Eight Dos and Don'ts of Buying Back-to-School Shoes

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Little kids' feet are growing constantly, so it's tempting to just grab the cheapest sneakers to keep up and keep costs down. But when it's time to pick the shoes kids will wear all day at school, remember that children are running, jumping, and dancing a lot more than most grown-ups, putting more wear and tear on their feet and shoes. Seventy percent of all foot problems come from ill-fitting footwear, according to exercise expert and author Selene Yeager, and the problem can be particularly acute for children. The weakest part of the foot is where bone and cartilage are growing, so kids are more at risk for sprains, breaks, and other injuries than adults. Here are some dos and don'ts for picking the right pair of shoes for school.

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While it's tempting to get larger-size shoes kids can wear (theoretically) for a year or two, don't. If a shoe is too big, the child is at greater risk of tripping and falling. A big shoe may hinder youngsters' ability to play with schoolmates -- and really, when aren't they climbing or running? Too-big shoes can also cause blisters and calluses, and if the back of a shoe rubs constantly on the foot, it can wear through socks and even result in infections. When fitting children for shoes, you should be able to slip a pinkie finger in the heel up to the first knuckle; more than that and the shoe is too big. Conversely, be sure to replace a shoe when it becomes too small. Shoes that are too tight can cause pain, put strain on the Achilles' tendon, and cause ingrown toenails.

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Even if a shoe is "big" enough, it may be too snug for a wide foot. A tight shoe means an uncomfortable (and irritable) child, so don't just check to see if there's room at the end of the shoe. If the tongue seems to be pulled forward, the shoe is probably too tight. Also look for a shoe with a rounded toe box and enough room for toes to wiggle and slip forward slightly while running and walking. A pointy toe isn't comfortable for many grown-ups, and even less so for kids, whose toes may not grow properly if not given enough room.

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Shoes mold to an individual's foot, so putting your kids' feet into other kids' broken-in shoes can mess with their development: The wrong shoe can weaken muscles and ligaments and result in poor posture and balance. Worn-out shoes increase the risk of heel pain, Achilles' tendinitis, stress fractures, and ankle sprains. Those thrift store kicks may look barely used, but examine them closely before taking them home. Having to drag your child to the pediatrician for toe pain, stress fractures, athlete's foot, or worse is likely to more than eat up the few dollars saved by buying secondhand shoes.

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Given how much kids run, jump, climb, and generally move around, traction on the bottom of their shoes is critical. Flat soles can slip and slide on linoleum schoolroom floors, leading to injury. Given kids' lack of coordination, the wrong shoes are almost guaranteed to lead to problems.

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Decades ago, the thinking was that putting children in inflexible shoes was good for growing feet. Now it's known that stiff soles can actually inhibit growth, while flexible soles are more comfortable for children's small bones and soft tendons. Soles for all-day wear should be thick enough to lend support but flexible enough to provide stability. If you can fold a shoe in half and stuff it in your pocket, that's too much flexibility. Other tests: Put one hand on the heel and the other around the middle of the shoe and twist (there should be resistance in the middle), hold the heel and squeeze (the shoe should be firm), and flex the shoe where the ball of the foot would be (it should flex enough for the foot to move normally).

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It's not just about stinky shoes -- kids running around and sweating in shoes that don't breathe can mean hot and uncomfortable feet, blisters, and slipping. When looking at inexpensive shoes, check for mesh panels and natural materials (while canvas and cotton breathe, artificial materials such as vinyl don't). A pair of slip-on canvas sneakers can be an inexpensive but comfortable option.

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No matter how warm it is where you live, flip-flops and sandals are always a bad idea for school. In open-toe shoes, toes can be stepped on, stubbed, or slammed by dropped books or other objects. Sandals and shoes that don't have a backing also are more likely to fall off and get lost -- and no one wants to discover their child has been limping through the day with one shoe. And prepare to dig in your heels when a little girl wants big-girl high heels; even low heels can lead to stumbles and falls, and because kids lack the muscle, tendon, and ligament strength of adults, tumbling off a curb can have severe consequences. If you find yourself gearing up for an argument, ask if leg casts are fashionable this year.

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Kids' feet grow fast; for school-age youngsters, expect to buy new shoes at least every six months. To save money, look for sales with an eye to buying the next size (or two) up. While parents may need to store a few pairs for a while, if the savings are significant (and the kids aren't likely to start hating the style all of a sudden), they'll have new kicks when needed -- and at a discount.