Kid’s Sneaker Recommendations: Altra Instinct Jr. and Merrell Mix Master Jam

Altra Instinct JuniorI’ve been asked a number of times recently for recommendations for kids shoes. When it comes to kids, I advocate for as minimal a shoe as necessary for the intended use of that shoe. I don’t believe kids shoe be wearing stiff, constricting, shoes with highly elevated heels, and I try to put this belief into practice as much as I can with my own children.

Unfortunately there are tradeoffs that often have to be made with kid’s footwear. These include the following:

1. Durability – let’s face it – kids are hard on shoes. Unlike adult running shoes which may only see use for 30-60 minutes a day, the shoes we buy for our kids are typically on their feet the entire day when they are at school. Thus, when we invest in a pair of kid shoes we want it to last. I have had mixed experiences with more minimal children’s footwear in the past, and a $50+ pair of shoes that lasts a month is not going to sell well once reviews start rolling in on Zappos, Amazon, and the like.

2. Weather – my kids wear Crocs almost exclusively when its warm. The shoes are darn near indestructible, and they are super wide. Of all the aspects of a kid shoe that I value most, a non-constricting fit is most important to me, and Crocs fit that bill as well as anything. Unfortunately, winter in NH means Crocs go away for 5-6 months of the year, so other options need to be found that can handle nasty weather. That usually means a pair of sneakers and some type of winter boot.

3. Appearance – though I might be willing to wear an ugly shoe out for a run, my kids will only where what they perceive to be “cool.” Thus, what I want them to wear and what they will wear are not always in agreement. There’s no way my kids would wear moccasins for example, my 10yr old son will only wear shoes that look athletic (i.e., sneakers), and my 8yr old daughter would wear heels to school every day if I let her (she’s a bit of a fashion diva, no idea how that happened…).

Given the above considerations, I have tried a number of different options and have two that I highly recommend.

Altra Instinct Jr.

Altra is a relatively new company and they specialize in making “zero drop,” foot shaped shoes (i.e., wide in the toebox). Zero drop means that the sole of the shoe is level from heel to forefoot, which is not the case for the vast majority of shoes on the market. Before they had even launched their first adult shoe, the founders of Altra told me that making a good kid’s shoe was a top priority. Last year they released their first model: the Altra Instinct Jr. They sent me pairs for my two older kids to try out, and I have been quite impressed! (Disclosure: these shoes were media samples provided free of charge by Altra).

2014-03-20 07.52.51Altra Instinct Jr

My first impression of the Instinct Jr. was that it was a bit heavy and stiff. I still think they are a bit on the heavy side (v2 is supposedly going to shave off over an ounce), but flexibility has improved considerably as my kids broke them in:

Altra Instinct Jr

On the plus side, they look great, they are zero drop, and they offer a very roomy fit (no toe squeezing!). My 10yr son told me they are super comfortable and are his favorite shoes (well, second to Crocs I suppose). My 8yr old daughter likes them as well, she wears them to school on occasion and for indoor soccer.

Altra Instinct Jr

Best of all, the Instinct Jr’s have been indestructible. My 10yr old is very active and tends to be extremely hard on his shoes. He would go through some of the Merrell Barefoot shoes we bought him in the past really quickly. Not these. They have had the Altras since the beginning of this school year (Sept. 2013) and both pairs are holding up great! The only place I am seeing any real wear is some scuffing on the toe bumper (cosmetic, not a problem) and a bit of wear along the lateral side of the sole (minor considering how long they have been in use).

2014-03-20 07.53.26Altra Instinct Jr

I think this shoe is a good example where the tradeoff between minimal and durable is apparent. It’s a sturdy shoe with a heavy duty upper (though it lacks a plastic heel counter – awesome!) and full rubber outsole. That makes it heavy, but it has lasted as well or better than any kids shoe they have worn.

The Altra Instinct Jr. is available at Altra.com and at Amazon. Since it is being updated in the next few months, the current version can also be found in kid’s sizes 1.5-6 for under $30 at 6pm.com (6pm is essentially the Zappos clearance site). For a kid’s shoe that is this durable, that’s a great deal! I’ll probably buy another pair for each of them unless I can hold out until the new model is released (not sure on an exact date).

Merrell Mix Master Jam

Merrell Mix Master JamMy little guy is about to turn 4 and is still too small to wear the Altras. For a long time we had him in a pair of Merrell Flux Glove toddler shoes and we loved them. They were flexible, minimally cushioned, and had plenty roomy for his fat little feet. Unfortunately, it seems Merrell has stopped making the toddler Flux Gloves, so when he outgrew them it was time to look for something else. We bought a pair Merrell Mix Master Jam strap shoes from Amazon at the end of last summer and he has been wearing them regularly since.

