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Q: We’ve taken a few years off of skiing after having our first child, who will be turning 3 years old this fall. We’re ready to introduce her to the slopes. How do we evaluate ski schools, and do you have any suggestions on great family destinations we should consider? —Emily P., Austin, Tex.
As someone who raised three kids on skis—two of whom are now probably better technical skiers than I am—I have been asked this question many times. Though my kids are older now and don’t go to ski school anymore, the qualities that parents look for when choosing a good ski school for their learners don’t change.
Below, I run through the factors that you should consider, as well as include specific destinations with amazing ski school programs for your youngest sliders.
But first, please consider if your child is ready to learn to ski. Just because you’re keen to strap skis on your toddlers or preschoolers doesn’t mean your kiddo is on the same page. Since child development isn’t my speciality, I won’t delve too deeply into this topic here, but the quick hits include:
- Shows an interest in skiing
- Has good coordination and balance
- Is toilet-trained (a must for ski school)
- Can follow directions and get along in a group setting
PSIA National Alpine Team Member and Heavenly, Calif. ski instructor Heidi Ettinger runs through some more things to think about here.
Take it from me: I put my firstborn on skis before he was ready. It was the February before he turned 3 years old, and I had an assignment at Ski Cooper outside of Leadville, Colorado. The day he was supposed to ski was terribly cold and windy—it was a day most adults would have sat out. But I was (stupidly) determined to get him out there. I bundled him up and clicked him into his tiny skis on the bunny slope just outside the lodge … where he proceeded to scream until he was red in the face and I relented and brought him inside.
I tried again the same time the following season at Snowmass, when he was just shy of 4, with much better success. Now 15, he just made his first turns in the backcountry this past winter.
Know your audience, folks. And heed the weather. Lesson learned.
On That Topic: Three Tools to Help Young Skiers Learn
As for physical readiness, the age of 5 gets bandied about in the ski industry as a baseline for when kids’ legs are strong enough to successfully maintain a wedge. My opinion, however, is that it depends entirely on the child.
My youngest son was 2.5 when I put him on skis, on a sunny and warm day at Loveland Valley. There were many cocoa breaks in the lodge and probably a half-pound of M&Ms involved, but he was making wedge turns by his 3rd birthday. (Mind you, he had two older brothers already skiing who he wanted to chase after, which was certainly a motivating factor.)
Bottom line: You know your kiddo best. Here are some questions to ask when choosing a ski school program.
Be Prepared: Best Ski Gear For Kids
What to Consider When Choosing a Ski School Program
Do the Instructors Have Experience Working with Young Kids?
Teaching adults and toddlers are two two vastly different experiences. You can be the best instructor on the hill, but teaching young kids is just as much cat-herding, potty-breaks, and nose wiping as it is ski instructing. It’s not for everyone. All instructors have to be certified to teach skiing, but most don’t require any additional experience to teach the youngest kids. Some, though, like Sun Valley, employ youth instructors trained in child-centered learning, which is huge plus.
Bigger groups of 7 or 8 kids are fine once your little rippers are grade-school-age, but toddler and preschool groups should not exceed four, ideally. It’s a full-time job to keep four wee ones together and moving in the same direction, so for safety reasons, shy away from ski schools arranging groups bigger than that.
Do They Keep Groups Together For More Than One Day?
Since you’re planning a destination trip as opposed to a day trip, I’m guessing you’re planning to put your little one in ski school over the course of a few days. When signing them up, be sure to ask if your skier will have the same instructor and group (mostly) for the duration. It’s a huge benefit to not have to get your child acquainted with new instructors and buddies every day, especially if he or she is the quieter type. Of course, this isn’t always possible due to the instructors’ schedules and different kids coming and going, but it’s nice when they try.
What Does the Day Look Like?
Ask about the program itself. The best ski schools for the youngest learners offer a mix of on-slope learning and indoor playtime. Also inquire about how long the group spends on the slopes between breaks. You know your child best and how well they’ll handle prolonged activity.
