The family that skis together: getting kids to snow how
March 15, 2011
By Kay Bjork
You're a radical skier and you've done it all - icy chutes, over-your head powder, cliff jumping, and heli-skiing. Now you want to pass the torch to your four-year old.
But first he needs to learn how to ski a wedge.
Or maybe you're a mom who prefers to spend Saturdays at the mall or in front of a computer screen. After watching the Olympics your six-year old daughter aspires to the Olympic stardom of snowboarder Kelly Clark or skier Picabo Street.
But first she needs to know how to lace her boots.
You love to glide through the silent woods on your cross-country skis and would like to share the experience as a family. But wonder how you keep the entire family happy on the trail.
If you're the radical skier, it will be easier for you to take the next step (even though being a trophy skier won't make you a trophy teacher). Beginner or pro, a little bit of planning and enlightened thinking will help you launch your young skier or snowboarder on the right foot, ski or snowboard.
Downhill and Nordic skiing and snowboarding are exciting sports that have the potential to provide a lifetime of fun, and in Montana these sports also give you something to look forward when the temperatures drop and the first snowflakes flutter in the air.
Beyond the near-hysterical fun and giggling of snow sports, they have the potential to build character, confidence, and a sense of accomplishment in your child. Snow sports also offer an element of freedom that allows the child to develop as an individual. Once basic skills are mastered, your child will fly down the mountain creating his own unique snow dance.
I am always amazed at the degree of independence I have observed in young skiers and boarders. They present an image that it is just the child, his skis or board, and the mountain as he swings his way down the hill. Perhaps that's why these winter sports, to adults, make us feel so, well, youthful.
With the inherent chairlift tickets needed, downhill skiing and snowboarding can be pricey sports but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Nordic skiing can be without cost once you buy your equipment if you opt for courses without fees or casual outings in the neighboring parks or woods.
Downhill skiing and snowboarding usually require a full day because of the drive and expense involved. Anyone who has risen to the blare of a 6:30 a.m. alarm on a weekend and piled on nearly a dozen articles of clothing (that's before you dress the kids) knows the degree of dedication required. You gotta love it.
Montana offers 16 downhill ski areas of various size, terrain and pricing. Prices usually increase with the size of the resort and the services offered. Kids less than six years old ski free with an adult pass at most areas and school-aged children at a significantly reduced price from the adult rate. At Big Sky resort, children two to 10 years old ski free (two per paying adult) which helps offset what is the highest lift ticket price in the state.
Nordic skiers can choose a variety of playgrounds, from private resorts to national forest lands.
Ski areas are inherently kid-friendly for a good reason - young skiers represent their future.
Go Outside to Play
Before they skied they rode.
And I don't mean on a snowboard.
When my girls were old enough to sit up in a sled (one of those cheap plastic ones - perfect because they didn't have far to fall out) they rode behind me as I cross-country skied. I plunked them into a sled fastened to a rope, lassoed the rope around my waist, and set out onto a snowy road in neighboring woods.
If we wanted to downhill ski, they rode with their dad in a backpack. My husband, Dewey, an expert skier, modified his skiing style to nearly eliminate the chance of falling. The babies snoozed, sang, or chortled their way down the mountain so we got the feeling that they enjoyed it. I would recommend this to only the best skiers under the best conditions (good snow, mild weather, and uncrowded slopes) and I am sure that there are many who would discourage it altogether.
The first step to teaching your kids to ski or board - is to teach them about the outdoors. Make it a fun, happy place and establish yourselves as good playmates.
I admit to a few minor mishaps - like the time I sensed my glide quickening while cross country skiing and I turned around to see Kelsey about 50 feet behind me on the trail. She had rolled out of the sled unscathed, except for a frosting of snowflakes on her face and head. I swept her face gently with my mitten, kissed her apple cheeks, and all was well, and I think forgiven, but you would have to ask Kelsey about that.
Which brings us to the first goal - learning how to inject fun and laughter into your snow activities. Your reaction to outdoor situations will frequently map out the course of your family's outdoor life.
