A guest post by Verbier-based independent ski instructor Sandy M.
How old should children be when they start skiing?
A question I get asked a lot as a ski instructor is at what age would I recommend putting children on skis for the first time. Unfortunately there is no simple answer, but there are a few good guidelines.
The main issue is that they need to be strong enough, so I would say that being able to walk up and down stairs unaided is a basic minimum. Beyond that it also comes down to what you want them to gain from the experience.
The truth is that very few children who ski for 1 week in the season when they are 2 or 3 years old will remember anything by the next winter. This is not to say that they should not start at that age, but you need to be realistic about how much they will do, or how far they will progress. Certainly at this age I would say that a 2 hour lesson, including a break, is more than enough.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to ski a lot more in the season there is the potential to progress a lot further, but for this blog the focus is more on children who ski for a week or two each winter.
Depending upon the child the point at which things start to click a bit more normally comes around the age of 5. At this stage they start to gain the strength to do more, but also they start to retain more of the skills that they have learnt from year to year.
What’s the best way to teach children to ski?
For all children it is very important not to assume that they will start the new season at the same level as they finished the last one. Since your last ski trip they will have grown, and the impact of this upon their balance can be very dramatic. In fact it can seem like children who were very good skiers the previous year turn into Bambi on ice due to a sudden period of growth.
It is well worth taking the time to start slowly at the beginning of your ski holiday. I also like to do some exercises and tasks that challenge and test the child’s balance, just so that I can get an idea of how their balance and coordination are.
This also helps me to understand their skills as skiers: for example they may be very comfortable going fast, but it may be that without the speed they are not as balanced as they should be. Knowing this kind of information can help me plan what we should be working on, but also where on the mountain I can take them. Certainly if they struggle to ski slowly I would want to stay on fairly easy terrain to practice this, and maybe avoid crowds as well.
With one very significant exception a general rule to help children to get the most out of their skiing, regardless of what stage of development that they are at, is to keep the emphasis more on learning through fun and play than you would with (most) adults.
Technical conversations have their place, but for most children it will be more productive to play some games, or do some challenges that can help them feel the changes that you are trying to help them make.
An example could be that rather than doing a technical exercise with an explanation you just get them to ski like different animals, the result might be the same, but the level of fun and engagement, and the ease of understanding will probably make the second option more productive.
As with so much this will depend upon the individual, but I find that making things competitive can help, but instead of making it competitive within the group (as this can cause upsets and arguments) I like to make it competitive between the group and myself.
This means that everybody benefits from helping each other, and they all benefit from everybody making the effort to learn. This competitive dynamic can also help the atmosphere within the group, as everybody is suddenly working towards the same common goal.
Another reason for limiting the amount of talking and technical explanations in children’s lessons is that we can maximise the time that we are actually skiing. Something that is very helpful for children as they learn to ski is just getting a lot of distance under their skis.
Skiing can involve lots of fun tasks and challenges, but it is good to mix it up as much as possible, so lots of different sizes and shapes of turns, lots of different speeds, and lots of different and varied terrain can all help the skier to become as skilled and balanced as possible. Making sure that it is all varied is also important for making sure that it stays fun and interesting (though I do know some children who would be very happy to just lap the jump park and the skier cross all day).
Something else that I adapt for when I am skiing with children instead of adults is the line that I ski, and especially the shape of the turns. This is largely because the difference in weight, and ski length make it quite hard for children to follow adult ski tracks, while maintaining a good shape of turn. I find that a combination of extending the turn, and making sure that I skid and drift throughout the arc can help any children following me to keep a good line, so that they have flowing, rounded, consistent turns. This is a really useful thing to work on at a fairly early stage in their skiing, as it can have a big impact on their progression as skiers.
Keeping children safe on the slopes
I mentioned that there is a significant exception to the idea of learning through fun and play, and that is when you are skiing in situations where the focus has to be entirely on safety.
Obviously safety is the biggest priority regardless of what we are doing, but in some situations there does not need to be such an active focus on safety because the situation itself presents less dangers. In those situations that have more potential to be dangerous you need to be in complete control of what is going on, so the play stops and you make sure that the focus is on skiing safely.
I also think that explaining why you are skiing differently in these situations is very important, so that the children can start to gain a better awareness of mountain safety.
A very obvious example in Verbier of a situation where the main focus has to be on safety would be skiing down the Combe / M25 piste, or the home run down to Medran, when they are crowded.
In these situations it is far better to stop the games, and just focus on skiing slowly and safely. I would go as far as to say that in these situations I make sure that everybody follows my line so that I can keep things as safe as possible. Something as innocuous as skiing on the wrong side of the piste, or doing an innocent jump on the side of the home run, can compromise safety when it is crowded.
Whether you are a parent or a ski instructor, teaching children to ski can be a very rewarding experience, as well as being a lot of fun. Being able to share and encourage their enthusiasm and joy is fantastic. Obviously the primary focus has to be on always keeping things safe, but beyond that it is a great chance to have fun, and be as creative and playful as you can be on your skis, even if it means looking a little bit silly every now and then.