Ski season is starting. For parents, that may mean getting kids on the slopes for the first time. But is there a perfect age to learn to ski?
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Nate Gardner, ski and snowboard school training manager at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont, says that what's more important than a child's age is his or her readiness. How well does the child handle other physical activities? Does the child separate well from parents so that she or he is comfortable spending a few hours with a ski instructor and other kids on the slopes, away from mom and dad?
"Every child develops at their own rate both physically and emotionally," Gardner said in an interview for the AP Travel podcast series "Get Outta Here." "That's going to be a big factor in whether the child is ready to learn to ski."
Here's some other advice from Gardner on everything from planning a family ski trip to tailoring ski instruction to a child's learning style.
Private vs Group lessons
"Private lessons are great for one-on-one attention," Gardner said. "The experience gets tailored to you."
But he added that "kids learn a lot from their peers." Children sometimes have more fun and get more out of a group lesson where they can interact with kids their age.Or do a bit of both: "Maybe a two-hour introduction when we first arrive, then the next lesson is this full day group where they're getting to hang out with other kids."
Pizza and french fries
You may hear and see ski instructors exhorting kids with the words: "Pizza! French fries!" Gardner says it's a creative way to help students configure their skis right: angle the tips inward to slow down, like a pizza slice, or straighten them like French fries to go a little faster.
"One thing almost all kids know is what a slice of pizza looks like," he said. "It's a triangle! It gets a little closer at one end and a little bit wider at the other end."
How long does it take for kids to learn to ski?
"It has to do entirely with the kids themselves, their age, their developmental level, their emotional readiness, their willingness to learn from a stranger," he said. "Parents need to gauge their expectations based on what they know of their child's previous experiences."
A child's learning style matters too. "Everybody learns a different way," he said. Instructors are trained to assess the kids and get the ones who are "doers" into the activity as soon as possible, while talking through the process with kids who are "thinkers and listeners and want some more of the information." And always make things fun and positive. "If each time is a fun experience, you're going to have a lot more success than you are dragging them to the hill kicking and screaming."
Rent or buy?
Gardner says when it comes to equipment — skis, boots, bindings, helmets — you're better off renting. It takes the burden out of lugging gear from where you live to the mountain. It also ensures that you're getting the latest, high-quality gear and that it fits your fast-growing child every time. If you end up doing a lot of skiing, consider a lease program where you can trade gear in at the end of the season.
Dress kids in layers so they can peel off midday when the sun is out and bundle up early morning and late afternoon when it's chillier. Don't forget goggles and sunscreen. The snow reflects ultraviolet light with greater intensity than even the beach, Gardner said.
"Goggles are key to keeping that brightness off the eyes and keeping the wind out of the face," he said.
Where to go
While Colorado, Utah, Vermont and other snowy states with big mountains get the headlines when it comes to skiing, many states have ski areas on smaller mountains that are less expensive and easier for families to get to, especially if they're just starting their kids out in the sport. Online listings show the U.S. has ski areas in some 40 states.
On the other hand, if you're looking for a full-fledged vacation where skiing is just one part of it, "then look for more of a destination resort that's going to offer the fine dining, the nice hotel rooms, maybe a spa," Gardner said, in addition to good skiing and a ski school.
Plan ahead and call the resort to get the best value. "The best prices are typically for folks who buy in advance so that's going to help you save a few dollars," he said. "If you come to the resort with no information and just walk up to the ticket counter, I can tell you almost every resort in the country, that's where you're going to pay the most."
January is the industry's "learn to ski and snowboard" month, when many resorts offer discounts and special programming. Some states also offer freebies or discounts to kids in fourth, fifth or other grades.
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