Spring is the Perfect Time to Teach Your Kids to Ski!
(What are You Waiting For?)
Hooray, Spring is here! The sun is shining, crocuses are blooming, birds are singing and it feels like time to start working in the garden. But wait! There is still snow in the mountains and plenty of months left to teach your kids to ski, cross-country or downhill. While it may not feel like ski time, spring often brings more mountain snow than winter, plus the warmer weather and “bluebird” skies make for perfect teaching conditions.
Maybe you’re actually excited to teach your kids to ski. You’ve just been waiting until they reached a certain age. Or maybe you’re dreading it. Either way, there’s no time like the present. The sooner you teach them, the sooner you can all be swooshing down or across the slopes together. When you teach your kids to ski, you are giving them a lifetime skill. It’s an outdoor activity you can do together when your kids are young, and continue doing together when they are teens (and they won’t do anything else with you) and even when they leave the nest. Eventually it can be something you do when you become the family elder and there are little ones needing to be taught again.
My mom (bless her!) taught me and my sister to ski when we were two and four years old. I grew up and taught my own kids, plus many many others. I fully intend to be an 80-year-old snowboarding granny who will happily teach any kids that come along. I won’t lie to you: teaching kids to ski is not the easiest thing you will ever do. But it could be one of the most rewarding. For the past 20 years my big extended family has skied together: aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The youngest in our group was two when she started and the oldest are 80 (my dad and uncle). Skiing is a wonderful outdoor activity you can do with all the generations, getting exercise and enjoying the incredible beauty of nature together.
You don’t have to be a great skier to teach your kids. You are just teaching the basics and a love of being out on the mountain. The kids will teach themselves the rest. I talked with a couple of parent “experts” who successfully taught multiple kids to ski: Beth taught her two kids to cross-country ski and Jamie taught four kids to downhill ski. They have some great advice for surviving and actually enjoying the experience.
How old should they be?
There’s a saying amongst skiers: “If they’re old enough to walk, they’re old enough to ski.” That goes for downhill and cross-country. Most of the experts I talked to said age 3-4 is ideal for teaching. At this age, kids are still small enough to physically lift and help, they don’t have far to fall, and they seem to be made of rubber.
What are the best ski clothes?
If kids are cold they are miserable and no one has any fun. Making sure your kids are dressed to stay warm for hours is job #1 of your ski day. For tips on the best snow clothes for kids, check out “Dress for Winter Weather.” Beth loves bibs. “We got our kids inexpensive ski bibs. Bibs are awesome because they can’t fall down and when kids take a tumble, snow doesn’t go get in their pants.” We both agree that mittens are better than gloves. Gloves = cold fingers.
What are the best snacks?
Snacks are a critical tool for keeping kids going and happy on the slopes. Stash some in your backpack at the start of the day. Beth’s family calls theirs “ski treats:” special candy like Gummi Bears that take longer to eat and have a slow-release of sugar, which the kids only get when skiing. “I would tell them, ‘When we make it to the next intersection it’s Ski Treat time,” Beth explained. Jamie’s ski snacks are granola bars (easy to carry in pockets) and recycled Halloween candy. “We let them eat a little candy on Halloween and then hide the rest for ski season. They are small and you can fit a handful in your pocket.” Both families pack extra food for the drive home. Kids are often starving when they are done and it can be a long drive to get home and eat.
When I was a kid my dad tried teaching us to cross-country ski. We had been downhill skiing for years, so I thought Nordic was hard and boring and I hated it. We whined so much Dad gave up on us and I didn’t try it again until I was in my thirties. We stuck our new baby in a backpack and headed out. Being in nature in the snow with our newborn was liberating and I fell in love with it. To get tips on teaching your kids, I talked with Beth Nelson. She (along with husband Eric) taught two very little kids who grew into young adults who love x-country skiing.
- Buy used. Look for used Nordic equipment for kids at ski shops, outdoor stores like Next Adventure, used sporting goods stores like Play It Again Sports, on Craigslist, and even at Goodwill. But beware: Beth says used Nordic gear can be hard to find or super old. She recommends borrowing or buying used gear from friends with older kids.
- Rent for the season. Beth didn’t buy gear until her kids were older. “Kids outgrow boots and skis so quickly in the early years, we did season rentals instead of buying when they were little. Check with your local ski shop: many will rent a full kid set-up cheaply for the entire season. Doing a season rental also motivates you to go a lot because you’ve already spent the money and you want to get your money’s worth. It’s also convenient because you don’t have to rent each time you want to go. Eventually we invested in a set of gear for our older kid, knowing it would pass down to our younger kid next. We only had to do that a few times.”