Merrell Mix Master Jam

Unlike the Altras, the Mix Master Jam has a bit of a heel lift, though not too exaggerated (I measure them about 4mm drop from heel to forefoot). They are super flexible, they fit his chubby feet really well, and they are super easy to slip on and off. Most of the time I don’t even need to undo the velcro strap to put them on. Like the Altras, they have a durable rubber outsole which has shown very little wear in 6-7 months of use (wear is mostly along the outer margin of the sole at the heel and forefoot).

Merrell Mix Master Jam

The only place I am seeing a bit of breakdown is where the upper meets the toe bumper – the outer layer of fabric seems to be fraying a bit, but the inner layer is holding up so it seems to be just cosmetic (you can see this in the image above). In any event, he’s about to outgrow them so the shoes have lasted as long as I could possible want a kid shoe to last.

The Merrell Mix Master Jam is available in a number of styles – Mary Jane, water shoe, lace-up, and velcro closure at Merrell.com, Zappos, and Amazon. 6pm.com has some models of this shoe on clearance for under $30. As with the Altras, I’ll likely either get my son another pair of these for his next shoe, or give a try to the new version of the Merrell Trail Glove kid’s shoe.

How about you, do you have any favorite kid’s shoes?

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. My 10-year old son and 8-year old daughter wear the Altra Instinct Jr. daily, and can’t wait for the new version. The toe overlays are pretty scuffed up, and the uppers darkened by dirt, but other than that they’ve held up pretty well!

    I didn’t know Zappos and 6pm were related. Makes sense!

  2. David Henry says:

    I’ve been really liking the Keen Chandler CNX for our kids (they have infant sizing too now so finally a replacement for the great infant merrell flux glove that got discontinued). Flexible, low to the ground and great durability so far and they have a bungee type speed lacing that is easy for kids to get on and off without having to tie every time. Best toddler/infant shoe I’ve come across since the infant merrell flux.

  3. I want my children to wear zero-drop shoes as much as possible. Both my children (2 and 4) have the Merrell Crush gloves. Zero drop, flexible and with enough durability. My youngest als has the Vivobarefoot Rooty. Very lightweight and with a thin sole.

    You didn’t mention the Merrell trail glove for kids (with or without strap). I think they’re also a good replacement for the discontinued flux glove: zero drop and a 6.5mm sole.

    • I mentioned them briefly at the end of the Mix Master segment, but have not seen them in person. Might go for those for my son next, but the Keens mentioned here in the comments look great too!

      • If the Trail Glove wears anything like the flux glove did I would highly recommend it. My 8 year old daughter wore the flux glove last fall for her first cross country season, and after some muddy meets, all you had to do was throw them in the washer on gentle, and they came out looking like new. She has been wearing them everyday for school since cross country season and they are still in great shape. I would highly recommend them.

      • David Henry says:

        Those new Trail Glove 2.0s do look good; hadn’t seen those. The keens have been great though and also nice for us is the Seacamp CNX (sandal) for summer camping as the kids inevitably end up in any body of water close by. The Seacamp and Chandler share the same outsole just a different upper.

  4. Thanks for the reviews. My son needs a new pair of sneakers and I’ve had my eye on the Mix Master Jams, so it’s nice to hear positive things about them. I’d seen the Keen Chandlers also but was afraid they might be too stiff, so I will check those out as well.

  5. Pete,
    I’m curious why the Altra’s have the outsole protruding back past the midsole. Do you know?

    • They call it a trail rudder or something like that. No idea why they put it on there, but it’s on some of their adult trail shoes as well. Easy enough to take a razor to it.

  6. I recently saw a kids Skechers Go Run Ride. Pete, have you seen it? Any thoughts?

  7. A 4mm drop in a toddler shoe is very different to a 4mm drop in adult shoe. They sound the same but produce a very different ramp angle for the foot due to shoe length.

    • Absolutely, but a 4mm drop in a toddler shoe is better than a 12mm drop in a toddler shoe considering the ramp angle. I’d prefer 0 of course, but options were not abundant when I bought theses since the Flux Glove toddler shoe had gone away.

  8. Hi Peter.

    I’ve been puzzling over the choice of shoes for my kids to run in recently. Given the high price of shoes, and the speed at which their feet seem to grow has made be hesitate in buying a trainer/running shoe.

    The choice at the moment seems to be old style low tech…A plimsole/sandshoe “generation” of runners started in these and as they progressed through their careers the only change seemed to be spikes..(a more trendy version could be a converse type shoe)

    Going to try them for a little while and see how it goes. Any thoughts?

    • I’ve heard of a lot of people choosing plimsoles for kids, particularly in the UK and Australia. Interestingly, the term plimsole is kind of a foreign thing in the US, I think the equivalent might be something like a Converse All Star. My littlest son had a few pairs when he was younger.

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