First time skiing with kids? Use these tips to have a great experience
An avid skier since I was a teen, I was eager to share my favorite winter sport with my three kids. Young adults now, each of my kids stepped into his or her first pair of skis by age 4. Our family ski trips are among our favorite memories: Snacking on Cheerios on chairlifts while watching skiers below, playing “Follow the Leader” down snowy slopes and warming up with hot chocolate in cozy mountain lodges. Introducing them to skiing – a classic sport they can enjoy with their friends and, hopefully, with their children one day – is one of the best gifts I’ve given them.
One of my favorite memories of my oldest child, Christina Mendelson, is of her first day in ski school. Mid day it began snowing heavily and she was the only one in her group to opt for braving the storm to continue her lesson. It was my first glimpse of her stamina, which I so admire.
Kids are more apt to enjoy learning to ski if it’s a family activity. The annual Learn to Ski and Snowboard (www.skiandsnowboardmonth.org) month in January offers deals and tips for planning a family ski trip.
When to Start
My kids learned to make tracks as soon as they were old enough for ski school. I wanted skiing to be as natural for them as walking. Most ski instructors agree that, generally, 5 or 6 is the ideal age to learn, although many kids are ready at age 3. “We assess the way they think, the way they feel and their physical maturity,” says Kristin Egan, mom of three and a veteran ski instructor at Deer Valley in Park City, Utah. “So deciding at what age to start a child skiing depends on those three things.”
If your 5-year-old isn’t emotionally ready for ski school, don’t fret. Older kids who are more comfortable being away from parents and have more developed physical skills can still learn quickly and catch up to those who started skiing at 3.
Appropriate ski clothing is important so kids are warm and comfortable while learning, and it doesn’t have to cost a bundle. A great time to snag deals on waterproof bib overalls, snow pants and jackets at local sporting goods stores is during après ski sales. My family also scored some hand-me-down snowsuits and jackets from older cousins.
To save money on equipment, we rented skis, boots and poles until our kids were teens. Occasionally we’d rent from sporting goods stores near home to save time once we got to the mountain. More often, we rented equipment from mountain resorts, which offer ski packages that include lessons, rentals and lift tickets and give renters the chance to adjust or swap out equipment if necessary during the day.
Mary Wormsbecker, longtime manager of the kids program at Snow Summit in Big Bear, which this year debuts a new-and-improved children’s snow sports facility, recommends renting equipment from a mountain resort. She also warns parents against bringing children’s skis with plastic edges. “We don’t allow them on the mountain,” she says. “Kids need to be on the right type of equipment. It’s not a toy, it’s a sport. Skis or boards need to have a metal edge.”
Planning for Lessons
Although I’ve been skiing for many years, I wanted my kids to learn from experts. Kids learn to ski best from instructors, not their own parents, who may be critical or impatient. Even after my kids became good skiers, I enrolled them in at least one class at the beginning of each season to sharpen their skills. In fact, I still take one class each year to jumpstart my ski season, especially when we’re at an unfamiliar resort.
“I recommend at least one lesson per trip for children,” says Egan, whose three kids learned to ski from other instructors. “They get a day to learn from a professional, and Mom and Dad have a day to ski for themselves.” Another good option is to take a private family lesson so that you can see what and how your kids learn.
We usually chose group lessons because they’re more affordable and it’s fun for kids to be with peers. And since my family likes to ski mid-week when it’s less crowded, group lessons were often small. A few times my kids were the only students. Christina has fond memories of skiing with her instructor (she even remembers her name, Sandy) at Big Bear. “I had her a few times,” Christina says. “When we rode the chair lift over the reservoir we would take the snow off our skis and make little snowballs to throw into the water.”
“I am a firm believer in ski school, because the better you are the more fun you have,” says Wormsbecker, “Fun is what it should be for everybody.”
Choosing a Resort
When deciding where your kids will learn to ski, the size of the resort doesn’t matter as much as the beginner terrain and snow-sports programs on offer. “What is important is that the resort employees including ski instructors, lift operators, skier service and others who make it all happen are professional, safety oriented and provide a fun experience,” says Egan.
As native Angelenos, Big Bear (where my youngest, Megan, learned to ski) is our go-to resort for short ski trips, but we also love the diverse and expansive terrain at Mammoth Mountain, where my two oldest kids, Christina and Michael, learned to ski. All three ski well but have their preferences when it comes to resorts. Michael prefers terrain that lets him blast down steep trails, the more moguls the better. “I was always an adventurer, so I felt like the bigger resorts were best for me,” he says.
Another factor in choosing a resort is lodging options. Though it may cost a bit more to stay near the slopes, it’s worth the convenience – especially on your first day skiing. The kids need to be fitted for ski or snowboard equipment and there’s so much to remember to haul to the slopes! Not just gloves, hats, helmets, goggles and tissues for your kids, but for yourself. Nearby lodgings will help ensure that everyone arrives at ski school on time.
Mountain-based, all-inclusive ski resorts offer recreation rooms, ice skating rinks and other family-friendly amenities. Over the years we’ve skied at resorts of all sizes in Utah and Colorado. We’ve even carved up slopes in Italy and France. Among our favorites are Northstar California Resort and Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe, and Solitude in Utah.
On a 10-day trip to Pila ski resort in northern Italy, we were outnumbered by locals but met a couple of American families with kids the same ages as ours. We enjoyed the cultural experience (the kids loved saying “basta”) and frequent breaks for the best creamy hot chocolate – a very important ski staple! And we’ve been skiing with those other families ever since.
Mimi Slawoff is an avid skier and mom of three who is a frequent contributor to L.A. Parent. Follow her on Twitter @Mimitravelz or Instagram @Mimitravels.