Last winter, when Emma, my daughter, was 31/2, I wondered if she was ready to learn to ski. The year before, I had begun getting her used to the mountains by carrying her on lifts and skiing down gentle slopes, holding her in my arms like a baby kangaroo. She loved it. But would she feel the same glee when I strapped her into clunky gear and sent her out into the cold on her own, with ski instructors she didn't know?
I got my answer last February, on a sunny afternoon at Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming, as I watched Emma lead her teacher through soft, shin-deep snow into the meandering trails of the Eye Ball Forest. I saw her happily dodging trees in her wide snowplow as the instructor coached gently from behind: "Bend your knees, Emma. Look ahead. Oh -- wipeout!"
Little ones often pick up a love of skiing from a parent. It also helps to have a ski school behind you that's committed to teaching children. Many learn-to-ski programs take toddlers right out of diapers. But that gesture alone doesn't prove their commitment to kids. You want a facility with experienced instructors; fun learning terrain; slow, child-friendly chairlifts and "magic carpet" conveyor belts to get youngsters up the hill; and well-equipped clubhouses.
Rates for full-day programs run about $80, including group lessons, lift passes, snacks, lunch, and coloring time before and after skiing. But prior to enrolling your son or daughter, make sure you do careful research.
First, even before worrying about the program, figure out whether your child is ready. If kids clamor to play in the snow, feel comfortable detaching from Mommy and Daddy, and listen to other adults, they're probably set for the slopes. When picking a resort, pass up the glitz, and look for places that are dedicated to families and that pay attention to children. "That can be hit-or-miss at megaresorts with hundreds of instructors," says Mark Hanson, snow-sports school director at Targhee. Class size is a good indicator: Having more than four kids per instructor is unwieldy, if not unsafe.
HELPING YOUR CHILD RELAX
Resorts devoted to families have spacious clubhouses that are easily accessible at the base of the mountain, convenient to lodging, rental shops, and ticket booths. When signing in, pay attention to how the staff greets your child. At Jackson Hole, Wyo., while I filled out forms, an instructor dropped to Emma's eye level, reached for her hand, and asked: "Can you ride the lift? Can you stop?" Emma immediately relaxed and loosened her grip on my leg. Small details count: Labeling your child's apparel and skis at check-in, making sure ski boots are on the right feet, and requiring kids to visit the bathroom before going outside can save big headaches later. Another key: well-timed hot chocolate breaks, when energy flags or before noses turn white.
On the slopes, "safety comes first, then fun and learning," says Sean Graves, director of the Young Olympians program at Ascutney, Vt. "One mishap can ruin the day." And plenty can go wrong. Ski-school staff at Vermont's Smugglers' Notch carry yellow wallet cards detailing 42 potential pitfalls, including frostbite, ill-fitting equipment, and muscle fatigue.
IMAGINARY SNOW MONSTERS
Ultimately, whether choosing a program at Aspen, Colo., or on a local molehill, experienced teachers are most important. It helps if they have Accredited Children's Educator (ACE) certification from the Professional Ski Instructors of America. "The art of teaching kids is thinking like them," Graves tells his Young Olympian staff. In part, that means understanding children's limitations. "You can't tell them to put more weight on their left leg when they don't know their left from their right," says Peter Ingvoldstad, longtime program director at Smugglers' Notch.
To make themselves understood, instructors draw on a repertoire of fantasy games to develop skiing skills. Emma's classes have stomped on imaginary snow monsters, jumped like bunnies, and learned to follow like choo-choo trains. At Targhee, Mike Dronen, a retired Air Force base commander, thinks of his teaching as guided discovery. "We sing Mary Had a Little Lamb, and they turn to the beat of the song," he says. "If we change the cadence, we can alter the rhythm of their turns."
Varied, child-friendly terrain and lifts speed learning too. Targhee's Eye Ball Forest is part of a network of Fun Zone trails dubbed the Bat Cave, Humpback Whale Forest, Giant Ant Hills, and Big Horn Rollers. They left Emma captivated and learning while having fun. "What happens when she is in there playing?" Hanson asks. "The fun trails challenge her balance and turning skills. As we explore terrain, new light bulbs come on, and she gets hooked."
Most schools provide written daily report cards. But don't take them too seriously, Hanson reminds parents. "We're playing in the snow. It's not a job," he says. "A reliable measure of progress is learning whether your children did something they weren't sure they could do before." I look for something more basic. When picking up Emma at the end of the day, I simply want to see her smiling and happy. By Todd Shapera