How to Teach Your Kids to Ski

Photo by FamVeld/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by FamVeld/iStock / Getty Images

For many mountain-loving parents, sharing the sport of skiing with our children is an event we eagerly anticipate. But sometimes the reality of taking young kids skiing can be just as intimidating as it is exciting. After all, how do you make sure that skiing is a positive experience when—let’s face it—temperatures are cold, tiny mittens are hard to keep track of, and there are lots of layers between that kid and a toilet?

Whether you’re a seasoned skier or a new one, your child is a toddler or a tween, there is one (yes, ONE) basic principle that every adult needs to keep in mind to ensure everyone (including you!) has a great day on the hill:

UNIVERSAL RULE OF THUMB: KEEP IT FUN. First and foremost, skiing should be fun. The attitude should be light, and the focus centered around having a positive experience rather than outputs like number of runs. Ditch your expectations, summon some patience, and remind yourself that this experience is about them, not you. If that means calling it after two runs because your toddler is cold or nearing a meltdown, so be it. If that means letting your five year-old find jumps in the trees instead of working on “french fry” turns, that’s okay. Of course, as parents, we need to strike the balance of providing freedom within limits, but just remember that the goal is for your child to want to come back another day.

If you only stick to the rule of thumb, then rest assured, you’ve done the important part. We as parents have enough expectations these days, and chances are you already do a lot of awesome things with and for your child. If you aren’t a pro children’s ski instructor, then please cut yourself a break, do your best, and just prioritize keeping it fun.

That being said, if you are looking for more age-specific guidance for your young skier, then get comfortable. Here’s your game plan:

TEACHING TODDLERS (or young first-time skiers)

  1. Getting Ready. Before you even consider bringing your toddler out skiing, give her plenty of chances to walk in ski boots around the house first. They’ll be clunky and awkward initially, so it’s best to let your toddler figure them out in a controlled environment rather than a crowded lodge or slippery slope. Also let your new skier test out her entire outfit from head to toe—helmet and goggles included—before you actually head to the mountain. The more familiar your kid is with her ski gear, the less likely she’ll throw a parking lot tantrum at the sight of her goggles. Finally, it seems like a no brainer, but it is important to note that your child should be a proficient walker and coordinated climber before you take her skiing. Getting a baby out on skis might make a fun photo op, but it isn’t really accomplishing anything in terms of her development as a skier.

  2. Mind the Timing. It might seem obvious, but be mindful about how you time your ski outings. Your kid should be both rested and energized. If a child is tired or have low blood sugar, they simply won’t have the energy to try something new and challenging like skiing. Avoid noodle legs and short patience by picking a time of day when your child is most energetic, and be sure they’re well-fed before you head out, too.

  3. Minimize Distractions. When your toddler is first learning how to ski, do your best to select a day that minimizes distractions. Avoid bringing a beginner skier onto the hill for the first time during a blizzard, or in bitterly cold temperatures, and it’s best to avoid crowded days like weekends or holidays whenever possible. If the weather is good, the snow is buff, and there aren’t a million people, it’s more likely that your tyke will think skiing is awesome.

  4. Hill Selection. No need to buy a ticket on your toddler’s very first day. Find a gentle slope, push or carry your toddler up, send him down, catch him at the bottom, and go from there. If you have access, magic carpets are a great progression as your little one gets more comfortable on skis. Only when your skier can control his speed, should you then move on to steeper slopes.

  5. Use Bribery...I Mean, Incentives. When it comes to skiing, there’s nothing wrong with using small treats to help keep your kiddo motivated and interested. Hot chocolate breaks are a must, and a pocketful of gummy bears or M&M’s can go a long way. You can use them to entice your child to turn back-and-forth across the hill, or simply to share a treat on the chairlift. It goes back to the rule of thumb—if your kid is enjoying herself, she’ll be more focused and, well…compliant, which is a win in my book.

