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Ray Grass: When should kids start skiing/snowboarding?

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 18 2014 7:35 a.m. MST

At what age should parents consider putting their children on the ski/snowboard slopes? And when?

There are no firm answers. A lot of factors come into play with opportunity being one. And, parents who ski and/or snowboard are more likely to start their children at a younger age. It also depends on the child and the weather. February and March tend to be warmer and more comfortable for young students.

So, should it be at age 3, when they are learning to kick a ball? Or 6, when children starts learning right from left, tie their shoes and catch a ball? Fifteen, when some start working and earn money for ski and snowboard passes?

Age 3, consensus seems to be, is a good start for kids and skiing. That’s when many ski schools begin offering lessons. As for snowboarding, studies have shown that kids younger than 5 have trouble getting the mechanics of standing sideways on a board and recommend starting at age 7.

There is a program called a Riglet Park introduced by Burton to teach kids 3 to 6 to snowboarding.

“It’s a flat area with little features. Instructors put a leash on the snowboard and pull the student in an enclosed area with bumps and very simple obstacles to introduce them to snowboarding,’’ says Maggie Loring, director of the Snowbird Ski/Snowboard School.

One of the main hurdles children face in learning to ski or snowboard is parents who are in a rush to get their child on difficult black diamond slopes. Often these actions result in a skiing/snowboarding experience that turns into tears.

John Guay, director of ski services at Deer Valley, said it’s better to keep youngsters on gentle runs and focus on the narrowing the wedge into a parallel and teaching control, turning and stopping.

“One of our biggest challenges is communicating with parents as to why we keep children on easier terrain and to encourage them to turn more with their feet and less with their body,’’ he adds.

Because of their physical design, young children tend to turn from the head down and the last to move are the feet. Getting them to turn either on skis or a snowboard requires training in learning how children think, talk and respond.

“That’s why it’s so important to get into the child’s world and understand what they understand. You develop a teaching technique that is effective and allows them to progress. Their goal is to become independent. Our goal is to make them independent,’’ says Patti Olsen, ski instructor and trainer at Deer Valley.

In order to teach young children instructors have to reach deep into how a child views of the world, in the way they talk, movies they watch and words they best understand.

Few children, for example, understand terms like wedge, parallel and weighting. A wedge to young children looks like a piece of pizza; skis that are side-by-side in a parallel look like two french fries; and weighting a ski in order to turn is easier to understand if the instructor tells the student to squash a spider under one foot.

So, in skiing, instructors stress “pizza pie,’’ “french fries,’’ and introduce a wide range of games like “Red Light, Green Light,’’ and “Simon Says’’ and “Follow the Leader’’ to make learning fun, understandable and instructional.

The secret to a successful skiing or snowboarding experience is “fun.’‘ It must always be fun for the student.

As for how to teach young children to ski or snowboard, here again consensus is, start with a professional instructor.

Parents may know how to ski or snowboard, but relaying those skills in a language and a way children understand can be very difficult, which results in slow progress, bad habits and bad experiences. And, children have a tendency to “tune out’’ parents.

The Professional Ski Instructors of America-American Association of Snowboard Instructors have been working for more than three decades, says Olsen, to better understand how best to teach children.

“Children learn best through play. The challenge instructors face is to make a lesson fun while teaching skills like balance, edging, rotation and pressure," she said. "Put everything in a game-like situation and they will respond.

“Instructors learn the different games and activities and are able to incorporate the necessary skills. We’re constantly attending more clinics to get more ideas, to be more creative in our thinking.’’

The PSIA-AASI, in fact, has introduced a special instructional level called “Child Specialist,’’ that requires special training in child development, teaching steps for children and communication skills.

At Deer Valley, for example, most of the instructors have gone through the specialist schooling.

One thing they learn is children age 3 have an attention span of about one hour. So instructor work one-on-one with the student for an hour on the ski slopes, then move indoors for hot chocolate, games and naps. At age 4, two students work with an instructor for half a day. Between ages 5 and 6 class size increases to four for half a day, and at age 7 and above class size and slope time increases.

Loring recommends parents look into multiple-day programs, “which are very reasonable and more beneficial.’’

All 14 resorts in Utah offer introductory programs for children. For details contact the resort of choice. For contact information visit www.skiutah.com.

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