I always try and stay one step ahead of things - call it event planning. When they fell, I quickly chimed in with something like, "Wow, good recovery - that was a great fall!" I literally watched a frown turn upside down with the use of this simple psychology. Every child is different so you can make an educated guess on what response might prevent your child's mood from heading quickly downslope.
Keep it light and keep it fun and know the delicate line between encouragement and harassment.
Know when to take a break - or to quit.
Just like all parenting, teaching a child to ski or snowboard requires compromise and sacrifice. It usually means a shorter or modified outing from those of your carefree and single days. Most people are attracted to outdoor sports because of the challenge and excitement. Playing outdoors with kids can provide plenty of both.
Gearing up for a warm and fuzzy experience
The next basic element to keeping the kids happy is learning to dress for outside.
Your kids will have a lot more fun if they are warm and comfortable. With today's great high-tech clothes it's a lot easier than when I was a kid and we all moved around like stuffed sausages when we went out to play. No wonder building snowmen was usually the most technical of our winter endeavors.
Dressing in layers is the best strategy for keeping warm. This traps heat and offers the option of adding or subtracting layers as the weather demands. Four main layers could consist of a combination similar to this: long underwear, turtleneck, sweater or fleece and outerwear.
I have found that combining polyester fabrics with some good old-fashioned wool and feathers is the perfect marriage of materials. Even though I am a fan of cotton for casual wear, it absorbs too much moisture and dries slowly, qualities that are not ideal for cold weather sports.
Choose bright colors to improve your child's visibility on the slopes and in the woods. Avoid slick material for snowpants, which could take him for an unexpected ride on steep slopes. A textured fabric will slow him down when he falls on slippery snow.
Look for waterproof, breathable outerwear but expect them to be expensive. Another more economical alternative is to select clothing that is simply waterproof. Waterproof snowpants are especially essential because of the amount of time beginners will spend on their bottoms - falling, sitting on the chairlift, or just hanging out on the slope.
Pack two sets of mittens, hats and socks since these are the items most likely to get wet. Since these are the lower priced items it is worth having duplicates. (Because of their small size they are also the most likely to get misplaced or lost)
Big Sky ski instructor Christie Baker reminds parents not to buy into the "more is better" fallacy when wearing ski socks. One pair of socks is enough in the well-insulated boots. Otherwise socks can bunch up and actually impede circulation, making feet colder.
Next is the importance of properly fitted ski or snowboard equipment, which will help increase the child's ability to learn and make him safer on the slopes.
The biggest challenge to keeping your kids equipped is this - they grow. Rent equipment until you establish interest - unless skiing and boarding are ingrained into your family's lifestyle and your kids are predestined to spend winter in the snow.
When you decide to get your own equipment, try lease programs at ski shops or shop at ski swaps and garage sales. Maybe you can set up a co-op between friends to share hand-me-downs.
Local ski shops are usually staffed by ski and boarding enthusiast well versed on the latest equipment. They will probably offer the advice not to succumb to the "buy it a size bigger and they will grow into it" syndrome. Ill-fitting equipment can increase your child's chances of injury and decrease their enjoyment.
I discovered first hand that sometimes the pitches made for new equipment isn't all hype. After skiing the same skis and boots for over 20 years - Olin Mark III skis and Scott boots, which solicited the comment, "Classic," from those who were familiar with that era - I was forced to buy new gear when my boots finally fell apart. (Not while I was skiing thank goodness - they seemed to decompose while sitting on a shelf over the summer)
With new boots also came a new pair of shaped skis. After one run I wished that I had surrendered to the temptation of "new and better" much earlier. The ski's curved shaped seemed to shift me from manual to automatic because of the new ease I discovered in parallel turning. I also had the added bonus that my knees felt great at the end of a day. The boots were also much warmer, more comfortable and more supportive, which didn't hurt my skiing technique either.
The skiers or boarder's weight, height, style, and ability generally determine ski and board lengths.
Shorter skis and boards are more manageable for beginners. Longer length and a stiffer ski or board will give them more control as they progress to a faster and more aggressive style.
