The most common question I get from new parents, especially tot parents, is whether the child needs a helmet.
Some rinks will have a policy on this-- all beginner and tot classes, helmet required, or anyone in hockey skates helmet required-- but not always. Here's a brief guide to safety equipment that doesn't interfere with learning:
Helmets: Get a skateboarder's/inline skater helmet, with the flat back, (or a standard hockey helmet, although they are more expensive and a nuisance to put on) and make sure it fits fully and snugly. A helmet with a pointy back, like a bike helmet, will force a child's head forward and down if she goes over backward, risking neck injury. A too-loose or too-tight helmet will not properly protect from impact if the kid strikes the helmet, and may slip off just when needed the most. Don't use a cracked helmet, ever, for anything. (Okay, you can plant things in it. But don't use it as safety equipment, because it's not.)
I like to see tots in helmets, but frankly a soft thick wooly cap does the trick nicely. If you think your child won't wear a hat, you haven't seen me make 15 tots bow to my will. Head bumps are actually fairly rare in skating class. I tell the kids "don't kiss the ice!"
Knee and elbow pads: Children, even beginning tots, need the full range of motion for skating. A pad that is constantly slipping, or is too tight or too loose will interfere with the motion needed for balance, completely defeating the purpose. The best knee pads are soccer pads that are a soft cushion in an ace-bandage type stretchy cuff, in the child's size. For very small children, sometimes a small adult elbow pad works great. DON'T get those Toys backwardsR Us hard plastic pads (often with trademarked characters on them). First of all, they fall off. Second, they are so slippery that the child can't kneel on the ice to help him stand. Elbow pads are a waste of time. Ditto wrist braces, except for adults, for whom wrist injuries are the most common skating injury.
Hockey equipment: Completely unnecessary, even in beginner hockey class. But if Dad insists that Junior has to wear full equipment, at least no shoulder pads, and the shin guards must be covered-- the bare hard plastic just encourages them to do nothing but knee slides. Fun, but kind of annoying in class, not to say dangerous (think bowling ball, with the rest of the tots as the pins). Hockey gloves in beginner class are the devil's tool.
Gloves: Ever since having a child get a bad cut having her hand skated over, I make gloves a rule, even in my advanced classes. In the warm weather I bring a big bag of them onto the ice with me for the people who forget. Don't worry if your child says "no." I just make it a rule, and kids respect rules. You can usually find gloves in the lost and found if you forget yours.
Snow pants, parkas and snow suits. At ground level, an ice rink is cold, about 24-28F/-2to -4C. Two feet up it's about 50F/10C. (YMMV, as they say on the web: your mileage may vary.) It is not cold enough for a heavy snow suit in class, where we move around all the time. For children 4 and younger, snow pants are a good idea, because we tend to spend a lot of time sitting on the ice, and the cold is a distraction. But in general two layers will do it-- a long sleeve shirt and a heavy sweater, and long johns or leggings with sweatpants over them. PLEASE no low-rise jeans, especially on tots, in an ice rink. You wouldn't believe the number of bare baby butts I see in a week.
All that said, your child will not die from childhood bumps and bruises. Kids fall. Very very very rarely, they get seriously hurt (although in 11 years of teaching I have seen only three injuries in learn to skate classes serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital. None of them were head injuries.) Skating at a beginning level is not any more dangerous than running on the sidewalk.
Things to avoid: Hockey gloves. Big heavy padded mittens or gloves (too hot-- the kid will just want to take them off.) Jackets or sweaters with too-long sleeves. Hoods--they obscure vision. Tiny skating dresses on beginner tots-- too cold. Helmets that don't fit properly. In other words, anything that impedes vision, sound, or movement.
Safety equipment for advanced skaters:
Unlike beginning skaters (which I define as Beginner through Freestyle 2), advanced skaters do get injured, with soft tissue injuries to knee and groin being the most common, followed by dislocated bones -- knees, shoulders, fingers, followed by broken wrists and ankles. For a typical serious recreational skater these are like other varsity sports: injuries happen, and can be serious, but life- and career-threatening injuries are vanishingly rare.
Knee and elbow braces should only be used with the advice of a doctor or physical therapist. If your skater has an issue severe enough to warrant the use of braces, it is severe enough to warrant professional medical advice. (Make sure you go to someone familiar with sports injuries. I can't tell you how many parents tell me that their doctor told them to quit skating because it's too dangerous. I wonder how many football players are getting that advice?)
Butt pads: For some kids, hip padding distorts their movement and makes the technique they are trying to improve worse. But for most kids, it adds a layer of confidence and takes away some of the fear of falling, not to mention some of the pain. They will not, however, remove pain entirely, and the skater needs to understand that. Older adults (over age 35) who are resorting to butt pads because they are falling a lot while learning jumps really need to rethink whether they should be attempting these moves.
Helmets: I live for the day that someone finally convinces US Figure Skating to invest R&D dollars in designing a safe training helmet for figure skaters, especially for women in pairs. All helmets now on the market, because they aren't designed with our sport in mind, impede movement, obscure vision and alter balance, besides being unattractive. It is the discretion of the parent whether to put your freestyle skater in a helmet; I won't argue with you. But I think helmets create their own problems because of the reasons above, and are better left off once the skater starts jumping.
Rink padding. Speed skaters get soft padding on rink walls. Figure skaters do not. Why not? The most serious injuries I have seen all involved skaters crashing into the boards at high speeds after a fall. It is inexplicable, and inexcusable, that rinks are not designed with soft boards. Please write to your local, state and federal representatives requesting that this be made law.
In the lobby
Please please please do not let your toddler walk around the ice rink lobby barefoot. If I tell you he needs to be wearing shoes, don't for god's sake tell me "oh he hates wearing shoes." WTH, he's 3. You get to be the boss. When he gets stepped on, do not yell at me for not controlling the forty 8 year olds in skates who are milling heedlessly around stomping on babies.