This is a question we receive time and time again. When is the right time to start my son or daughter into skating or even into hockey? I have received requests for skaters from the age of 2 up to the age of 75, and everything in between. The big question is, when is a child ready to start skating? Is getting them started early going to give them a leg up on everyone else? How much time do they need on the ice? Should they start hockey first or learn to skate first? Finally, should they learn in a structured environment or an unstructured environment?
I would like to answer some of these questions and hopefully give the new parent to hockey or skating some advice. First, we have to examine when a child is ready. If a youngster just lays on the ice or cries the entire time, this is really doing no one any good. Try this for starters: Lace up your little one’s skates and have them walk back and forth on the rubber matting. If a child doesn’t have the strength or balance to walk on skates, then it’s not going to get any better on the ice. If the skater’s ankles wobble or tip inwards, they clearly don’t have the strength to get on the ice yet. Being stable on skates off the ice is the first key helping a skater get going. This age may be different for every youngster. A current Minnesota Wild player’s child is 3. He is now mobile on the ice. Others may start at 5, 6 or 7. There is no exact time to start. It really depends on the individual kid.
The most important thing when teaching youngsters is that every time a skater leaves the ice, you want them to have a smile on their face. This way, the next time they are going to go skating, they will be excited. With this said, many skills can be turned into games. Anything that gets the skater completely engaged is the key. Fantastic coaching with younger skaters is getting the skater to do the skills you want them to do without them even knowing. For example, kids can pretend they’re driving cars (skating and turning) around and when you blow the whistle they have to park in a garage (practice stopping). Being creative, making up games and making sure the kids are engaged is going to feed the passion for skating, which is what we want.
This leads right into the next aspect for the younger skater – duration of time on the ice. Whether it is our camps or just skill sessions, with younger skaters we always want them leaving the rink wanting more. Sometimes parents will tell me that their 6-year-old had a 90-minute “structured” practice. Most of the time when this happens, about halfway through the practice the youngster usually asks, “When is this over?” IIt can tend to be too much.
Consistency is much more important than duration. For example, would it be better for an adult to do a three-hour workout just once a week or 45-minute workouts four days a week? It’s a no brainer. Consistency iis king. The process of going day after day iis what will reap the rewards. Even if you get a 20-minute skate, your youngster is getting more in the long run.
That brings me to the big debate: structure vs. unstructured. In short, I believe both are extremely important. However, you cannot have the unstructured until you have some structure. They work together. If you bring a beginning skater out on the ice, there is only so much “laying on the ice” a little one is going to do before they cry and want to get off the ice. Whether it is a coach or a parent, someone is going to have to help a skater get up, repeatedly. Marching, turning, stopping and gliding can all be aided by a good instructor. A good instructor will not only teach and help a youngster, but make it fun as well. With that said, a youngster, once mobile, can skate on their own. This is when you’ll see skaters go and play outdoors for hours on end. The mix between both structured ice time and unstructured ice time is the perfect recipe for improvement.
So what’s my answer to the question, “When can my kids start skating?” The best answer I can give is, “When they’re ready.” Each kid may be ready at different times, and they’re not going to fall behind if they don’t start at 2 years old. You want your kids to enjoy it and not have it be a chore to go to the rink.
Andy Ness is the head skating and skill coach for the Minnesota Wild. He has also been an assistant skating instructor for the New Jersey Devils, the University of Minnesota men’s and women’s hockey teams and the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team.