Can Parents Observe From a Distance?
The best part about putting your kid in ski school is that you get to go skiing, so I’m not advocating for this, but the best programs should be totally comfortable with you popping over to see how things are going. Do stay out of sight—seeing you might upset your kiddo or make them think the day is over prematurely—but knowing that the program is transparent and welcomes a little parental oversight when it comes to the little ones’ learning is also a comfort.
What Security Measures are Taken Throughout the Day and at Check-Out?
More and more ski schools have started using GPS bands to track kids as they head out with their groups all over the mountain, and I’m personally a big fan of this, especially for the youngest kids. It’s added security for worried parents, and you’ll know that the ski school can always track your child down in case of emergency or if you need to pick them up early.
Regarding check-out, every good ski school program has a tried-and-true process in place to release the youngest sliders to their parents or guardians at the end of the day. Like a quality daycare, you don’t just let a toddler go off with whoever comes to retrieve them. We’ve been in programs where we were given matching bracelets to present at the end of the day or we’ve had to show ID. Whatever it is, just make sure there’s a plan in place.
Also Read: The Most Family-Friendly Resorts in the East
What Solutions Are There If Your Child Isn’t Catching On or Enjoying It?
Toddlers and preschoolers are an unpredictable lot. Your kiddo may have shown all the signs that she was ready, only to refuse to boot up on the first day of ski school. It happens. Don’t agree to fork over several hundred dollars until you know what the program’s plan is in this situation. When my niece was about 4, my brother and sister-in-law, visiting from New Jersey, signed her up for several days in a well-regarded ski school program in Colorado’s Front Range. She ended up wanting to play inside and barely even clicked into her skis. The program refunded them the money, and they tried again the following season with much better success.
What is the Goal of the Program?
You might think that “learn to ski” is the correct answer. It’s absolutely not. If that’s your goal as a parent, then private lessons will be a better route for you and your learner. In a ski school program, the two words you’re looking to hear when you ask this question are “safety” and “fun,” in that order. In ski school for 3-5 year olds, learning to ski is a pleasant side effect, but what you’re really after is a good experience in a safe and fun setting that makes your little slider want to come back for more. Your child has many years to perfect their carve and pole plant, but if their first experiences are less than stellar, it’ll be an uphill battle.
5 Best Ski School Programs for Toddlers and Preschoolers in North America
Let me preface this list by saying that all of the resorts modified their ski school offerings last season due to the pandemic, either moving to private lessons or doing away with programs for toddlers and preschoolers altogether. As of now, the resorts can’t say what these lessons will look like for the 2021-’22 season, so I can’t offer up those details right now. The resorts below, however, were chosen based on personal experience and industry reputation.
Okemo Ski and Snowboard School, Vt.
Okemo’s Snow Stars Center at the Jackson Gore base area serves kids 2-7 with a variety of lesson options, from 1-on-1 instruction for an hour to small groups for full-day exploration.
Beaver Creek Ski & Snowboard School, Colo.
Ski school for the littles operates out of the Beaver Creek Children’s Center, slopeside at the main village. There’s a 1-on-1 option for 3- and 4-year-olds, then small groups (1:4 ratio) for 5- and 6-year-olds.
Deer Valley Ski School, Utah
Deer Valley offers private lessons as well as small groups of two for the 3- and 4-year-old set. In addition to time on the slopes, the kids spend time in the Children’s Center enjoying story time, art projects, and snacks.
Treehouse Kids Adventure Center, Snowmass, Colo.
Snowmass’s Treehouse Kids Adventure Center is a dream for the youngest skiers, with children’s-museum-style play areas and climbing structures. Programs include half- and full-day group lessons.
Sun Valley SnowSports School, Idaho
Sun Valley debuted the Alpine Aupair program last season, which paired 3- to 5-year-old from the same family with specially trained instructors for a half day at Dollar Mountain, the resort’s learning hill.