I had a new student on Sunday-- a 4 1/2 year old girl, described by her parents as "actually kind of good, and really into it." But when I skated with her, she was slipping and sliding all over the place. She could barely stand up, and forward motion was agony-- 5 running steps and then splat.
This is what we call a clue. You should be able to stand up in skates. You might feel a little rocky, and even scared. You might not be able to glide (or not want to allow yourself to glide). But you should be able to stand up. It's just standing. A stationary skate is not slippery. A slippery skate has a bad blade.
This turned out to be the case with M's skates. Dad had gone to SportMart and gotten a perfectly decent little pair of skates-- nice boot, correct size. And then some idiot had sharpened the grinding edge completely away. Ruined the skates. I told him to return them and go to Rainbo Sports, a specialty figure skating store that we are fortunate to have here in the Chicago area.
And this is the thing to do.
Learn about skates first
If you've never bought skates, don't go to a resale shop or Sportmart first time out. Go to a reliable pro shop that specializes in the type of skates you want-- figure, hockey, or speed. The shop at your rink, if you don't have a place like Rainbo (and they're rare), is a good bet, especially if you can talk a pro into going with you, or if the shop employs a figure skating pro. Have them show you what makes a good skate, what skate is most appropriate for your level, and how to determine the correct size. Get a lacing lesson.
This does not obligate you to buy the skates from them. Of course they want your business, but if you're buying skates, they've got you. Maybe you won't get the $70-$120 beginner skates from them; maybe you'll take their expertise and go to Sportmart or Play it Again Sports, but you'll be back. You may not buy your first pair of skates from them, but you'll buy the second pair and the third, and the guards, and the tights, and the warm up jacket from them and they know it. They won't begrudge you the time.
Arm yourself with reliable expertise before you buy skates.
Don't begrudge the cost
Beginner skates, what I call "comfort skates" cost $70 to $110. Beginning figure skates like a Jackson Mystique are around $100. Pricey, but comparable to other children's specialty sport equipment, like a bicycle from Target. And unless you're unlucky enough to hit a growth spurt, your child will wear them for somewhere between 12 and 18 months. Don't worry about the fact that high test skates require a second mortgage. You're not there yet; don't freak yourself out. Skating has the potential for hazard; get proper equipment and you will reduce the hazard immeasurably. Watching little M take headers on the crowded Sunday afternoon ice was terrifying. I was afraid someone would trip over her, all because she had bad blades. Not because she couldn't skate. We switched her to rentals and she was fine.
Buy the right size
You can't buy grow room in skates. A too-large boot also has a too-large blade, which makes balance harder. Go up one size (like buy a 1 1/2 for a child whose street shoe is a 1). With a reliable person fitting the boot, you might be able to go up 2 sizes, but no more. This is like buying a 27" bike for a someone who needs a 20" one. Their feet, so to speak, can't reach the pedals.
A skate is too large if you need extra socks to make it fit. Standard figure skates are too large if it forms a large dimple or crease when the skater bends his or her ankle. Skates are probably too large if the skater has difficulty walking around in them. Wobbly ankles are not a sign of "weak ankles." They are a sign of too-large skates.
Please, I'm begging you on my knees, buy skates that look like skates
Do not under any circumstances, buy those abominations that look like ski boots, or where the boots slip out so you can change sizes, or with adjustable blades, or the hard-cast plastic where you can't bend your ankles. You need to be able to bend your ankles. These are not only hard to skate in, they are dangerous. Your ankle wants to bend. If it can't bend at the joint, it's going to attempt to bend farther up the bone. Ankle bend is a good thing in skating.
Get the correct type of blade
A figure skating blade extends beyond the heel and has spiky things on the front (the toe pick). A hockey blade is approximately the same length as the boot and is curved front and back. There are these weird things that are the length and shape of a hockey blade, but have a modest toe pick, I don't even know what to say about these. A completely pointless affectation, but whatever.
If you want a hockey skate, get a hockey blade, even in a beginner skate rather than a hockey skate. Hockey skates can be hard to skate in-- they have a wider boot, less ankle support and a challenging blade, so I wouldn't recommend them as a beginning skate for a very young child as a general rule. But kids can and do learn to skate in hockey skates. If that's what you want, get that, don't get some weird hybrid.
If you want a figure skate, or the child wants to be a figure skater, not a hockey skater, get a figure skating blade, toe picks and all. Get a beginner blade for a beginnger. Look at the bottom of the boot-- if the blade is riveted on (i.e. you couldn't remove it without a specialty tool)-- it's a beginner skate. If the blade is screwed on (usually with phillips-type screws), it's probably a free style skate. Don't put a beginner in a free style blade. The toe pick is too big and they'll trip.
What about used skates?
Especially for kids in the middle levels- say Delta/Basic 7-8 through FS 4 or so- used skates are a godsend. At the lower levels the boots aren't usually worn long enough to get really broken down and they can be very economical. Make sure you get your pro's assessment if you are considering used skates from a non-specialty dealer, or from your neighbor or a skate exchange. I hate to say not to buy used skates from Goodwill, or from a place like Play It Again Sports, but you really have to know what you're doing. You can luck into a decent pair, but you can also get really burned, like the mom who came to me so excited because she'd found this gorgeous pair of "figure skates" for $25. Turns out they were "patch" skates, for school figures, next to impossible to use for any other purpose, and actually dangerous to jump in.
Never wear the skates that you found in the old toy bin in grandma's garage. Just. Don't.