The biggest impediment to skating before the age of 4 is social and emotional development. Most kids of this age are just not ready to try new things with a stranger. This is why 2 year olds cry when you drop them off at daycare and 5 year olds don't. It is extremely suspicious to very young children for a parent to insist the child do something without the parent. If it's such a cool thing to do, then why isn't the parent doing it? Two-year olds are also sometimes mistrustful of strangers, so putting a child that young in a class, even a parent-tot class, is quite fraught.
There are some things you can do to prepare your child for skating, however. First of all, figure out what's best- public skating with family, parent-tot class, or regular tot class. Your child is ready for regular tot class if she or he:
- can easily walk in skates on the floor
- understands how to follow 2-3 step instructions ("sit down, now roll to your hands and knees, stand up", for instance, or "find the yellow toy and put it in the yellow circle")
- willingly allows her/himself to be handed off to a stranger
- speaks the same language as the instructor (this is a bigger problem than you might imagine in urban areas. Older children with language difficulties understand that the instructor speaks a different language and have developed coping strategies. Very young children are just completely flummoxed by an adult who speaks only gibberish.)
If your child can do everything but 3 and 4, try a parent-tot class. If your child can only do #1, take her to public skating. If your child cannot even stand up in skates on the floor (and sometimes it isn't "cant'" but rather "won't") then for god's sake, wait 6 months, it won't ruin her Olympic dream.
Here are some ways to get your child ready for skating:
Let the baby watch
Coaches' kids are always great skaters. This is not because they have a "skating gene." It's because everyone they know skates, and they've been seeing people skating their entire lives. Just like preachers' kids are quiet in church, and musician's kids like singing, and actor's kids like being on stage (at least until they get old enough to understand the power of the contrary), it's not different to them. You can use this too--come skating yourself, and sit your child in the stands with a sitter, the other parent, grandparent or friend. If your child sees you skating a lot, they will feel more comfortable with it. You don't have to be a good skater, you just have to be on the ice.
Bring her on the ice, but don't make her skate
Some rinks have "family skates" or just lax public skating rules and will let you put a young child in a chair and push her around on the ice. If you really want your child to skate eventually, the absolute worst thing you can do with a very young child is insist that he skate when he doesn't want to. Don't even put skates on him, just push him around in a chair. (By the way, never carry a child on the ice, especially if you're not an extremely experienced skater, and I'm talking Senior-test experienced. This is incredibly dangerous.)
Sign up the older siblings for class
Two- and three-year olds who have been watching their older sibs and cousins skate are crazy to get on the ice. Sometimes in class we have to close the doors to keep the little ones from just racing on to the ice to be with big sis.
Do not lie to new skaters
Don't tell a very young child that they're going to skate "just like the girls on tv" (or Disney on Ice, or whatever). They will take you at your word, and when they can't glide the first day, or possibly even stand up, they're going to be mad.
Sign up for Mom and Me sing alongs, Music Together, or pre school
Toddlers do much better in skating class when the only new thing they are having to deal with is the slippery ice. Kids who have experience with the concept of "class" do much much better than kids for whom this is the first class of any sort they've every taken. I can't tell you how many parents have told me "I signed her up for skating to help her social skills before pre school." WRONG. So here's this poor little child, supposed to be learning "social skills" when you've put her in an environment where she can't even walk. It's completely backwards, plus I am a skating teacher, not your kid's psychologist. You socialize her. I'll teach her to skate.
Once the baby is on the ice, either with you or with a class, there are still some things you can do to help get them used to concept.
Let the teacher teach
Don't stand in the doorway shouting. In fact, best if you get out of sight. Don't leave the building, but don't stand where it's easy for your child to see you. If your child is not ready to let you out of her sight, she's not ready for class. Sign up for parent-tot. If the teacher seems to be spending a lot of time playing games, sitting on the ice, singing songs, playing with toys, et cetera, she's got a good reason (namely, because these are 2- and 3-year olds and are not developmentally ready for a structured lesson).
No crying on the ice.
I have a firm "no crying on the ice" rule. If a child starts crying I have them stop until they get off. Then they can cry as much as they want, but they are not allowed back on the ice until they're done crying. This works even with children as young as two and is amazingly effective in helping kids like the ice, while allowing them to need and receive comfort. If you're skating with a toddler and she starts to cry, just take her off the ice until she's done, then go back.
Don't skate with a reluctant skater
If she doesn't want to go back, don't go back. Let the child make the decision to skate or not. Really. This is the number one thing that will make your child trust the ice (and you). You don't have to skate if you don't want to (by the way, any freestyle skaters reading this, you have to skate whether you want to or not). Seriously, there are plenty of things in this life that poor child is going to have to do. Why make skating one of them, when they're only 2.
Right now I have a 4-year-old student working on waltz jumps. She stepped on the ice at about 21 months and just took off like a demon. THIS IS NOT NORMAL. Assume your child is normal, and then when she's one of the little geniuses, be pleasantly surprised. Here's what I tell parents: if your child starts skating once or twice a week at 3, by the time she's seven, she'll have really good crossovers and turns. If your child starts skating at 5, by the time she's seven, she'll have really good crossovers and turns.
Little children should skate for fun. If they're not having fun, why are you making them skate?