By Ken Levy
Preparing little ones for the long-term enjoyment of skiing requires one key element: play time. Local experts agree that parents sometimes push their youngsters too hard, have unrealistic expectations too soon, and add undue pressure on their kids. Instructors and parents alike must develop a solid trust level with young kids in order to foster a love for skiing.
It starts with playing in the snow, suggests Mark Hanson, ski and snowboard school director at Grand Targhee Resort. Hanson recommends playing on appropriate terrain—a slope where the teacher can walk and glide beside the student and practice a braking wedge. “Maintain [a] fun, positive atmosphere,” says Hanson. “Kids pick up on teachers’ frustrations immediately.”
Carianne Koch, Kids Club director at Grand Targhee, always brings it back to playtime. “Showing them that snow is fun in many ways is important. If they learn this, the rest will fall into place,” she says.
Snowboarding expert Mikey Franco of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort reminds us that training children to snowboard or ski isn’t about progression or big-goal setting; it’s about fun. When approached in this fashion, “the child’s development goes right through the roof, because there’s no pressure,” Franco says.
When to start?
Considering when to hit the slopes with your kids?
Age may have little to do with it. “It is a maturity thing,” says Koch. “[Skiing] can be scary to a child that just isn't quite ready mentally, emotionally, and physically.” Some two-year-olds can't wait to ski, while others want nothing to do with it. The same can be true for a five-year-old. “Between the ages of three and five, most kids start to think about how cool it looks and want to try it,” Koch says, adding that children must first have the desire, which makes them eager to learn, listen, and progress.
Be sure to follow the child’s learning pace and don’t push them. Pressure from parents can be the biggest hurdle. “Kids want nothing more than to please mom and dad,” Koch says. “But if they are pressured to do something that they really are not ready for, then you get a child that is throwing a fit and not enjoying the family vacation at all.”
Little details matter when selecting a professional instructor. Parents need to know their child’s personality and with whom they work well. For instance, if your toddler is used to being by mom’s side, select a female instructor to ease her comfort level.
Koch reminds parents to honestly communicate their kids’ experience level so the instructor can place them in the right class with kids at the same level. “That way, they won't feel like they are the worst in the class or that the class is too easy,” she says.
Selecting the Gear
Preparing for the sport means outfitting your child with quality equipment that fits correctly. Many parents find it difficult to buy expensive winter clothes and gear that may be used for only one season. But optimally—if you can afford it—buying new equipment every season or every other season assures the gear will be custom fit to your child, paving the way for easy advancement.
If new gear isn’t in the budget, then rent. Ski areas offer daily rentals and package deals with lessons; and local shops like Hoback Sports in Jackson and Peaked Sports in Driggs offer season-long ski rentals.
Other families improvise. “It really doesn't take a lot of money to enjoy winter activities with the family," says Brent Knight of Driggs. "The secret is to just get out and do something. You can piece things together.”
Brent and his wife, Sheila, have seven children, all of whom have shared in numerous outdoor adventures with their folks. Covering the expense of their gear, clothing, and necessities took some innovation. Brent fit his kids in an old pair of skis by cutting off the tails. “That's about as cheap as you can get,” he says. They’ve also kept costs down by gathering used leather ski boots, and sewing climbing skins together to fit the various skis lengths. Thrift stores and ski swaps came in handy, too.
A Family that Plays Together
Most of the Knight children are grown now, and the family has a wealth of memories of time spent backcountry, cross-country, and alpine skiing together. “When the kids were younger we tried not to make the trips too intense,” Knight recounts. “You want to have easy terrain they can ski on.”
Safety is always the first concern. “We wanted to keep the avalanche danger to a minimum,” Knight says, explaining that the family has always backcountry skied in locations where they could exit the mountains easily and quickly.
“Now that the kids are older, they out-ski me,” Knight says, obviously proud. “It’s paid off in the long run.”
What about Riding?
“No family when possible,” bluntly states Mikey Franco, a Jackson Hole snowboard professional, when asked about parent involvement in the snowboard learning process. “Too much pressure on kids and too high of expectations from parents. “
Franco encourages parents to seek out resorts that use the Burton Experience program, which is based on both the psychological and physical elements of snowboarding. Burton designs their LTR (Learn to Ride) snowboards to fit the needs of beginners. The boards turn very slowly and aren’t very reactive, mimicking the slow movements of beginners. “They took the eighty centimeter snowboard and put, like, a retractable dog leash on the end,” explains Franco. “You literally take kids out in the yard and tow them around.”
For kids under four, snowboarding has nothing to do with skill development and everything to do with fun. The leg muscles important for snowboarding have yet to develop in kids this young. “You’re [also] waiting for their body mass to catch up with their head,” Franco adds.
Franco, a member of the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, has been a snowboard instructor since 1987. Check out his current venture, Franco Snowshapes.