Average Customer Review:
As a general rule, if you buy youth skates from a dedicated skate 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 consistently K2 and, although they offer several youth skates, the K2 Raider (Est. $60 and up) and K2 Marlee (Est. $60 and up) -- 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 for years at a time.
Equally important, the frame and wheelbase are built together so the entire skate sits a little closer to the ground, making it easier for young skaters to keep their balance as they master a new sport. 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 quicklaces instead of regular laces, slightly larger 72mm wheels, and also sports bright, boldly colored designs. Both the Pro and non-Pro versions can be upgraded to 76mm wheels as your kids want to skate farther or faster.
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 manufactured by Rollerblade), which is available in both boys' (Est. $60 and up) and girls' (Est. $60 and up) models. 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. Like the K2 Marlee/Raider, the Phoenix fastens with a combination of ratchet cuff strap, laces and hook-and-loop instep strap, which kids can learn to handle themselves with a little practice. The boot has a soft liner that can be removed for cleaning. Heads up: the sizing on the Bladerunner Phoenix skates tends to run very small.
New on our radar in this report, the Rollerblade Spitfire XT, which like most kids' skates is available in a boy's model (Est. $75 and up) and a girl's model (Est. $75 and up). Both versions come in three size ranges that adjust with a push-button mechanism, and they close with the standard laces, hook-and-loop instep strap, and ratcheting ankle strap you'll find on higher-end kids' skates.
The Rollerblade Spitfire has 72mm/80a wheels on SG3 bearings. You can upgrade to 76mm wheels and SG5 bearings as your child becomes more confident and wants to go faster. Like the K2 Marlee/Raider, the Rollerblade Spitfire is built relatively low to the ground to help kids find their center of balance. They also run extremely small, so make sure you check Rollerblade's sizing charts instead of ordering your child's shoe size. Most parents and kids love the Spitfire, but we do see a few mixed reports about this skate's durability, especially the wheels.
If you're not quite ready to make the leap into serious skates for your children, one inexpensive model that holds up well to regular use is the Roller Derby Tracer (Est. $40 and up), which is also available in a Roller Derby Tracer girl's version (Est. $40 and up). 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. These are also the only skates in this report to have hi-lo wheels, with 64mm wheels in the front for maneuverability and 72mm wheels in the back for more speed, all on 608ZB bearings. The hi-lo setup is easy enough for a small child to manage, but the wheels will wear incredibly fast on concrete -- so these skates are at their best for use on the carpet or at indoor skating rinks.
For kids who want slightly larger wheels, the Roller Derby Boy's Stinger 5.2 (Est. $45 and up), or the Roller Derby Girl's Stinger (Est. $40 and up) are a step up. They feature 76mm wheels that are still soft enough for indoor skating, but can stand up to some outdoor use. Like the Roller Derby Tracer, the Stinger 5.2 is available in two push-button-adjustable size ranges and has removable, washable boot liners.
The Roller Derby Stinger has Silver 5 bearings that kids say let them skate fast, although the fact that they're not ABEC rated makes us wonder about their durability. The closures -- quicklaces paired with a single ratcheting strap at the ankle -- are easy enough for most kids to work on their own, although we found a noteworthy number of comments that the ankle ratchet straps on these skates are a potential weak point.
If your kids aren't quite ready for full-on skates, you might prefer the Chicago Skates Training Inline Skate Combo (Est. $40 and up). 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 and Rollerblade models we evaluated. Parents say the wheels don't roll as smoothly and the closures are a particular weak point. 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. This isn't the type of gear you'd want for pulling serious tricks, but parents say that it works well for kids who are just mastering their first pair of skates, and that children are proud and happy to be able to carry the skates and protective gear in the included child-size backpack.