Very First Tracks: When and How Young Ones Should Hit the Slopes

Just as all parents handle raising children uniquely, they also have unique views on when children should begin a sport like skiing or snowboarding. In the extremes parents are skiing with kids strapped to their front or back in a baby carrier back pack – certainly not likely recommended by child safety advocates – while other parents want their kids to wait until they are at least teenagers, hoping maturity will help them maneuver more safely down the hill.

Ski Schools
Most ski schools will accept children starting at age four depending on their maturity and sometimes depending on whether they have an older brother or sister to learn with them. Most experts believe children under the age of four do not have the attention span or muscle strength it takes to really learn and enjoy the sport.

Some schools will take kids age three to five for more of a play date on the slopes than an actual ski lesson. Prices for ski schools vary greatly. Some include gear rentals and ski passes. Some resorts have special deals for first time skiers that can be very reasonable.

Most ski instructors will work with kids without ski poles. They often feel there is already too much going on, kids use them as a crutch (not literally), and can get hurt by them if they are used incorrectly. Many also use a ski tether to pull the child forward from the tips of the skis and then strap them on the boots to hold them from the back on a slight incline. Some might use a tip connector to keep the child in a wedge position to control speed as they learn.

Do It Yourself
At this stage, even parents who do not know how to ski well can some training themselves. Parents can rent junior skis and boots for their little one for a few weekends in their third winter (no need to buy when kids will likely only use them a few times before they grow) and let the child play in the snow in the yard or wherever parents can find a nearby flat area of snow.

Just as they would with ski school, experts suggest parents have their kids walk around for a few hours in ski boots off and on the snow, so they can get used to the awkwardness of how they feel. Once they seem comfortable, maybe on the second day, kids can be put on the skis, letting them shuffle around and play around on a flat surface. It is even better if there is some fresh snow so any falls, although they would be minor in this case, have an extra soft landing.

Some parents feel a safety harness is a good way to ensure their child’s safety as they progress to skiing on actual hills. The harness is meant to be used with slack and only in safety stop situations, not to hold the child back. If they are held back, weaning off the device becomes much trickier. In most cases they will not get hurt if they fall, so minimal assistance is always best. The harness can also add some security on the chair lift.

Weaning off a harness is much like helping a child ride a bike and letting go. They need to know their parent or instructor is right there, just in case, and the distance can get greater as they become more comfortable. Falling is not a bad thing; they will come to learn quickly that if they are controlling their speed, most falls will not hurt.

Ski or Board?
For the youngest ones, most experts recommend starting off with ski lessons. Snowboarding can be a little tougher as they do not often have the coordination or balance to ride sideways. Small children are also top-heavy, which makes it harder for them to not tip over on a board. Once children start doing other activities that require balance, such as gymnastics, dance, soccer, and skateboarding, they will become more prepared to learn snowboarding.

The first rule of thumb in any type of ski or snowboarding lesson or activity; make it fun. Experts say efforts can backfire if children are pushed too far too fast and it could be years before they will try it again. If a child who is warm and otherwise comfortable gets tired of trying, most instructors will back off and let the child try it again another day.

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