Stiffer boots will also give the more advanced skier and boarder more support as they begin to chew up the mountain.
Forget about poles initially for little skiers. Let them concentrate on turning their skis.
Equipment should be checked every season by a qualified technician. Improper settings on bindings can result in serious injury if skis release too easily or too late.
A helmet is advised for skiers and riders, properly fitted so that it doesn't interfere with hearing or vision. But don't get a false sense of security because your child has a helmet on. Wearing a helmet might save her from a head injury but it won't prevent neck or other injuries.
Goggles are essential if you want to weather out wind and snow squalls. Their tinted lenses also can eliminate the need for sunglasses. The kids will probably like the idea of wearing goggles because it makes them feel cool and legit.
Knee and wrist protection is advisable for the beginner boarder to increase his enjoyment and decrease injuries.
Don't forget to pack the sunscreen to protect against the more potent high altitude sun, intensified by its reflection on snow.
Now that you have the gear - remember to pack it on each outing. Before we leave the driveway we chant, "Skis, poles, boots, mitts, hat, goggle, pass..." Forgetting any of them can put a real damper on the day.
There are four basic styles of Nordic skiing - classic, skate, mountaineering, and telemark. Classic, or diagonal skiing is the simplest for beginners to learn with its stride and slide motion. Start with the basic Nordic gear while learning.
Hitting the slopes
If the kids have their own equipment, have them try it on at home to get familiar with moving around on these foreign objects. Let them scoot around a snowy yard and down a tiny hill. Learning to get up from a fall will be a valuable skill in their early skiing and boarding careers and this is a good place for them to practice, away from other skiers and a short distance from a warm house and a cup of hot chocolate.
Next enroll them in a lesson. Learning exclusively from parents can get too political and too honest. Most children will put their best foot forward around an instructor and while amongst peers - people they can newly impress. They will have time to ski or board with you after the lesson and be excited and proud to show off their new skills - their gift to you for letting them enter the exciting world of snow sports.
You might want to consider learning a sport with your child. If you're a skier, maybe you want to try boarding with your aspiring snowboarder. This way you will be more compatible; riding the same lifts and skiing the same runs at a more similar speed. But shield your ego - at some point your child might pass you up.
EZ Ski and EZ Ride 1-2-3 Programs are offered at over a dozen Montana ski resorts. The three-lesson packages include three lift tickets, three rentals and three lessons for beginners or older skiers wanting to get back into it. Rates for the three-time packages range from $59 to $119. Reservations are required and packages and prices vary at individual ski areas. Call your local ski area to learn more about this great program. Information is available during the ski season at 1-866-99-GOSKI and online at www.ticketswest.com.
Lost Trail Powder Mountain on the Montana/Idaho border, has offered free ski lessons to children for over 50 years, the only program of its kind in the nation. Volunteers teach ski skills, etiquette and safety children six to 17 years old. There is no charge for the lessons but children need to rent or provide their own equipment and purchase a lift ticket if they are going to ski or board outside of their lesson.
Ski/snowboard programs for a variety of age and level skiers and snowboarders are offered at all major ski areas. Programs generally begin in January and wrap up in March. Ski resorts also offer individual and group lessons throughout the season.
Most ski areas also have daycare available for younger children. Daycare is a good option for parents with beginner skiers. After lessons the young skiers can spend the rest of the day playing inside, giving parents freedom on the slopes.
Most lesson programs begin at ages three or four for skiers and six or seven for snowboarders. That doesn't mean your children will be ready at these ages. Parents should look at each child individually to determine when they are emotionally and physically ready to learn these challenging sports.
Baker, who's a certified ski instructor at Big Sky Resort, emphasizes taking it slow with young skiers. First she focuses on getting the children comfortable with their ski equipment by creating games and activities that get them moving around. They begin in the flats and progress to a moderate slope.
"It is most important that they have fun," Baker notes.
She also recommends that parents encourage and support, but not pressure their children. The child will tell you when he is ready. She has observed that the average age of readiness is five years old even though some children will be ready earlier or later than this.
