All The Best Schools

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By the time his first ski lesson finally arrived, Tucker was pumped as only a 4-year-old could be. He'd been stomping around his living room in skis and boots for months, watching ski videos instead of truck videos, awaiting the arrival of snow more eagerly than even that of Santa Claus. When the day of reckoning arrived, Tucker was prepared: sunglasses, sunscreen, goggles and plenty of warm layers. And as he headed off with his oh-so-cool instructor, Cal, he barely looked back.

So imagine his parents' surprise when they went to spy on his progress and found their little man huddled at the base of the slope, sobbing. All the preparation, it turned out, had overlooked one important point: mom and dad would be gone, off skiing by themselves. Tucker was scared to death—certain his parents were never, ever returning.

As simple as it would have been to pre-empt this problem (a little warning in advance would have prepared Tucker for the situation), scenarios just like it happen every day at ski schools. The best ones employ trained instructors who create a comfortable, fun environment where children can overcome such fears. But how can you be sure your child will have a positive experience? Learn to read the signs. With a practiced eye, you can spot a good program by its facilities, instructors and philosophy.

First impressions tell a lot. The best facilities cater to family needs with easy one-stop shopping. They're clean, bright and visually appealing, with hassle-free service and systems. Such resorts obviously appreciate how cumbersome it can be to ski with kids, and they have invested energy and money in making that challenge easier.

At the Vail/Beaver Creek Ski and Snowboard School, one of the best in the nation, there's a families-only facility with rentals, lesson sign-ups, cafeteria, play rooms, bathrooms, arts-and-crafts supplies and enough visible staff to make children feel welcome and parents secure. It's a great base for the day, alleviating the drudgery of shuffling equipment and tired children.

Good resorts think of everything for families, says John Alderson, supervisor of the Vail/Beaver Creek ski school program, author and 25-year ski instructor. "If you arrive for a ski lesson and find you're missing a piece of clothing, the best programs will have a quick solution—some extra clothing you can borrow, for example—instead of sending you to the ski shop at the other lodge way down the road."

Most resorts offer a variety of lesson alternatives: full-day, all-inclusive programs; half-day group lessons; half- or full-day privates; even week-long adventure camps. Full-day programs include alternative activities (crafts, face-painting, quiet time, etc.). At Smugglers' Notch, Vt. (perennial gold-medal winner in SKI's Reader Resort Survey), a science program teaches kids about weather, snowmaking and resort technology. But most junior programs are instruction-focused and require adequate attention spans and physical stamina. Before your child's first lesson, assess his skill and attention level. If your younger boy, for instance, has difficulty "sticking with the program," consider a half-day or 90-minute lesson.

Rates vary widely. An all-inclusive full-day program (ticket, rentals, lunch, etc.) for a 4- to 6-year-old can cost as much as $100 at a premier resort or as little as $55 at a small day area. A 90-minute lesson for a 6- to 12-year-old might cost as little as $30, while a two-day snowboard camp for your adventurous teen could cost as much as $240. Multi-day discounts often apply.

Group or private lesson? Children get more personalized attention in one-on-one situations. That's great if your child has trouble interacting in big groups, but many children thrive among their peers, developing friendships and learning faster by watching their new friends tackle the same hurdles.

Family clinics, like those at Northstar-at-Tahoe, Calif., or Mount Snow, Vt., are a happy medium for children who are readfor instruction but not quite ready to leave mom and dad. Children receive instruction, while parents learn teaching techniques that they can employ between lessons.

As for the instructors, teaching children is unfortunately still a job assigned to the ski school rookies at some resorts. But that is less-often the case. Most instructors are now certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America with a Level I, II or III certification, and many have training in childhood education. The industry's top-flight schools are largely composed of Level III instructors. The vast majority of instructors are at least Level II. At one of the country's best programs, Woollywood School at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., instructors get extensive child-development training. Mammoth and Snowbird, Utah, are both working on accreditation programs to enhance training of children's instructors.

"We feel that teaching children is just as important, if not more important, than teaching adults, and the amount of training we put into our instructors reflects that," says Mark Spieler, staff trainer at Mammoth, where 60 percent of the estimated 100,000 lessons given each season are for children. "The industry has raised the level and quality of instruction available to children."

Thanks to such training, the best ski schools are equipped to handle a wide range of physical and behavioral challenges. With that in mind, be sure to tell your child's "story" to her instructor. If she needs to be with her best friend, has attention-deficit disorder or difficulties following directions, the instructor should know, says Bill Batt, children's ski school supervisor at Snowbird. "It's very important that the parents are part of the learning partnership. The more the instructor knows how to help him or her have a good day, the more successful everyone will be."

Making sure your child is placed at the right skill level is also critical. Registration forms typically inquire about ability—whether your child can stop, turn, put on and take off skis, get up from a fall, etc. Instructors use that information to do initial "splits" in ability level, but additional on-mountain analysis provides the best assessment of skills and comfort level. Be leery of ski schools that mash together different levels to fill classes on slow days. Good schools establish skill levels and stick with them, even if there is only one child in a class. A reputable program will also take the time to move a child into the appropriate group if he or she is initially placed in a level above or below his or her skill level.

