There’s a good reason that my parents dumped my five brothers and sisters and I into the ski racing program before we could successfully negotiate a T-bar. Having recently immigrated to the US from Ireland, they were ill-prepared to teach a half dozen little people to ski. They were taking beginner lessons themselves.
So my mom would pick us up after school for night skiing several days a week at a Buffalo ski area called, strangely, Kissing Bridge. We’d take turns crawling into the back of the station wagon, where we’d twist and squirm into our ski duds like caterpillars on a treadmill. We wriggled into multiple layers: cotton long johns, flowered windshirts, puffy down vests, padded stretch pants and padded sweaters. Skiing—and ski racing—soon became our family’s thing. Now that I have three little ones of my own, history is repeating itself. Though with the advent of seatbelts, there’s no knocking around all loose-goosey in the back of the minivan.
I went on to become a kids’ ski instructor in Alta, Utah, which meant I had the wherewithal to successfully teach my three children to ski. And seeing my darlings glide down a brilliant white apron of snow, miniature skis wedged into a perfect speed-controlling pizza shape, made all the effort worthwhile. Thank goodness they can now navigate the slopes and get up when they take a spill on their own, because even with my instructor background, teaching kids to ski is, without a doubt, back-breaking, hand-wringing, anxiety-provoking work.
You schlep a toddler bundled head to toe from the car to the bus to the lodge to the magic carpet, with your skis and hers perched on your shoulder, a backpack slung over the other with lunch, snacks, water, hand warmers, a favorite stuffy. You grasp a tiny mittened hand in your free hand. How you have a free hand is a complete mystery. Then when you finally make it to the bottom of the lift, sweating profusely, you here this:
“My legs are tired. I’m hungry. I need to pee!!!”
I’m here to tell you there’s an easier way. Wise people say, friends don’t let friends teach their own kids to ski. There is a certain wisdom in leaving this task to the professionals. Ski instructors have more patience and better backs. Most kids whine less with an instructor than with mom and dad. They listen better. They try harder. And, let’s be frank, having junior installed in ski school for the day means mom and dad get to go ski together, unfettered. To ski the steeps; to float through deep powder; to actually reach speeds where you can feel the wind rustle your hair. This in and of itself may be worth the price of ski school admission.
Ski school is like any other service business. You want to be an educated consumer to get the most out of a child’s ski lesson. Read on for tips and tactics for finding the best ski school, the best instructor, creating a positive ski school experience, from being the squeaky wheel at check-in to hiding in the trees and spying on your kids. The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote for the New York Times in January 2004.
The A B C’s of Ski School: Magic Snowballs and Blue Goo
NANCY THORESON is a sinewy, 6-foot-1 ski instructor with a thick blond braid that falls to her waist. Her clients, most of whom barely reach her knees, call her High Pockets. Though she has earned the highest level of certification possible from the Professional Ski Instructors of America, she teaches children, not big-tipping, black-diamond-skiing adults. “I have emeritus status, but I choose to be with the little kids,” said Mrs. Thoreson, who shows up for lessons at Snowbird in Utah adorned in an antler headband and armed with “magic” never-melting snowballs, balloons and dowels with plastic eyeballs on the ends.
So, how can parents make sure they get someone like her for their children and not some ski-bumming college dropout who just joined the ski school to score a season’s pass?
Most parents go the route of blind faith, dropping junior off at the ski school lineup. And these days, the instructors at most children’s programs, especially at the big resorts, are people who prefer to teach youngsters. “The industry is moving away from the concept that all new instructors teach kids first. That’s pretty detrimental to kids,” said Ellen Osterling, head of Kid’s Ski and Snowboard World at Crested Butte in Colorado. “Everybody on our staff is there because they want to teach kids.” Still, there are tactics to make sure a child is paired with a top-notch teacher.
Before settling on a destination, parents can call ahead and, essentially, interview a prospective ski school. A good one will do background checks and screen instructors, hiring people with experience in child development or who have worked with children, perhaps as summer-camp counselors. Parents should look for programs that offer continuing training for their instructors and encourage them to be certified by the P.S.I.A. Some resorts test for drug use and require training in C.P.R. and first-aid, though this is not routine.
The ratio of instructor to children is also a good indicator of a quality program. Snowmass in Colorado guarantees a maximum of only three children in a class of 3-year-olds. Other resorts may allow as many as six. Ratios go up for older children, but 12 in any group should raise a red flag. (Mrs. Thoreson said for ages 7 and up, eight children for each teacher is ideal.) And incompatible ages shouldn’t be mixed within a class. “You definitely don’t want a 6-year-old with a 14-year-old, even if they ski on the same level,” said Sherry McDonald, director of the Children’s Ski & Snowboard School at Vail. “Developmentally and psychologically, they’re on a different plane.” As far as the classroom goes, the best resorts for children have gentle slopes for learning and child-friendly lifts like Magic Carpets (a sort of conveyor belt that moves tots uphill).
Once parents are confident that they have found a good resort with a good ski school, they can focus on finding the best instructors. The easiest thing to ask for is P.S.I.A. certification. While it can take just a year to get Level 1 certification (generally for teaching beginners), some instructors spend more than a decade trying to achieve Level 3, the highest step. “If they have any level of certification, you can feel comfortable that they have a background and training in teaching kids,” said Linda Crockett, the association’s education director.
Ski teachers can also get a special accreditation for teaching children. The titles, like advanced children’s educator or children’s specialist, vary by region. These instructors have additional training in child development and how it relates to skiing. They learn about special methods of teaching youngsters based on how children think, feel and move on skis at different ages.
The more training that instructors have, the bigger their bags of tricks. Mrs. Thoreson uses “blue goo” (actually a spray bottle of food coloring in water) to make dots on the snow. Children connect the dots, and they’re turning. She also puts stickers of Winnie the Pooh characters on their skis. It’s easier for most children to distinguish the Tigger ski from the Piglet ski than the left from the right.
Although parents can ask specifically for an advanced children’s educator, that might limit their options. The ACE accreditation was first offered in the P.S.I.A’s Rocky Mountain division in the early 1990’s, but fewer than 10 percent of the instructors in the region have it. (Most accredited instructors for children are at big resorts like Aspen and Vail.) In the East, where the program has only been around for three years, just a handful of instructors have children’s specialist status.
Of course, parents can be pickiest if they opt for private lessons, but a week of them can make a Manhattan private school look like a bargain (an all-day private lesson for a child at Vail is $540). Most families will put their children in a group lesson. But even then, there are things parents can do. Joanna Hall, who has been teaching for 21 seasons at Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont, suggested the guerrilla approach. She recommended calling or sending an e-mail message in advance to the ski school director. “Ask who the best instructors are. Ask for someone with the most longevity,” she said. “On lesson day, arrive early. Hang around and make some observations. Most parents just drop their kids off.” It’s the squeaky-wheel approach.
Part of finding the right match is about personalities. “Don’t be afraid to say my child is stubborn or my child needs extra T.L.C.,” said Sue Way, children’s director of the Ski & Snowboard Schools of Aspen. “Describing the personality of the child helps us to find the right match, even for group lessons.”
Once a child is in a lesson, Ms. Hall advised, try spying. “Don’t let them see you. Hide behind a tree,” she said. “You’re looking to make sure that your child is having fun and learning.” And if parents don’t like what they see, they should request a change.
By après-ski, they’ll know, anyway. “The No. 1 indicator,” Ms. Way said, “is if they want to go back.”