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Ice skating

Related subjects: Recreation

Background Information

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Outdoor ice skating in Austria.

Ice skating is moving on ice by using ice skates. It can be done for a variety of reasons, including health benefits, leisure, traveling, and various sports. Ice skating occurs both on specially prepared indoor and outdoor tracks, as well as on naturally occurring bodies of frozen water, such as lakes and rivers.


'Skating fun' by 17th century Dutch painter by Hendrick Avercamp.
Central Park, New York City, Winter: The Skating Pond, 1862 by Currier and Ives.
Outdoor ice skating rink in Sydney, Australia.
Skating in Quebec City

A study by Federico Formenti of the University of Oxford suggests that the earliest ice skating happened in southern Finland more than 3000 years ago. Originally, skates were merely sharpened, flattened bone strapped to the bottom of the foot. Skaters did not actually skate on the ice, but rather glided on top of it. True skating emerged when a steel blade with sharpened edges was used. Skates now cut into the ice instead of gliding on top of it. Adding edges to ice skates was invented by the Dutch in the 13th or 14th century. These ice skates were made of steel, with sharpened edges on the bottom to aid movement. The construction of modern ice skates has stayed largely the same since then.

In the Netherlands, ice skating was considered proper for all classes of people, as shown in many pictures by the Old Masters. James II of England came to the Netherlands in exile, and he fell for the sport. When he returned to England, this "new" sport was introduced to the British aristocracy, and was soon enjoyed by people from all walks of life. It is said that Queen Victoria got to know her future husband, Prince Albert, better through a series of ice skating trips. Meanwhile Fenland agricultural workers became masters of speed skating. However, in other places, participation in ice skating was limited to members of the upper classes. Emperor Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire enjoyed ice skating so much he had a large ice carnival constructed in his court in order to popularise the sport. King Louis XVI of France brought ice skating to Paris during his reign. Madame de Pompadour, Napoleon I, Napoleon III, and the House of Stuart were, among others, royal and upper class fans of ice skating.

In China, ice skating was present during the Song dynasty and became popular among the royal families of the Qing dynasty.

Physical mechanics of skating

A skate can slide over ice because the ice molecules at the surface cannot properly bond with the molecules of the mass of ice beneath and thus are free to move like molecules of liquid water. These molecules remain in a semiliquid state, providing lubrication.

It had long been believed that ice is slippery because the pressure of an object in contact with it causes a thin layer to melt. The hypothesis was that the blade of an ice skate, exerting pressure on the ice, melts a thin layer, providing lubrication between the ice and the blade. This explanation, called "pressure melting", originated in the 19th century. This, however, did not account for skating on ice temperatures lower than −3.5°C, whereas skaters often skate on lower-temperature ice. In the 20th century, an alternative explanation, called "friction heating", was proposed, whereby friction of the material was causing the ice layer melting. However, this theory also failed to explain skating at low temperature. In fact, neither explanation explained why ice is slippery when standing still even at below-zero temperatures.


The primary danger in ice skating is falling on the ice. The chance of falling depends on the roughness of the ice, the design of the ice skate, and the skill and experience of the skater. While serious injury is rare, a number of short track skaters have been paralysed after a fall when they hit the boarding. Falling can be fatal if a helmet is not worn to protect against serious head trauma. An additional danger of falling is injury caused by the skater's own metal blades or those of other skaters. Accidents are rare but most common with collisions, hockey games, or pair skating.

The second, and more serious, danger is falling through the ice into the freezing water underneath when skating outdoors on a frozen body of water. They can die due to shock, hypothermia or drowning. It is often difficult or impossible for skaters to climb out of the water back onto the ice due to the ice repeatedly breaking, the skater being weighed down by skates and thick winter clothing, or the skater becoming disoriented under water. The skater may even not be able to find the hole through which they fell. This may result in drowning or hypothermia, but the rapid cooling can also create a state in which someone can be revived up to hours after having fallen in the water. For safety, one should never skate alone in the darkness and as a rule bring nails or ice-claws when one is skating on a lake or river. They can help a disoriented skater get a grip on the ice when he or she is in the water. With them, the unfortunate skater can pull himself or herself out of the water.

General ice thickness guidelines for new clear ice only:

  • 2" or less - STAY OFF
  • 4" - Ice fishing or other activities on foot
  • 5" - Snowmobile or ATV
  • 8" - 12" - Car or small pickup
  • 12" - 15" - Medium truck
  • 16" or more - heavy cars, truck or lorries

Communal games on ice

A number of recreational skating games can be played on ice.

  • Ice hockey
  • Ringette
  • Rousette skating is a recreational event based on ice skating.
  • Various tag games with different rules
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