  6. Teaching Aids. There are a wide number of teaching aids on the market, from Edgie Wedgies, to harnesses and hoola hoops. Everyone seems to have their own preference, so I encourage you to try what works best for you and your kid. That being said, while harnesses are popular with a lot of parents, I’ll admit that am not a big fan. Kids not only tend to sit back in a harness, so you’re essentially holding them up, but kids can also become dependent on their “puppeteer” (you) to control their speed—both bad habits that are best to avoid. It’s much better, in my opinion, to build good skills from the beginning, even if it means more work on your part. Once your child is comfortable sliding down gentle slopes, try teaching your child how to turn by simply skiing beside him holding out your ski pole horizontally for him to grab onto. Using your pole as a guide often provides enough support and direction for a young child to learn how to turn, plus he learns how to stand up, balance, and maneuver on his own rather than being dependent on a prop.

TEACHING AGES 3+ (or after demonstrating speed control)

  1. Progression. Once your little skier can control her speed (i.e. ski in a wedge and come to a stop), then it’s time to move on from the bunny hill. Find mellow terrain and minimal crowds. The focus should be making controlled turns across the hill, not going fast. As long as the focus is on turning, rather than speeding in a flying wedge straight down the hill, your child’s skill and comfort ought to naturally progress with time and repetition.

  2. Create Adventures. Recall the rule of thumb: keep it fun. Luckily, when it comes to skiing, there are LOTS of opportunities to have fun, and the best way of all, in my opinion, is to create adventures. Explore in the trees, look for jumps, and make up stories as you go (hint: every forest can be a magical one if you want it to be). Play games like follow the leader and red light green light. Make snow angels and snowmen at every opportunity. Pack a brown bag lunch on a sunny day and find a special spot somewhere out on the hill to enjoy lunch with a view. Some of my fondest skiing memories from childhood come from the adventurous outdoor lunches I shared with my parents and brothers. Wherever your mountain adventures lead you, know that you’re making lasting memories and instilling an appreciation for the outdoors.

  3. Grit & Independence. Remember the whole “minimize distractions” suggestion from above? There will eventually be a point when you need to completely throw that one out the window. The fact is, every skier needs to learn how to carry their own gear, and ought to love heading out into a snow storm. Parents need to discern when their young skier may be ready for those lessons, and when the time is right, begin holding their child to a new standard. Avoid your child becoming a fair-weather skier by bundling him up in appropriate clothing (or—if need be—rain gear) and take him skiing even when the conditions aren’t great. Help your skier develop a sense of responsibility and pride for carrying his own gear to and from the car. Yes, it will take longer at first, but keep your eye on the prize: less stuff for you to carry in the long run, and some quality character traits in your kid.

  4. Formal Instruction. The benefit of handing over your child to a trained professional cannot be overstated. Not only are they trained to teach tiny humans how to ski, they also—no offense—aren’t YOU. Kids are often more receptive to instruction from people who don’t boss them around all day every day, not to mention, most kids really thrive from having peers to chase and emulate. I encourage ski school or ski team as early and as often as you can support. Being part of a group will challenge and excite your child in new and exhilarating ways, and she’ll begin to form a new circle of “mountain friends” (which are the best kind, by the way).

Emma & Lauren, two skiers I’ve had the pleasure of teaching.

Emma & Lauren, two skiers I’ve had the pleasure of teaching.

You may fantasize about perfect ski days with resilient and joyful children, but be aware that those days may be more the exception than the norm. Try what I mentioned above, but keep in mind that kids will be kids. Sometimes they’ll be tired and cranky, or have an agenda all their own.

The key is to approach ski outings with deep patience and to always (always) play the long game, which is to create a lifetime skier. When you go on your first family ski vacation, I promise your sore back from guiding your toddler down the bunny hill will be 100% worth it. When you see the stoke in your kid’s eyes on her first-ever powder day, all of the times you schlepped boatloads of gear to the mountain for just two runs will make perfect sense. And when your teenager passes you with a hoot of joy and puff of snow, well, you’ll know that you did your job.

Teaching your kids how to ski and instilling a love for the sport is a gift they’ll enjoy for their entire life. And that’s worth its weight in M&Ms and gummy bears.

Want a great way to talk about skiing with your child off the ski hill? Check out A-B-Skis, an alphabet book about the magical world of skiing!