Young children have gone barefoot for most of human history, and still do in many parts of the world, so the definitive answer to the question, ‘What is the best shoe for the beginning walker?’ is still evolving. Since feet are more flexible, stronger and healthier in societies where the shoes are shunned, most experts believe that no shoe is the best shoe. They recommend that children be allowed to go barefoot even in our society, where wearing shoes is the norm. Of course this is not always practical outdoors, where the shoes are usually needed for protection, and in cold weather, when they’re needed for warmth. Nor is it always feasible in draughty or poorly proof slipper socks are a good indoor compromise; they allow plenty of free movement while keeping feet warm.
The next best thing to no shoes is a shoe that’s closest to bare feet. Look for:
- Just-right fit. Ideally, a shoe should be neither too big nor too small, though a too-tight shoe is apt to cause more problems than a too-roomy one.
- Easy on, easy off. Experts differ about whether high-top or low-cut shoes are preferable. High-tops can be confining and are more difficult for parents to put on and take off. But low-cut shoes come off so easily, a toddler can pull them off at will. What’s more, they tend to slip off on their own. What’s best for your new walker may depend on his or her foot shape as well as on the fit of a particular pair of shoes.
- Light weight. Toddlers have a hard enough time putting one bare foot in front of another: The weight of a shoe, especially a heavy one, makes the task even more of a challenge.
- Flexible soles. You should be able to bend the toe of the shoe up (about 40 degrees) easily.
- Nonslip, nongrip soles. Soles should be neither so slippery that your toddler slides when trying to walk nor so ground-gripping that it’s hard to lift a foot. Ideally, traction should be similar to that of the bare foot. Look for rubber soles that are grooved, like tire treads. If you buy shoes with smooth, slipper soles (the kind you are likely to find on dress shoes), rough up the sloes with sandpaper, or tape a couple of strips of masking tape across them to improve traction.
- A shape that matches the foot. Choose a high, square toe box rather than a pointed one.
- Breathable uppers. Uppers of leather or canvas rather than plastic or imitation leather will allow feet to breathe and minimize moisture buildup from perspiration.
- No heels. Even a slightly raised heel can throw a toddler’s posture and balance out of killer.
- Stiff heel counters. The backs (or counters) of the shoe should offer firm support. Look for padding along the back edge; this feature will prevent the counters from rubbing and thereby increase comfort.
- Bright, appealing colours and designs. Appearances may not mean much to the average thirteen-month-old. But they can mean everything to older toddlers-who will often refuse to wear shoes that do not suit their taste. Bold colours and design are favourites; animal and cartoon appliqués generally score extra points.
- Reasonable price. Shoes will probably have to be replaced four of five times-or even more-in the next year. So although they should be well made for the sake of comfort and safety, they needn’t be built to last forever.
If you can manage it, purchase two pairs of shoes at a time. Children’s feet perspire a lot, and switching off will allow shoes to dry completely between wearing.