First trip to the ice rink

A guest post by Will Baker
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I’ve loved skating for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of night skating on the tiny outdoor rink at London, Ontario’s Victoria Park. I couldn’t have been much older than three. Sometime around December 1st the City would light up the park with Christmas lights and fill it with seasonal ornamentation and from then until the New Year the Park would be packed after dark and the rink would become the focal point for downtown outdoor fun. As a little guy it was thrilling to be out at night (which starts at about 4:30pm in our neck of the woods!), watching more accomplished skaters (big kids) zoom by, drinking hot chocolate, and sliding down the snow hills beside the rink. Many communities have a similar outfit and to this day many kids take their first strides on these small (and free!) ice surfaces.

For the last two years I’ve had the opportunity to relive some of these memories with my young son, who is six. One thing I forgot, though, was that learning how to skate is not easy, and, for some, it’s just plain hard. Our ability to teach our kids how to skate depends on our own skating ability and the degree of time (and money for instruction) we can spare to support the hobby, so what follows is not a post about “how to skate.” Instead, I’ve prepared a list of three or four things you should keep in mind when you take your kid for a leisure skate for the first time.

Is It Too Soon?

First, wait until your kid is ready. Your child may really, really, want to learn how to skate and you may really, really, want them to, but unless they can stand on two skates without support there’s probably no point in pressing the issue. So get a pair of skates, put your kid in them, and make them take a couple of steps on a mat or rug in your hallway. If they fall over right away, try again next year or later in the season. Unfortunately, some basic balance is a requirement, so unless you’re living with the next Wayne Gretzky, two years old, or even three, might be a little too early.


Your Kid Can’t Skate And Wants To Go Home

Second, your kid will be slow on the ice (assuming they can even stay upright) and will most probably become frustrated at their apparent lack of progress. There’s not much you can do about this except be patient and enthusiastic and keep the trips short (yet frequent, if possible). Tom likes to take frequent, short breaks, and I let him because it keeps him around the rink longer and gives me a few moments to stretch my legs and back (bending down to scoop your kid off the ice 10 or 20 times a night takes its toll on aging bodies). You don’t want your kid to give up in despair because they can’t go fast enough, straight enough, or stay upright for long enough. Kids get tired, too, so in addition to the breaks, pull them around (if you can) and let them glide. They think it’s fun and hilarious, especially when they yank you down to the ice.

In the early days you should make use of whatever equipment is lying around the rink that can make skating easier and therefore more enjoyable. In my day it was a chair that could be pushed in front of the skater who holds it for additional balance. Nowadays it’s more likely to be a specialized skating aid like this, an “ice scooter,” with more room for flailing feet. These aids are useful as your kid figures out how to move forward – or, how to “skate.” However, as soon as your kid demonstrates the ability to move around on the ice without a skating aid, my advice is to remove the aid. By the end of his first season I made sure Tom skated without an aid for the first half hour or so. After he got a good skate in I let him fool around with the scooter if he wanted to.

A skating aid I have mixed feelings about is “bob skates.” These are skates with two parallel un-sharpened blades that facilitate standing on ice. By their nature they cannot help a child learn how to propel themselves along the ice with anything resembling a “skating” motion. In fact, they make moving in any direction extremely difficult. A hockey or figure skating stop on bob skates is out of the question. If they have a redeeming quality it’s that you can strap your one or two year old in them while the rest of the family enjoys a skate. However, as soon as your kid demonstrates the balance required to stand on real skates, bob skates should be removed as an option.

Kids work up a sweat while skating and overuse of winter clothing can make them hotter while restricting their ability to move around. Unless it’s a really cold day there’s no need for your kid to wear their full winter outfit. You can probably squish a toque or cycling hat under a helmet and as long as they’ve got some warm gloves or mitts they should be okay without, say, snow pants or that extra layer under their coat. Tom removes the fleece lining from his coat and wears rain paints or some light ski pants over his sweat pants. The extra space within his clothes makes a difference. Obviously, if you’re skating indoors in a heated facility some sweat pants, a sweater, and light gloves should do the trick.

Finish the skate off with a hot chocolate or some kind of treat, not as a reward for trying, but because it’s delicious (psst, it’s a reward).

