As a general rule, if you buy youth skates from a big-name manufacturer, you're going to get small skates that perform much like adult skates. If you shop generic department store brands, you run the risk of getting something that performs more like a toy.
The most common complaints about "toy" youth skates are plastic wheels that won't stand up to use beyond the walls of a skating rink, boot closures that won't stay closed, low-quality bearings that keep the wheels from turning freely and, in one notable instance, a problem with the screws that hold the wheels on.
Most of those "generic" youth skates cost between $30 and $40 dollars per pair -- and while many parents say they feel they're a good value for the money, especially if kids are just trying out the sport for the first time, quite a few find themselves wishing they had sprung for the better performance and durability of a big-name brand.
The "I wish I'd bought ..." brand mentioned more than all the others is K2 and, although they offer several youth skates, the K2 Raider (Est. $80) and the K2 Marlee (Est. $80) -- for boys and girls, respectively -- stand out as the best of the bunch.
In marked contrast to the trouble spots for "toy" skates, the K2 Marlee and Raider do almost everything right. They're sturdy enough to survive years of being handed down from one child to the next, and their real, 70mm/80a wheels can handle rough outdoor conditions.
ABEC 3 bearings keep your kids rolling smoothly but aren't so fast that the skates will automatically dart out of control; and the boots are cut high enough to offer lots of ankle support. The three closures -- conventional laces, a ratchet ankle cuff and a hook-and-loop instep strap -- are easy enough that, with a bit of practice, many children as young as 6 can put the skates on and remove them without assistance. If your kids struggle with tying the laces, both skates come in a Pro version that has quick-laces instead of regular laces.
The K2 Marlee and Raider skates are adjustable, with mixed reviews about whether they fit true to size or run a little small. The "small" fits sizes 11J to 2, the "medium" fits sizes 1 to 5, and the "large" covers sizes 4 to 8. Their appearance -- very much like a real "grown-up" skate -- is a high point for some children.
Another popular "real skate" for kids is the Bladerunner Phoenix (Est. $80). These skates push-button adjust in three size ranges (J11 - 1, 1 - 4, or 5 - 8), with real 72mm/80a wheels on ABEC3 bearings. Parents say that these skates generally roll smoothly and last longer than other starter skates. The boot has a soft liner that can be removed for cleaning. Heads up: the Bladerunner Phoenix skates tend to run very small.
If you're not quite ready to make the leap into serious skates for your children, one inexpensive brand that holds up best to regular use is the Roller Derby Tracer (Est. $40), which is available in both girls' and boys' sizes. These skates come in two push-button-adjustable size ranges, so they'll grow with your kids.
Although the Roller Derby Tracer is advertised as having a soft boot, it's really more of a rigid construction; so make sure your kids wear socks to protect their feet against any pinch points. At 64/72mm on 608ZB bearings the hi-lo wheels are easy enough for a small child to manage, but they'll also wear incredibly fast on concrete -- so these skates are at their best for use on the carpet or at indoor skating rinks.
If your kids aren't quite ready for full-on skates, you might prefer the Chicago Skates Training Inline Skate Combo (Est. $50). These skates convert from a "training wheel" configuration (one wheel in front, dual wheels in back) to a true three-wheeled inline skate, and they're push-button adjustable between sizes 10J to 13J (small) or 1 to 4 (medium).
The build quality on the Chicago Skates isn't as high as the K2 youth skates or even the Roller Derby model we evaluated. Parents say the wheels don't roll as smoothly and the closures are sometimes a little loose. The wheels also wear very quickly when exposed to outdoor pavement. But when it comes to doing their job -- helping children transition to inline skating from quad skates or no skating experience at all -- parents say the Chicago training combo is a great value.
That value is made even better by the included protective gear -- knee pads, wrist/hand pads and a helmet -- and parents say kids love being able to carry the skates and protective gear in the included child-size backpack.