We’ve spent the last few days up in the mountains just west of Denver, making gingerbread men, watching inch upon inch of snow pile up, and making the most of all the powder with shovels, sleds, and skis. Axel, at three, has almost got the pizza wedge down – but he’ll only use his abilities when he’s in the mood. Sometimes, he’s in the mood to roll in the snow, be carried down the hill, or just watch a movie.
All this brings me to our top ten tips for teaching preschoolers to ski, written with heavy input from my parents who have a combined 40 years experience as ski instructors, and who taught me everything I know.
1. For the two, three, and four-year-old set, time on the snow is just introduction to the sport. So much of early skiing is about the mental side, just like learning to use the potty or playing soccer – does the kid feel like it or not? Warm, happy, well-fed kids getting cheered on for their small successes are much more likely to feel like gliding on their own two legs, not slumping down between yours.
2. Do not underestimate the power of food. A hearty breakfast, snack breaks, pizza, M & Ms and Starbursts on the chair lift, enough hot cocoa for an army – a little sugar keeps the spirits up.
3. Stop while you’re ahead – while everyone’s still smiling. That may mean that you stop after two short runs and spend the rest of the day sledding or exploring the lodge. Since the goal is just to plant the seed that skiing is awesome, that’s OK. (Note that kids five and under ski free at many resorts.)
4. Start indoors. Walk around with boots on, then try putting one ski on inside. Look at how the skis can make a pizza wedge, or a number eleven. Try making pizza wedges inside with boots, then try it outside – any snowy spot with a gentle hill will do.
5. Stick to the bunny slopes close to the lodge at first with short lifts or magic carpets (flat escalators on ski slopes). You don’t want to be up at the top of the mountain, far away from the bathroom or hot cocoa, when a three year old decides he/she is DONE.
6. Keep it simple. Remember that, three or four years ago, most preschoolers couldn’t walk. Focus on basics – pizza wedge, hands on knees, looking up at a target down the slopes.
7. Gear matters. Make sure the boots fit, that skis are the appropriate length (very short), the helmet’s warm and snug, and consider using a harness. Weather matters, too – when possible, go when the weather’s on the warm side.
8. Be patient. The younger the child, the more flexible you need to be. If my father was writing this list, he’d have put this tip four times, in neon lights.
9. Bring along the heating pad, because you, the parent/grandparent/friendly uncle/ski instructor for a day will be doing most of the work. Lifting the kid, hoisting the kid + skis, supporting the kid between your legs, lifting the kid again, arranging the skis into a pizza wedge, knocking snow off the kid’s boots, rolling around in the snow, yanking on clothes and boots and pulling them off again – you’ll probably end up more tired out than your future Olympian.
10. Make it fun – throw a bean bag and have the child ski to it, have them ski around the poles, or ski to one parent and get swung around in the air. Bring out your inner cheerleader and jump up and down at small successes. Ski backwards (only if it’s not crowded and you can do that, of course), and have them ski toward you – which is a great way to get them turning. Kids who have the pizza wedge mastered can explore the family fun zones most resorts have these days, and can test out the ways the big pizza goes slow, and the little pizza goes fast. Consider bringing along a friend – Axel’s best day skiing in his young life came when he braved the bunny slope with a good buddy.
And, if you find after one day that you’re exhausted and you’ve been butting heads with your skier-to-be, there’s always the option of lessons from a pro. Sometimes, kids can absorb it all better from a friendly stranger, and then show off their skills to you at the 3 pm pick up.