Skate Sharpening  A lost art? Not really.

Third, sharp skates with the right kind of “hollow” are important. Skate blades are not like knives. You aren’t looking for a fine edge down the middle. Instead, there is a groove, or, “hollow” that runs down the middle of the blade. The deeper the groove, the more the edges of the blade will sink into the ice, especially when the ice is soft (warm). A shallower hollow will result in less grip (turning and stopping will be harder) and more speed (probably not good for a beginner, especially indoors or outdoors on really cold days). Figure skates have a shallower hollow than hockey skates, so you might consult your skate sharpener (see below) to see if they can do anything to make a budding figure skater’s first season a little easier.

Many Canadians will buy their kid their first pair of new skates at a big retailer like Canadian Tire or Walmart. Some of these stores offer skate sharpening, but you should avoid the impulse to “one stop” shop at a place like this. Staff are poorly trained and likely to make your dull blades even more unusable. Torontonians should take the extra trip to have their skates sharpened at a place like Toronto Hockey Repair ($5.00 in 2013-14). Tell them you’ve got a new skater and they should take care of the rest. Most cities have at least one reputable sporting goods store that will sharpen skates, and many indoor (and some outdoor) rinks have dedicated staff that sharpen blades all day long. Use them.

Safety

Finally, since your kid will probably be terrible at skating the first time around they will fall ALL THE TIME, so you’ll need to make sure they’re safe. Concussions are no laughing matter. Most rinks insist kids under a certain age (usually 10 or 12) wear a helmet. At Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto, where Tom and I do most of our skating, lots of kids wear cycling helmets. Some rinks insist on a hockey helmet. Helmet regulations (for cycling and hockey) in Ontario are vague, but no cycling helmets are rated for ice or hockey so we decided on something that’s at least built for ice, will protect his face (which he falls on regularly) and the lower part of his head / upper neck.  Many rinks will rent helmets for a nominal amount or provide them at no charge. Additional safety equipment abounds – elbow and knee pads, neck and ankle guards, hockey gloves, etc, but in my opinion these aren’t really necessary unless you’re expecting a bumpy time on the ice with lots of potential for unintentional contact, à la a hockey game.

Given that your kid is going to spend most of the time on their bum anyway, you might salvage a little more upright time and prevent collisions with gentle yet fairly regular reminders to keep their heads up. If they’re looking at their feet they’re more likely to bump into some kind of obstacle, such as a fast moving teenager, stanchion, or fence post. Like when driving a car, the vehicle (in this case, the feet) tends to move in the direction of sight. On outdoor rinks, especially those without boards, the ice around the edge of the rink tends to be bad – bumpy, sloppy, etc, so even though your kid will be inclined to skate around the edge so they can grab a fence for balance you should try to keep them away from the bad ice. On indoor surfaces the boards can be helpful. In all cases keep an eye out for bad patches, which may appear anywhere depending on the quality of the facility.

You should also pay attention to rink schedules. Free all-ages skates can be crowded and feature fast and (sometimes) careless skaters. However, many rinks dedicate some time for young children and beginners. If possible, you might want to start there. If you live in a part of town where rinks and community centres abound, ask your friends and neighbours where to go. Downtown Torontonians have lots of options – for folks in the inner suburbs, you have less choice, though many high quality and fun rinks are available.

As you figure out a way to teach your kid to skate, and then move on to other winter activities, you’ll see that without question skating is a gateway to many different hobbies, hockey, figure skating, and speed skating chief among them. It can offer a head start when learning how to ski (downhill and cross country) and engage in other pass times that require good balance. But I prefer skating as a stand alone leisure activity, because there’s almost always free, open ice somewhere. Skates and helmets can be hand-me-downed, purchased cheaply second hand, or, for an outlay of about $45 or $50 per year, new, so it’s cheap. Apart from clockwise or counter clockwise, there’s no structure, no need to be particularly good in order to succeed, so the kids love it, and it’s great exercise. Tom and I go four or five times a week after dinner, and he sleeps like a baby afterwards. So do I.

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Will Baker is a stay-at-home dad, social and environmental historian, and freelance writer and researcher.

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