Birthday parties, school field trips, family reunions, girl scouts.
Most ice rinks can be rented for groups and they are surprisingly inexpensive. The smaller rink (about 40 x 70 feet) at my facility rents for about $75 per hour, plus additional charges for a party room and skates. There's often a discount for school groups.
But what should happen once you get there? What about kids who can't skate? Are there safety rules? Here's a brief guide to making your party or field trip fun, safe, and rewarding for everyone.
When you rent the space
Make sure you know how much time you actually have on the rink. If you the party is 2 hours long, and you only have the rink for an hour, you need to have something to do during the other time, be it birthday cake, or brownie meeting. Some kids want to be at the party but are really afraid to skate, ditto the adults. You need someplace for them to be (as well as a place to put everybody's stuff). Facilities almost always have a separate party room for that sort of thing. There will be an additional charge for the second room, but it's a really good idea.
Have a plan
"Skating party" is a little vague. For birthday events, it's obvious that the focus is the birthday, with all the bells and whistles, and skating is the activity, with the main event being the party. But I see too many brownie and girl scout troups and school groups coming in with the vague idea of "skating." Is this part of the PE curriculum? Is it just for a fun play day? Is there a badge to be earned? How much time will you need before and after to get skates on and off? What sizes do the kids wear? Do the adults in charge know how to tie ice skates, and how to make sure that skates are tied properly? Is there someone to supervise the non-skaters or to teach the beginners?
Once you know why you're going, then make a plan so that you achieve this goal. Even a simple fun day needs a goal, which at the very basis should be "no one gets hurt." I have done disastrous school groups where the teachers consider the safety lecture a waste of time, refused to let the pros check skates "because he needs to be on the ice with everyone right now" and ended up with 6 injuries in an hour. Crowded public skating sessions work largely injury free because everyone has to abide by certain rules to ensure safety, such as everyone skates in the same direction, no jumps, no more than 3 people holding hands, get up right away if you fall, no hotdogging, etc.
Tell all participants what to expect
Again, even fun day school groups need to know the plan, and this includes the kids, the accompanying teachers, and any parents who are along. Schedule might run something like this:
• Everyone meet in party room (or lobby, for a school group)
• Pick up your skates and wait on the benches
• Skates on instruction, then everyone put on skates
• Adults check skates to make sure they're tied properly
• Falling demo and rules review in lobby
(This whole thing shouldn't take more than 15-20 minutes, or less)
• Everyone on the ice, experienced skaters first, brand-new beginners at the end.
• If you have skating pros, they line up everyone but the beginners for a brief (10-15 minute) class on rules, skills, and safety
• Beginners wall-crawl to the nearest corner for instruction (again, 10-15 minutes).
• End with free time, but rules will be enforced
Once you're there
A well run school group will start with everyone being handed skates, and then waiting for a rink pro to instruct them in trying the skates (all the way up, using all pegs, nice and tight, no trailing laces). I've never seen it happen, but I live for the day when the teachers or parents come ahead of time to get a safety lecture. Teachers, if you come into my rink, don't start playing "who's in charge" games with the pros. They wouldn't tell you how to run your classroom, don't tell them how to run a rink.
One adult needs to stay in the lobby at all times. Kids are consummate escape artists. Rinks are often warming/cooling centers, and at any rate are usually public facilities, with lots of strangers kicking around. Children should not be in the lobby unsupervised.
Know where the first aid kit is at the facility, and who is authorized to apply first aid.
Once everyone's skates are on and checked (a group of 60 can do this in about 15 minutes), everyone, and I mean everyone should be required to practice falling down and getting up in the lobby, even the ones who already know how to skate. This works best in groups of 20 or fewer, so either the teachers and parents need to know how to teach this, or you need enough pros to cover the group.
Skaters should then get on the ice with the pro or supervising adult, for a brief class and safety lecture. Most of the time will still be free time, but no one will get hurt, the scared ones will feel taken care of, and everyone will know what to expect.
All adults on the ice must know how to skate. They don't need to be former Olympians, but they should at the very least not be a liability. If a parent who can't skate wants to come, then they can be in charge of the lobby or the party room, checking skates, accompanying kids to the bathroom, etc. A children's outing is not the place for you to learn how to skate. Parents, be honest about your ability, because we're going to notice the second you step on the ice if you were lying.
Hiring rink pros to help
I cannot stress enough how important I feel this is. School groups always seem to hire pros, but they never seem to know what to do with them. Why pay $20 an hour for the rink pro, when you don't even use them as skate guards (i.e. enforcing the rules). I was recently yelled at for "interfering with the kid's fun" after telling a boy he had to stand up because people kept tripping on him when he laid flat on his back on the ice. (He thought it was hilarious.) Or the boy that went out with his skates completely untied, and the teacher explained to me that "he didn't have time to tie them, because he needs to stay with the class."
At a birthday party, the rink pro can do a small class with the beginners, to get them moving, and will also know games that everyone can play. Again, this needn't be the whole time, but it helps involve everyone. If it's a brownie or girl scout troupe, ask a pro to help you come up with goals that need to be accomplished to earn the badge.
What the rink should do
Rinks need to provide all rentals with a rule list regarding behavior on the ice and in the lobby, the role of any adults in charge, liability (both injury and personal property). I'm always amazed at rinks that don't give at the very least a brochure, and better yet one complimentary family skating pass to every single person who comes to a party or school outing. If your rink doesn't do this, write a letter to the head of the facility or the park district suggesting this as a good PR and marketing move.
I believe that there should be a skating professional in the building for children's parties. This might be an actual pro on the ice with you, or the skating director in her office, or the head guard. Someone who knows skating and skating injuries should be there. If they don't guarantee this, hire a pro to help with the party.
You don't need to be able to skate to have a great time at a skating party. I've had kids whose first experience on the ice was at a skating party; without it they would never have thought to skate. My own daughter first skated at a preschool outing. (Yes, 3 to 5 year olds. It works fine.) In fact, I didn't even know there was a rink 5 minutes from my house until she did this.
Skating parties are a blast. But do it right.