Our daughters were comfortable in the snow and on skis when they were three, but had the advantage of an early introduction to snow and ice because of our lifestyle. Because of their young age, they were probably more receptive to parental guidance and low on fear factor.
Two beginner skier skills we felt essential were the snowplow (also called the wedge) and the kick turn. The snowplow allowed them to slow down and the kick turn helped them traverse across steeper terrain when they were not comfortable turning on the downhill.
In our family my husband was the more effective teacher. A deeply instilled instinct to keep them safe and alive sometimes interfered with me allowing them to try new things. While Dewey visualized a smooth turn as they sped down the mountain, I pictured them wrapped around a tree.
When I found myself overcome with this paranoid and negative thinking, I skied in front of the group so I could not see them. (I also thought I had a chance at catching them if they flew by)
Cross-country, also known as Nordic skiing, can be a more reasonable choice for families because of its relatively low cost. This sport will probably appeal more to the purist because of its freedom from lines, fees and crowds, which can also create a more cohesive family outing.
Downhill skiing and snowboarding are more action-packed, so you might have a harder time selling kids on the lower-key sport of cross-country skiing after they've tried the others. The dynamic world at a ski resort offers intoxicating and addictive elements - a lift ride up the mountain, lots of speed, and lots of social possibilities.
Cross-country skiing requires a little more imagination to keep young children interested and inspired. Inherently thrill seekers, children might find Nordic skiing too low key and simply too much work. Ski racing might help add excitement. The sense of competition and the camaraderie may also help spike interest.
As our girls matured we also added backcountry Nordic skiing to our outings to offer the thrill and challenge of downhill. We packed lunch and snacks and sometimes gathered around a campfire during a break, which added to the social aspects of the outing.
Chad Castren, a Nordic skier and dad from Kalispell, offers some simple advice for recognizing if the sport is age appropriate: "If they are falling down all of the time and not having fun they probably aren't ready."
He notes that if you push a child into a sport before he is ready, the child might resist further introduction to the sport.
Chad started his own young sons Izaak and Ruben out when they were three years old by letting them hike around the yard on their skis - even before it snowed. They slid around the grass and began to learn to maneuver the new extensions on their feet.
The limits of beginner skiers can pose a challenge to an advanced skier such as Castren, who sometimes skis 30 or 40 miles in a morning. "You have to realize that you might not go anywhere. They are happy in a small space."
Young skiers will generally begin with classic skiing, skiing vertically before they try skate skiing, which is just like it sounds, skating on a special shorter, lighter ski.
Let them play around in a small space at first with no pressure. Start out with short outings with lots of breaks. Once they are ready for longer distances, you can yoyo back and forth to your little skiers to allow you to get a full stride without leaving them behind.
Pack snacks, beverages for all of your winter outings. Even though ski resorts offer food and beverages, packing a cooler and snack-pack is a way to supplement and control what the kids put in their mouth. With their high energy and high activity level children usually need to eat frequently. Being well fed and hydrated is more critical when they are exerting in cold weather conditions.
Another bit of advice to parents planning a snow sports activity: Check the weather forecast and avoid extreme conditions such as ice, bitter cold or wind, all of which can smudge out the beginner's enthusiasm for the sport.
Safety - First and last
Teach the kids safe and responsible behavior on the slopes. Injuries are most often caused by excessive speed, collision with skiers or objects, and losing control. All three causes frequently overlap - someone skiing/boarding too fast went out-of-control and hit somebody/something.
Most injuries occur in the afternoon, which also brings us back to the advice - know when to call it a day.
Also teach them good manners on the slope - for example: no cutting in the lift line; don't ski/board over someone else's skis/board; and don't bunch up at lift unloading areas.
The Happy Ending
After all the coaxing, waiting, teaching and encouraging, a day will come when your kids will be skiing or riding faster, stronger and bolder than you. It is one of those cruel tricks of nature that has them soaring into their prime as you slide into middle age decline.
But pat yourself on the back - because you are the one who gave them their wings.
- Kay Bjork is a freelance writer from Swan Lake.