Ask about the instructor-to-student ratio. For 3- to 6-year-olds, expect 4- or 5-to-1. For older children, the "eight is enough" rule applies. The ratios are likely to be higher during holiday and school-vacation weeks.

Find out about the terrain and equipment used. The gentle new conveyer lifts (aka Magic Carpets) get beginners up the hill with a minimum of effort. There should be a nearby building with bathrooms, snacks and cocoa for those who tire easily. Are there theme-oriented activities to hold your child's attention? The best week-long programs are broken up with race days, scavenger hunts, game days and other fun activities.

Finally, watch a lesson before signing your child up for one. This can ease a child's fears while at the same time giving parents a feel for the quality of instruction. Do instructors use appropriate developmental language? Do they create an atmosphere of fun (good) or of competition (bad)? Is the group in control or randomly scattered across the learning slope?

At the close of a lesson the instructor should provide parents with progress reports. The best have the time to identify techniques (or games or songs or images or just phrases) that parents can use between lessons. Note whether the kids are laughing and having a good time. Instructors agree the most critical component is fun. The best create a light-hearted, creative atmosphere that gets children hooked. "If your child comes home excited about skiing and bugging you to go back, that's what I wanted," says Vail/Beaver Creek's Alderson.

But if your child is anxious about going back or refuses lessons all together, don't push. Maybe daycare is a good alternative for one more year, says Batt. "Listen to your child. Don't put him into a class just because you and your spouse want to get some runs in. It may mean a few more years before you can go skiing all day, but it will be worth it. Because when you finally go, it will mean everyone is having fun."

BEST BETS
A ski school is only as good as the instructor on duty that day, but here are 15 resorts that experts and SKI readers agree are among the best in the country for families:

Aspen/Snowmass, Colo.

Breckenridge, Colo.

Deer Valley, Utah

Keystone, Colo.

Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

Mt. Tremblant, Que.

Northstar-at-Tahoe, Calif.

Okemo, Vt.

Smugglers' Notch, Vt.

Steamboat, Colo.

Stowe, Vt.

Sun Valley, Idaho

Telluride, Colo.

Vail/Beaver Creek, Colo.

Waterville Valley, N.H.
For more tips and advice on skiing with your family, go to skimag.com. Visit the forum to share your family's ski-school experiences with other readers.STARTING AT HOME

Teach your child to walk sideways.

Get your child to practice turning his or her legs inward, as in a snowplow.

Practice hopping in the air (i.e., unweighting both skis) and landing with toes pointed in.

Practice walking around (on a carpet or grass) with skis and boots on.

Go skating: in-line, roller or ice. It teaches balance while moving.
PREPPING FOR SUCCESS

If it's the first day at altitude or children are tired from traveling, consider waiting a day to acclimate.

Provide sunscreen, goggles, sunglasses, neck gaiters, hats and mittens (preferable to gloves), plus extra clothing in a well-marked pack.

Dry equipment thoroughly at the end of each day, especially boot liners and mittens.

Make sure children get enough fluids, especially at altitude.

Arrive early for the lesson. If you have time to befriend an instructor, he or she might help you find the perfect student/teacher match for your child. Remember, tipping is appropriate, and appreciated by instructors caring for your child.phere that gets children hooked. "If your child comes home excited about skiing and bugging you to go back, that's what I wanted," says Vail/Beaver Creek's Alderson.But if your child is anxious about going back or refuses lessons all together, don't push. Maybe daycare is a good alternative for one more year, says Batt. "Listen to your child. Don't put him into a class just because you and your spouse want to get some runs in. It may mean a few more years before you can go skiing all day, but it will be worth it. Because when you finally go, it will mean everyone is having fun."BEST BETS
A ski school is only as good as the instructor on duty that day, but here are 15 resorts that experts and SKI readers agree are among the best in the country for families:

Aspen/Snowmass, Colo.

Breckenridge, Colo.

Deer Valley, Utah

Keystone, Colo.

Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

Mt. Tremblant, Que.

Northstar-at-Tahoe, Calif.

Okemo, Vt.

Smugglers' Notch, Vt.

Steamboat, Colo.

Stowe, Vt.

Sun Valley, Idaho

Telluride, Colo.

Vail/Beaver Creek, Colo.

Waterville Valley, N.H.
For more tips and advice on skiing with your family, go to skimag.com. Visit the forum to share your family's ski-school experiences with other readers.STARTING AT HOME

Teach your child to walk sideways.

Get your child to practice turning his or her legs inward, as in a snowplow.

Practice hopping in the air (i.e., unweighting both skis) and landing with toes pointed in.

Practice walking around (on a carpet or grass) with skis and boots on.

Go skating: in-line, roller or ice. It teaches balance while moving.
PREPPING FOR SUCCESS

If it's the first day at altitude or children are tired from traveling, consider waiting a day to acclimate.

Provide sunscreen, goggles, sunglasses, neck gaiters, hats and mittens (preferable to gloves), plus extra clothing in a well-marked pack.

Dry equipment thoroughly at the end of each day, especially boot liners and mittens.

Make sure children get enough fluids, especially at altitude.

Arrive early for the lesson. If you have time to befriend an instructor, he or she might help you find the perfect student/teacher match for your child. Remember, tipping is appropriate, and appreciated by instructors caring for your child.

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