Fall is a busy time in the sneaker business. For a specialty running store, like the one in New York that I worked at for two years, it’s the time when runners training for fall marathons stream in. But back in high school I worked at a general, all-ages sneaker store on suburban Long Island that would fill up every fall for a different reason: back-to-school shopping.
Parents dragged in kids who’d outgrown last year’s sneakers and needed a new pair for gym class, team sports, and playground games, and it was my job to recommend pairs that would last through the school year. My expertise back then was limited to steering kids away from Heelys when moms gave me a stern glare if their kids even got near the rolling death traps. But there’s much more to consider when shopping for kids’ sneakers. To find out what parents should look for, I enlisted the help of three kids’ shoe experts. Below are their picks for new walkers, elementary schoolers, and budding athletes.
Best sneakers for kids 4 years old and younger
For beginning walkers, Jennifer May, a children’s footwear consultant with more than 25 years in the business and founder of Kidshoeology, likes the Jamie sneaker from Stride Rite. She says the rounded edges provide increased stability and reduce stumbles and falls. The simple style that encourages natural movement and is available in three different widths also lines up with the criteria outlined by Shevaun Mackie Doyle, M.D., a pediatric orthopedist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, for choosing kids’ shoes. “The best shoes for a growing child stimulate being barefoot,” says Doyle. She advises parents look for a “shoe that fits well, that’s breathable, has flexibility, and just enough support and protection from the elements.”
At Brooklyn kids’ shoe store Runnin’ Wild, Old Soles high-top sneakers are popular for little ones, according to store owner Stacey Fauci. “They have soft leather and nice styles,” she says. The Velcro closure and rubber sole make them easy to put on and move around in.
Fauci says canvas shoes from the Seattle-based brand See Kai Run are among her best sellers year after year. “They have a functional soft sole and the styles are very nice,” she says. “The colors are more muted and it’s a good first walker shoe. They’re also cut a little wider.” According to May, many children have wide feet so it makes sense that these roomier shoes are comfortable on kids’ feet.
For younger kids, May says “sneakers should be easy to put on and take off. Stretch and Velcro closures make it easy for kids.” She like these pull-on shoes from Nike with two elastic straps that hold the shoe in place. We’re a fan of the adult version as a women’s athletic shoe, and the kids’ model comes in just as many fun colorways.
Nike sneakers are also favorites among shoppers at Fauci’s store. And since Doyle recommends that parents look for a “shoe that keeps the foot in it and is secure,” this style, with a kid-friendly, easy-to-close Velcro fastener, is a good option that’ll stay put throughout the school day.
While Doyle generally stresses comfort and affordability for shoes kids will quickly grow out of, she makes an exception for kids who are starting to play sports on turf fields. Compared to regular cleats designed for playing on grass, the nubs on turf shoes — like this Puma pair — are lower profile and clustered closer together. “Turf shoes produce less torque so there’s less chance of twisting at the knee,” says Doyle. “It’s worth the investment of getting turf cleats in addition to regular cleats depending on what surface your kid will be playing on.”
For kids with wide feet, May likes that New Balance offers well-made shoes in a variety of widths. This grown-up looking knit sneaker is nearly identical to the very handsome adult version.
Best sneakers for kids between 8 and 12
Unlike the unstructured, barefoot style shoes Doyle recommends for younger kids, she says that “as they get older and closer to their adult body weight, it’s okay to have a shoe that equally distributes load and absorbs shock” like a traditional running shoe. As kids enter middle school and pick up track, cross country, or other sports that involve running, she says these more specialized shoes help prevent stress fractures and calluses. With the same cushioning technology found in the brand’s adult shoes, Asics shoes are a good choice for active kids in this age group. Fauci calls the Gel-Contend “a very stable shoe.”
Toward the tail end of elementary school kids may start to prioritize aesthetics in their sneakers. “Adidas is doing a great job with styles right now,” says May. She suggests this pair that’s flexible and breathable while also being stylish. As long as the shoe fits correctly and is functional, it’s generally fine to let a kid pick a pair based on looks. Doyle says this is true even for the one-in-five kids who have flat or collapsed arches. “Don’t get a shoe to accommodate a flat foot,” she says. “It’s been shown that it’s a normal variant within foot shape.”