- Let them get comfortable. Put kids in the skis and let them walk around until they get comfortable with how it feels. Most kids aren’t afraid to fall and when they do, they’re so close to the ground that the falls are pretty minor. Wait until they are comfortable skiing around before you hit the trail.
- Pizza & french fries. There isn’t a lot of technique to teach at first. Beth explains, “Have them make a ‘pizza slice’ with their skis to slow down and stop, then straighten out into parallel ‘french fries’ to go forward.” Yum!
- Small goals. In the beginning, don’t worry too much about their technique. Just let them do it. They will learn with experience. Start off on mellow groomed trails, which make it easy for them to keep their skis straight and apart. Do short loop trails that don’t have many or any hills, something they can finish and feel good about their accomplishment.
- Skip the poles. At the start, poles are too much to coordinate and kids tend to hold them right in front of them where they are in the way. “We didn’t give our kids poles until they mastered basic skiing,” Beth said. “We told them to pretend they were holding a box so their arms were to the sides and they could use their poles for strength and stability.”
- Stay close. When the kids are first learning, ski next to them so you can help them up when they fall. “When they first started, our kids were scared to go down hills, so we put them between our legs and held them under armpits to get them down.”
- Teach them cross-country first. “We decided to teach our kids x-country before downhill. We knew that if they learned to downhill ski first, they might never want to cross-country ski after that. When our kids did learn to downhill ski they loved it, but they continued to love x-country as well. Plus their x-country skills helped them learn downhill faster and made them better at it.”
- Bring water. “Kids are always thirsty when they x-country ski,” Beth explains, “We got them their own mini Camelbacks so they didn’t ask to stop every five mins for a water break.” With their own portable water, kids can drink and ski at the same time and feel pretty cool doing it.
- Go with friends and/or elders. Kids are likely to have more fun if their friends are along. That goes for you, too. Older relatives often have more patience and experience for teaching little ones, and your kids may have more patience learning from them.
- Bring hand warmers. These are great little items to have in your pocket. Small enough to fit inside gloves and will keep hands warm for hours. The most common brands are made from natural chemicals (iron, vermiculite, activated carbon, cellulose, salt) and can be composted in your garden. If you want a greener, reusable option, there are some rechargeable pocket heaters on the market (like this one by Jomst), though they aren’t small enough to fit inside gloves.
Teaching Your Kids to Downhill Ski
Ski lessons are great, if you can afford them. But teaching your kids the basics of downhill skiing is easier than you might expect. For tips and best practices, I chatted with my sister, Jamie Roehm-Trummer, who taught her four kids how to ski, starting each one at age 2 or 3. If she can do it four times with no lessons, so can you.
As with x-country, the most affordable way to get gear for growing kids is to buy used or rent for the season. I will add to that two key pieces of equipment that can make teaching your kids easier and more fun.
- Ski harness. a ski harness looks like a backpack that your child wears over their ski coat. It has a waist strap to keep it on, a handle to help lift them into and out of the chair lift, and a strap that loops behind them for you to hold onto. You use the strap to slow them down, help them turn, and keep them in control until they can control themselves. Make sure to get one with a pouch you can stuff the strap into before getting on the chairlift. It doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy—an inexpensive harness is all you need.
- Ski tip connector. This inexpensive doodad clips onto the tips of both skis and holds them together in a snowplow position, preventing skis from crossing or spreading into the splits. There are so many things to focus on when first learning to ski, this eliminates one so kids can focus more easily on learning everything else. It also makes it much easier to teach them how to stop. All they have to do is push their feet apart. No risk of them zooming down the hill out of control and taking a bad fall. Not every kid needs them, however. “Toe clips work great, but it depends on the kid,” Jamie explains. “They were perfect for two of my kids, but the other two didn’t like them and didn’t need them. Give them a try and remove them if they’re not helping.”
- Why they help. Some ski teachers are against using these “crutches,” but even a few hours of holding a kid between your legs is incredibly hard on your body and physically exhausting. Jamie explains, “The most important reason to use a harness and toe clips is to give yourself a break so you can be more patient and have more fun with your kid. If you’re exhausted, you will get frustrated faster and then no one is having fun. You may feel like ‘If I use all these supports they’ll never learn to ski.’ But after teaching my four kids, I learned to trust that they WILL learn. You only need the extra support for a few months. It’s temporary, so don’t worry—just relax and enjoy!”
- No poles. While you’re teaching your kid to ski, it’s easier if neither of you has poles. You need your hands free to help them and they need to focus only on their skis.
