THE CURRENT cold spell is good news for families who enjoy ice skating outdoors. But before you lace up the Riedells and head for the C&O Canal, remember that Washington winters are nothing if not fickle. Yesterday's cold snap could be tomorrow's heat wave. Consider that, while the low temperature last Saturday at National Airport was 14 degrees, the high 2 1/2 weeks before was 71.

If the Canal doesn't freeze this winter, there are other alfresco options available to budding Hans Brinkers. From the new Kentlands Community Golf & Ice Skating Center in Gaithersburg--which doubles as a miniature golf course April through mid-October--to the redesigned National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden rink on the National Mall, outdoor ice rinks provide families with picturesque alternatives to indoor suburban facilities.

"There's a nicer feeling when you're on an outdoor rink," says Mandy Katz of Washington. "You're breathing fresh air, and that's the way skating was originally done." And, she adds, "I love the feeling when you warm up and can take off your jacket."

One Saturday last month, Katz circled the Sculpture Garden rink with 6-year-old Seth, 3-year-old Daisy and husband Jonathan Massey. The unusual setting--the only sculpture garden-ice rink combo in the world--was not lost on them as they skated within view of Louise Bourgeois's "Spider," Roy Lichtenstein's"House I" and Claes Oldenburg's "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X." In creating the space, National Gallery staff thought of everything: clear dasher boards so skaters can view the sculptures while practicing their Salchows, "twinkle" lights to create a festive atmosphere, even an art nouveau-style enclosure for the Zamboni machine with heated coils to melt unsightly Zamboni ice shavings.

"The stonework is beautiful," said Massey, as he admired the benches surrounding the rink, "but it would be nice to have bathrooms that are functioning." (They will be located in a nearby pavilion that will also house a cafe, both scheduled to open by next summer.) Massey's December outing included escorting his kids to the restrooms at the adjacent Museum of Natural History. "The parent's view of Washington--know where all the bathrooms are in public buildings," he jokes.

Sarah Nordin of Anacostia, 4, had no intention of taking a bathroom break during her two-hour skating session. Dressed in a pink chiffon number, purple and pink kneepads and Barbie helmet, Sarah has taken lessons at an indoor rink in Alexandria. What she really dreamed of was the chance to glide gracefully on a mirror-like surface--out of doors. Like Belle in her "Beauty and the Beast Enchanted Christmas" video.

We can only hope that Belle checked to make sure the ice was four inches thick before starting a pas de deux with the Beast. That's how thick the ice should be before skaters venture onto the C&O Canal, says chief ranger Keith Whisenant. When conditions are safe, rangers will change "No Skating" signs posted along the Canal in the District and Montgomery County to "Skate at Your Own Risk." The last time this happened was the winter of 1995-96.

District ranger Tom Nash offers added advice for Canal skaters: Do not skate near locks; they have running water and the ice is thinner there. Have a way of rescue, such as a piece of rope or a long pole. And, "the most important thing is: Never skate alone," he says.

There are many reasons to skate outside in Washington: fresh air, dramatic settings, a chance to take in a little culture. But, in the words of Jane Glickman, who goes skating with Aaron, 6, and Eliza, 8, nothing beats the hot chocolate.

Alfresco Skating

Below is a list of places to skate out of doors. (The portable rink on the Georgetown waterfront is in storage; sponsors hope to find a new location in time for next winter.) All dates are weather permitting. Call ahead to make sure the rink is open; when thermostats climb above 55, even the best refrigeration systems may fail to keep ice.

Skating is not allowed on the Tidal Basin, at Constitution Gardens or the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

Ice, Ice Baby

BETHESDA METRO ICE CENTER -- Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road atop Bethesda Metro station, Bethesda. 301/656-0588 or 301/656-0589. $4 adults, $3 children, $2 skate rental. After-school special $4 includes skate rental. Friday lunchtime session $2.50, includes skate rental.

C & O CANAL NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK -- Access points are at Fletcher's Boathouse in Georgetown, at Chain Bridge, Locks 7 and 8 near Glen Echo (off the Clara Barton Parkway), at Old Angler's Inn (skating is prohibited above Old Angler's at Wide Water), at Great Falls, Swain's Lock, Pennyfield Lock and Violette's Lock. 301/299-3613.Skating is permissible only when the "Skate at Your Own Risk" signs are posted. Free.

KENTLANDS COMMUNITY GOLF & ICE SKATING CENTER -- 202 Market St. W., Gaithersburg. 240/631-9100. Web site: Open through March 5. New open-air rink in winter and 18-hole miniature golf course (open April 1 to mid-October). $5 all ages, $3 skate rental. Knee pads and helmets available at no additional charge.

PERSHING PARK ICE RINK -- 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. 202/737-6938. Open through February. Admission adults $5.50; children 12 and under $4.50. Skate rental $2.50.

PUTT PUTT GOLF, GAMES & SKATING -- 130 Rollins Ave., Rockville. 301/881-1663. Web site: Open through mid-March. Admission $5, $4 for ages 12 and younger. Skate rental $2.50.

RESTON SKATING PAVILION -- 1818 Discovery St., Reston. 703/709-6300. Web site: skating.htm. This is an outdoor rink with a covered pavilion.Open until March 14. Admission $6 adults, $5 for 12 and under. Discount cards available. Skate rental $2.50.

SCULPTURE GARDEN ICE RINK -- Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202/289-2666, 202/737-4215. TDD: 202/842-6176. Web site: Open through March 15, weather permitting. (During evening skating hours, the sculpture garden is closed to the public. Access to the rink during these times is via the Constitution and Madison Drive entrances at Ninth Street.) Adults $5 weekdays, $5.50 Saturdays and Sundays; children ages 12 and under, students and seniors $4 weekdays, $4.50 Saturdays and Sundays. Skate rental $2.50.

TUCKER ROAD ICE RINK -- 1770 Tucker Rd., Fort Washington. 301/248-3124. Web site: www.pgparks2/ This is an outdoor rink with a covered pavilion.Open through March 31. Unless otherwise noted, admission for Prince George's and Montgomery County residents 18 and older is $4.50; children 17 and under pay $3.50. Admission is $5.50 for nonresidents 18 and older and $4.50 for nonresidents 17 and under. Skate rental $3.50. On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 2 p.m. and 3:30 to 5:30 the cost for all ages is $2 and includes skate rental. On Sundays at the family skate from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., up to two children are admitted free with every paying adult.

WHEATON REGIONAL ICE RINK -- 11751 Orebaugh Ave., Wheaton. 301/649-3640. This outdoor rink has a pavilion cover and is sheltered by pine trees. Open through March 31. Unless otherwise noted, admission during the week is $4 for children ages 6 to 10 and seniors, $5 for ages 11 and over. Children under 6 are free with a paying adult. Skate rental $2.50. On Wednesday there are cheapskate sessions from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. ($4.50 covers admission and skate rental) except holidays and school breaks.

CAPTION: Skaters practice their moves at Kentlands Community Golf & Ice Skating Center in Gaithersburg.