By Lela Nargi
Plans for spring break are already in the works in many households. But February and March can be the perfect months to introduce even the littlest tykes to Alpine slopes and Nordic trails. If your kids can walk (and preferably, once they’re potty trained), you can strap their tiny feet onto skis and snowboards and head out for some powdery family fun. A bonus: with many cold-weary families abandoning the snow-clobbered Northeast and other frigid realms for the tropics, ski resorts can be less packed than they were only a month ago. Which means: more space for you!
Admittedly, the thought of schlepping gear and snacks and potentially cranky toddlers in need of naps can be daunting to many parents. But the key to introducing kids to any kind of snow sport, says Mike Hussey, director of the Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton, VT, is scaling back expectations—both for you and your kids. “If you’re taking your 5-year-old out for the first time and thinking you’re going to get in a real workout, everyone’s going to lose,” he says. Instead, plan on a short foray your first time out, just to get things started. Don’t force it, and “don’t drag them around a 10k loop!” says Hussey. “Make it reasonable, and fun.”
This sentiment is echoed by Craig Cimmons, director of snowsports at Jay Peak Resort in Jay, VT. “Don’t think of it as, you’re going skiing or snowboarding,” he says. “Think of it as your kid's playing outside in the snow. That’s when you’ll be successful.” To start, he recommends having parents push or tow toddlers around for as long as they’re warm and happy, then bringing them in to the lodge for hot chocolate and a snack. The most important thing is ending a first excursion on a success. “Even if you’re only out there for a couple of hours, they’ll remember they went someplace and had a good time. And they’ll want to go back.”
Another surefire way to keep the day positive: Turn your kids over to the instructors at ski school. Says Cimmons, “Parents are…parents. But instructors are experts at what they do. They can go through the frustrating parts of teaching your kids and give them back to you with some basic skills. Then you can go out and play together.”
Hussey concurs: “Definitely let someone else teach your kids at first.” Instructors have all sorts of teaching tools that parents—especially those who are chomping at the bit to get out and stay out on the trails—may not think of. At Rikert, Hussey says an intro for tots as young as two often starts with having them put on skis right in the shop where it’s warm, and ski down the hallway on the carpet. “It takes the component of slippery snow out of the equation, and they can start to understand that their feet are now 97 centimeters long,” he says.
At Jay, Cimmons meets a lot of parents whose kids balk at the idea of “school” when they’re supposed to be on vacation. “Call it camp. Call it whatever you want!” he says. “If the ski school environment is just focused on fun and playing games,” kids will be happy to be there. “Instead of teaching them skills and drills, we make a game out of hopping and jumping and spinning in circles, or jumping over things, or kicking soccer balls with skis on. To the child, it’s just playing, but they’re learning balance and proper movement and how to stay up.”
Both Hussey and Cimmons say an ideal teacher, for any snowsport, is someone with a tolerant, light-hearted nature who’s used to working with children—someone who’ll ditch the skis and concentrate on, say, making snow angels when it’s clear there’s no more learning to be accomplished that day. Cimmons adds that a good instructor will engage kids in everything from how to put their boots on, to how to experience the outdoors—not just the skiing itself.
How much ski school is enough ski school—especially for parents who want to ski with, not without, their kids? “The biggest successes I see,” says Cimmons, “are with children who either ski half the day with instructors and half the day with their parents, or ski with instructors on Saturday and with their parents on Sunday.” For Hussey, there are no hard and fast rules. “If it’s a family unit that works well together, parents—or kids, as they get better—will slow down so they can all ski together.” He points out that parents can benefit from lessons, too, whenever they’re ready to sharpen their skills; and family lessons, when diversity in ability starts to diminish, can also be a rewarding way to spend time together.
For parents who are fluent in more than one kind of snowsport, the question is often which to start kids on first. When it’s between Alpine and Nordic, Hussey makes the case for beginning with Nordic, citing its low cost—something in the range of $200 for a family season pass; and for very little children, $3 for skis whose bindings strap right on to their regular snow boots. Additionally, he says, with Nordic, “Kids can learn balance without being locked into a boot that holds them up. They can slide and move around and learn to be supple on skis; then, when they start Alpine, those heavy boots and skis aren’t so cumbersome.”
When it’s between Alpine skiing and snowboarding, Cimmons says: pick both! “The biggest barrier to snowboarding for little kids used to be the equipment,” he says. Now that some companies are making extremely small boots and very soft, 70cm snowboards, “We strongly encourage parents to have their kids switch back and forth every day,” says Cimmons. “Parents often want their kids to ski because they ski, or snowboard because they snowboard.” But if the ultimate goal is getting out and spending time in the snow together, the equipment in this case is irrelevant.
Finally, gear. The right gear—and it doesn’t have to be expensive gear—can mean the difference between a day enjoyed and a day reviled. Balaclavas to cover the ears and neck; cozy, well-fitting helmets for Alpine sports; and waterproof mittens and one-piece snowsuits, all will ensure that small, cold-susceptible kids stay warm, dry, and happy. A final recommendation from one resourceful parent: “Try hand and foot warmers pressed up against up the body, instead of between fingers and toes!”
Got any first-time parent and kid ski stories to share with us? Make sure to comment below!
Photographs by Lynn Perkins & Lela Nargi