- Start up close. For the first lesson, have your child right in front of you, tucked between your skis, holding them with your hands under their armpits. This is murder on your back, so try not to do this for very long.
- Master the snowplow. To stay safe, the first thing kids need to learn is how to slow down and stop. Teach them to make a “pizza slice” with their skis and then to press down and out with their feet to put on the breaks. Learning this helps them stay in control and should be your #1 goal for the first lessons.
- Let out the leash. As they get better, let out more and more strap, increasing the distance between you. By keeping tension on the strap, you can help them stand up, slow down and even stop them from falling. You also use the strap to control the amount of freedom they have. With more slack in the strap they feel more independent. You are literally “giving them the reins,” but you can still stop them if you need to. Like when you teach them to ride a bike, eventually you can drop the strap and they will be skiing on their own without realizing it (just don’t drop the strap in a crowded area and be ready to zoom up and grab it again).
- Teach slope awareness. It’s easy to get hurt if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around you. Teach your kids to be aware of other skiers and to think about where they stop. Don’t stop in a spot where you’re:
- Blocking a path
- Invisible to people coming down the slope toward you
- In a spot where skiers come through quickly
- Also, don’t take up the whole slope by traversing across the entire thing. Make small turns along one edge of the slope so others can see you, predict where you will go next and can easily maneuver around you.
- Avoid crowded runs. Find the quiet, easy runs and do those over and over.
- Get off the short runs. While you may have to do your first few runs on the short bunny hill, it is really frustrating to stay there all day. Just when your child is getting the hang of it, you’re at the bottom and have to get on the chairlift again. After an hour or two on a short run, find a beginner run that is as long as possible. Then you can spend more time actually skiing each run and your child can feel what it feels like to actually ski and they can find their groove. The longer runs are much more fun for the kid…. and for you!
- Ski to the side. As you let out the strap and they move out in front of you, ski a bit off to the side, not directly behind them, so if they fall you don’t ski over them.
- Wear a backpack. For snacks, water and extra clothing. If your child gets cold, put another layer on. If they get too hot, shed a layer and stuff it in the backpack. Gloves especially can get wet and cold, so have an extra pair for sure.
Whether you’re teaching your kids to cross-country or downhill ski, the challenges and rewards are the same. Here are a few deeper thoughts to keep in mind.
Don’t be afraid to push them out of their comfort zone
Learning to ski can be hard. Your kid will probably get cold. And tired. And hungry. And frustrated. They will definitely fall down and it might hurt. And that’s okay. Things that are worth learning are often challenging. That challenge is good for kids. As their teacher, do you best to motivate them to stick it out as long as they can. Sing songs. Play games. Bribe them with snacks. Do what you can to keep them on the slopes as long as possible. A kid who is only willing to stick it out for an hour is going to take a very long time to learn to ski. That said, you know your child. When you sense that they are truly finished, call it a day. If you have a partner, switch with them every few hours or at lunch so each of you get some fun ski time sans kid.
Once when Jamie was teaching her three-year-old to ski, her daughter said, “Mommy, I’m tired.” Jamie convinced her to do one more run and then they would go in. As they neared the bottom of the run, Jamie noticed that her daughter felt heavier than she had earlier in the day. When she got to the chairlift she discovered that her daughter was sound asleep. Snoring away. She had slept through the entire ski run! But hey, no harm done—everyone was happy!
Beth recently asked her 16-year-old daughter, “Do you remember how we got you to Nordic ski?” Her daughter, who now loves Nordic skiing, answered, “Yeah, you just made us.” And that’s okay too. Sometimes you have to push your kids (gently and with love) to get them to participate in the wonderful outdoor family activities you want to share with them. Trust that they will get there and they will (hopefully) love it.
Be patient and have fun
Don’t forget to have fun! You will only have to do this once (with each child) and it goes by fast. We’ve all seen adults yelling at their kids on the slopes and it’s the worst. If nobody’s having fun, what’s the point? Let go of your expectations, bring as much patience as you can muster, and remember that both of you should have fun. That’s the goal.
I have a vivid memory of standing in the middle of a busy ski slope as one of my kids screamed at me: “I hate this! I can’t believe you’re making me do this! You are the worst mom ever!” I did some deep breathing and focused all my willpower on not laughing. Or crying. This happened with both kids and they were not easy moments. If you teach your child how to ski, it will probably happen to you. Consider yourself warned. But do I regret doing it? Heck no. Now, being on the mountain with friends and family is both my kids’ favorite thing to do. And mine too. Like the pain of childbirth, those screaming fits are eclipsed by years and years of laughter and fun together on the mountain. I can promise you, it was all worth it.
Even the screaming.