18/11, 2:40 PM  

I'll follow what Andy said with a note about durability. I have a pair of Sockwa Amphibian as well as a colleague of mine. Both of ours have a hole in the exact same spot within 100 miles or so (maybe even less) of running in them. They hole is on the top, so they are still good and I still wear them, but it makes me wonder if the first batch was perhaps a little less durable than desired. Hopefully the next version will be a bit more durable.

And yes they run SMALL!!!!

GaUDeNTiUs 5/18/11, 7:33 PM  

Donald, is there a possibility you'd be a guest speaker at the YMCA SVHM training in Salinas? Speak about your experiences as a barefoot runner? Mike Dove is one of the trainer-coaches there. I would love to have the rest of the class hear a different viewpoint. I'm one of the trainees there attempting the half-marathon in either my Merrells or Minimus trails.

Seb@Pedometer watches 5/18/11, 7:38 PM  

The minimalist discussion is certainly going on these days. I remember the running shoes of the 1960's they were minimalist alright. I could never go back, far too uncomfortable for me.

Pedometer watches and Pedometers

Donald 5/18/11, 9:52 PM  

Andy: yes, the sizing was way off, and there were some other issues too.

JimDog: I remember your issues with Sockwa also. Maybe it's good that I couldn't give mine a proper test.

Gaudentius: I haven't really considered speaking there, but I'll discuss it with Mike.

thatgirl 5/20/11, 12:31 PM  

Any ideas for toddlers? My three year old wears a 9 (or an EU 25). Too small for the pricey Vivo Barefoots, too big for leather soled infant shoes. We had him in Bical Grippers for a while, but now he's too big for those... all we can find is shoes with chunky brick soles, or water shoe/sandals that collect a ton of sand in the playground.

Donald 5/20/11, 8:43 PM  

ThatGirl: Check out this Soft Star page for some great toddler shoes. Speedo and Simple also make toddler sizes of the shoes in the post.

Kerry Lynn 8/27/11, 8:40 PM  

www.preschoolians.com look pretty awesome. No personal experience though.

TMD 10/31/11, 9:21 AM  

Awesome article!! Yes, kids shoes can be the most difficult to find! I've had my 3yo daughter in Soft Stars for almost a year now, and they have been awesome! I do get comments, because I buy them big to make them last, but she has never had a blister and doesn't trip, so I'm not concerned. I have been looking at the preschoolians, but haven't tried them yet. Now I just need a good winter boot, without spending $100 for the Soft Star ones..arugh!

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