Child On Board

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It was just the way I'd dreamed it one pregnant night more than a decade earlier. I was about to share a perfect day on snow with my daughter. She looked just like I'd dreamed her: blond and beautiful and in love with the snow. And everything felt just like I'd dreamed it: searing blue sky and crisp, just-snowed air.

But then I heard it: "SCRRRCHHH!" The jarring sound of a skidding snowboard snapped me back to reality. Yes, we were out there on the mountain together, all right; but my daughter was doing it all wrong. On a snowboard. Nowhere in that long-ago dream had a snowboard come into play. My dream of connecting with my daughter on snow died the day she traded two boards for one. Or did it?

I'm not the only skiing parent who has had to abandon their dream when a child discovered shredding. Many of us have looked toward the day when we would share it all: the fall lines, the equipment, the jargon and lifestyle. Then boarding came between our kids and us. They showed up at the slopes dressed differently; they worked the mountain differently; they were attracted to different terrain (and those strange new terrain parks); and they even talked differently-gibberish to us. Into a world I thought I knew-the mountains in winter-came all kinds of stuff I didn't know and questions to which I had no answers. What age is best to start? How do kids develop in this sport? What equipment is appropriate? Is it safe?

I had a lot to learn. But there's good news out there for skiing parents of snowboarders: Ski schools understand our plight. Now, more than just teaching children to ride, the best schools are giving parents primers on this new generation of snow sport. With a little homework and an open mind, parents can still connect with their boarding kids-for the most part, anyway. It's not about abandoning dreams, it seems; just adjusting them.

A lot of parents are pretty much clueless when they first bring a kid to a boarding lesson," acknowledges Steamboat snowboarding instructor Katie Smith. "You have to remember that for most parents, snowboarding wasn't even around when they were growing up. But we try to get them up to speed right from the start."

At Steamboat, that start comes in the rental shop, where technicians not only fit children to the right gear, but also talk parents through what exactly the gear is. And at the end of the day, instructors make it a point to review for parents everything the children learned that day, Smith says, helping parents understand the basics of the sport their child is taking on.

How old is old enough to snowboard? It's different from skiing, the pros say. While most ski schools cater to children as young as 3 years old, most boarding schools don't want to see your child until much later.

"Optimally, they should be at least 7," says Trisha Burt, head children's instructor and staff trainer at Stratton Mountain, Vt., one of the most respected boarding schools in the nation. "They physiologically are not ready for boarding before then."

The reason: Muscle development and coordination. A child on skis has two platforms on which to balance, so leg-muscle development is not as important. (If one platform fails, the other is there for backup). On a board, a child must use both legs to balance firmly on a single edge, which requires more advanced coordination. Burt suggests asking children to rub their bellies and pat their heads at the same time. If they cannot master that (and most young children cannot), then they're not ready for boarding.

Both Burt and Smith suggest starting children out on skis. "A good three years of skiing before boarding is wonderful," Burt says. This gets them initiated to the mountain and helps them master the universal skills of riding the lift, going downhill fast and gliding on a stable edge-all good precursors to boarding.

Once children are old enough to board, it's time for a parent to learn about the equipment. A conventional freestyle binding, forr instance, has ratcheted straps and a high back that lends support. A step-in binding is easier to use, but has no back and elevates the rider a bit higher. At the Steamboat rental shop, about 80 percent of boarders choose step-ins.

Children should all wear helmets, of course (they're even more important in snowboarding because of hard backward falls), and many parents opt for additional protection, such as wrist guards and padding. The best thing about snowboarding is the boots, which are much easier for children to maneuver in and far simpler to slipinto and out of. Children feel far less awkward in them than they do in clunky ski boots.

Once geared up, the child puts one boot into a binding and learns to walk and glide on the board. Burt's school does a version of the hokey pokey with the young boarders-they learn to put the board on, take it off and move around on the snow. Once children have mastered maneuvering on snow with one boot fastened down, it's time to strap both feet in and learn to turn.

The first and easiest turn for children to learn is the heel-side traverse, when the board is pointed across the hill with the rider facing downhill. The child learns to relax and lift the toes to let the board slide across the hill. Apply a little light pressure to the heel edge and voila: The board is turning. Doing this over and over is called "the falling leaf" or "garlanding" and produces a sort of zig-zag pattern down the slope. The toe-side turn comes later, and demands strong and developed calf muscles to stand on the balls of the feet for the turn. Often, Burt says, a child who is too young flops into the front of the boot and falls into the hill.

Once children can do both heel- and toe-side turns, they can begin to "link" turns. Some parents don't understand why their child cannot do that right away. "We don't force a child to parallel ski right away," says Burt, "so why would we force them to link turns on a board?"

What can a parent do to encourage and "coach" their child when on the slopes with them? Burt and Smith offer a couple of key phrases they use with kids. "Be a giant!" reminds children to stand tall, driving home the concept of proper stance. "Zig-zag!" urges them to turn a lot on the hill.

Don't, Smith says, expect your child to "look perfect" while boarding. It's a learning process that has more to do with a feel than a look. "We promote the feeling of boarding as opposed to the look," Burt says. "If it feels right, it is right." That's something non-boarding parents are just going to have to accept at face value, she says.

After our first day together, I settled on the "if you can't beat them, join them" approach. I signed up for a boarding lesson and headed out to be one with my little girl. I fell in ways I'd never dreamed of in all my 37 years on snow. I fell off the lift. I fell forward and ate snow. I fell backward, slamming onto my backside with a force that may have shaken Denver. In the early afternoon, as I lay in yetanother snowy heap, I had a revelation: The thing I loved about skiing with my parents was the freedom it gave me. True, I was sharing the mountain with them, and we had some of our most wonderful moments there, but it was also a place where I was my own person. I was a freestyle skier, always heading off to the bumps and jumps. My mom was content to ski her own trails and bond with me over base-lodge chili. And I love her for that.

So I'll talk to the instructors and bone up on my halfpipe lingo. My daughter can board, I can ski, and we can still worship great mountains together. After all, even opposing fall lines eventually meet at the bottom. I'll give her the space she needs to board. But please, please let her ski with me once a week. That would just be so phat.