WHEN IT COMES to ice-skating lessons, it's easy to separate the men from the boys, or rather the adults from the kids. The kids are the ones crawling on the ice -- usually about midway through their first 30-minute lesson.

In Washington, record numbers of tots, children and adults are taking to the ice this winter, enrolling in classes held at area rinks inside and around the Beltway. Cabin John Rink, for example, registered a record 2,000 beginner and advanced skaters for its second session.

Some skating instructors and rink managers credit the growing interest in skating to the 1984 Winter Olympics. But, with a six-week class for beginners costing as little as $26, skating's popularity also rests on its being an inexpensive way to have fun.

That's how Charlie Doring sees it. Doring's parents "met and fell in love at the ice rink," and by age three he was learning to skate. He skated competitively during his teens and started teaching youngsters when he was 18. (Now 26, he's a dental student at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.)

On a recent Saturday morning, Doring stands in the middle of the Wells Ice Rink in College Park, introducing 18 kids from seven to 12 years old to the mysteries of skating.

"How many of you are here for the first time? Raise your hands," he yells to the bright-eyed class as they march onto the ice for the first lesson of their six-week beginners' program. A forest of hands flies up. "One of the hardest things about skating is getting on the ice," he cautions, as one pair of little skates slips from under its owner. The youngster picks himself up, giggles and joins his classmates along the rail where Doring and his two assistants look over the rookies, checking for unlaced skates and tears. Occasionally fright gets the best of a young first-timer.

"There were a couple of kids crying at the beginning," Doring explains afterward. "Once in a while there is a child that has a bad experience and won't want to come back the next week. When that happens, I wait until after class to talk to the parent and to the child. I talk to the kid and ask him what grade he's in, what he's interested in -- just try to develop a rapport. That usually works. I want them to have a good time so they come back next week. Having a good time is the name of the game."

And part of the game is crawling on the ice. It builds a child's security and eases fears about the ice, and also helps him learn how to fall down correctly and pick himself up. So after several minutes of crawling on the ice, Doring's youngsters are back on their feet learning how to fall.

"If you feel like you're going to fall down," says Doring, his arms windmilling while his skates move in a thousand directions, "bend your knees like this and put your arms out here." He squats and puts his arms to one side to break the fall. Aided by two teaching assistants, the class catches on quickly and within minutes has moved on to balancing on skates.

By the end of the first 30-minute lesson, the beginners are attempting to skate across the rink and back. Most fall, some many times, but they all get up and keep going.

Some rinks offer kids added security by allowing them to steady themselves with a highway pylon while skating, but only for a short time. "Generally by the third lesson they are skating independently," says Rozann Bennett of Crofton, an 11-year veteran who teaches tots at Bowie Ice Rink. By the sixth and final session "they usually can skate the full length of the rink . . . , skate backwards -- and some of the more naturally inclined learn to spin. But the most important thing is that they learn how to skate independently and how to have the most fun."

While it's not uncommon to find parents taking lessons during the same session as their children, you'll be hard pressed to find a parent in a tot (three to six years old) or children's class. You'll be harder pressed to find an instructor who'll stand for it.

"Parents do tend to interfere with the learning process," says Bennett, who believes "kids tend to respond better without parents watching them. They concentrate on the teacher-student relationship and they are braver." Bennett suggests that parents take lessons in separate groups so that "they can learn to be buddies" without butting in.

For at least one Hyattsville family, that theory seems to be working.

"It's a good family activity in the winter that we can all do together," says Tony Pauletti as he and his wife, Donna, help their three sons remove their skates after their first lessons. Six-year-old twins Patrick and David and their nine-year-old brother, Nick, have just finished their lesson with Doring while mom and dad were taking adult lessons farther up the ice.

"It's a good deal, too. You can come down to the rink anytime during the six weeks and go skating," Pauletti says, noting that the lesson fees of $26 for beginners and $30 for advanced level include instruction, unlimited skating practice during any general public sessions and skate rental.

Pauletti's wife nods in agreement: "Plus we're all learning something together."

"I used to skate when I was a kid. That was close to 20 years ago," Pauletti remembers fondly if a bit sorely as he takes off his own skates. "It's not like riding a bike, that's for sure."