Karen De Vito, a lifelong skater, first put her son Jackson in skates when he was just a toddler. “It took him until he was about three to find his feet, to get up and get moving,” she says. “By four, he was booking it around the rink at top speed pushing on only one leg,” she laughs.
Somewhere between the ages of three and five, kids are ready to start on skates, says De Vito, a professional skating coach who’s been in charge of the preschool program at the Kitchener-Waterloo Skating Club in Waterloo, Ont., for five years. But, she adds, parents need to be patient. “It’s a whole new environment, new equipment and new skill set. It can take quite a while for children to start to feel confident.”
That confidence comes from learning how to fall down and get back up without hurting themselves, says De Vito. “There’s nothing more frustrating for kids than not being able to get back on their feet.”
Subscribe to our daily newsletter! Her preschool skating classes start out in the lobby of the arena, on a rubber surface, where kids can begin to balance on their blades, fall down and get up again. “We do this by showing them how to get on their knees, put one foot up, a second foot up, and then push up with their hands. Parents can hold onto the child’s skates to provide some stability,” says De Vito.
Getting on the ice
Next, they take these skills to the ice. “Most of the time kids will be down,” says De Vito. “That’s OK. They need to get used to the hard, cold, slippery surface. It takes practice falling down and getting up before they can do it on their own.”
Once kids are comfortable getting up on their feet, De Vito encourages them to march on the spot. When they’ve mastered shifting their weight from one foot to the other, they can start to move slowly across the ice. Walking forward and backward, sidestepping, singing Head and shoulders, knees and toes—it all helps kids find their balance.
“Let kids decide when they want to add a bit of power, to push off,” says De Vito. “Eventually, most just start doing it, as they begin to feel the edges of the blades and get more confident.”
De Vito doesn’t recommend chairs or other supporting devices because they encourage kids to lean forward. “To find the balance point, the child should be standing up straight so her weight is evenly distributed over the blade.”
A better way to support a beginning skater is to skate alongside and hold him under the arms. De Vito finds kids usually feel comfortable with this because they want to know you’re there. “Encourage him to keep his head up, and put one, and then both arms out like an airplane, to balance,” says De Vito.
Whatever you do, keep it fun—and don’t push kids when they’re tired, says De Vito. “You want skating to be an activity kids enjoy for the rest of their lives.”
Getting the right equipment
1. Insist on a helmet. This is absolutely critical when it comes to safety. A CSA-approved (Canadian Standards Association) ice hockey helmet that fits properly over a toque is a must. Some parents opt for a face cage as well, but it’s not required equipment, says De Vito.
2. Find the right skates. De Vito likes figure skates for beginners because the blades are longer. She suggests going to a sports store and having your child properly fitted. Bring the socks your child would normally wear to the rink and have her try on skates in her shoe size; resist the temptation to buy a size or two larger to make them last an extra season. “If the feet are sliding around, it’s much harder for kids to learn and can cause injury,” says De Vito.
Tip: When the boots are tied up, your child should be standing up straight. Her heel should be right at the back of the boot and she should be able to wiggle her toes. De Vito cautions against a rigid boot with buckles, “When kids go down, the buckles can come undone.” Instead, opt for Velcro closures or good old-fashioned laces.
3. Consider going second-hand. Gently used skates are just fine, as long as they still offer good ankle support and the blade is in good condition. Don’t buy a used skate that has bends or creases in the boot.
4. Be sharp about blades. If you buy figure skates designed for children at a beginner level of skating, there should be no need to file off the toe pick. Skates should be checked and sharpened regularly.
5. Bundle up. Kids spend a lot of time at this stage crawling around on the ice, says De Vito, so dress your child in a snowsuit and waterproof mitts.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2011 issue with the headline, “Learning to skate,” p. 170.