It’s the question on every ski fanatic’s lips – once he or she has a family. How soon can my children start to ski? Should I get them into ski boots as soon as possible: or should I wait a bit – until they can actually walk?
In a bid to find the definitive answer we consulted some of the experts (and one of our own editors who just likes talking a lot).
Pierre de Monvallier, Oxygene ski school
There isn’t a straightforward answer. Generally, if they want to start in a proper group, between four and five seems to be the right age. If they are younger, it is better if they do a private session or semi-private, with two or three in a class. It is difficult to cope with more than a couple of three-year-olds at a time.
However, it all depends on the child. Usually in any class of children of the same age, you’ll find five who really enjoy it, and a sixth one who hates it. It might be because he gets frustrated quickly whenever he’s learning something new, or because his boots are not comfy, or because he is cold. There are so many reasons why children take to skiing, and many reasons why they don’t!
Of course, a good mental attitude helps. So my advice is that whenever parents talk about skiing in front of their children they should always be positive and enthusiastic about it. If one of them is scared of skiing, and shows it, then it’s more likely the child will be too.
One final word – the age at which children start makes very little difference to how well they ski as adults. Whether or not they enjoyed their first experience is far more important!”
Laura Henderson-McClane, Esprit
Laura is Childcare Manager at Esprit – which has specialised in ski holidays with childcare for 35 years. It offers holidays in 13 resorts, including Tignes, Obergurgl, La Plagne and Val d’Isere.
My feeling is that it’s best to introduce children to the mountains when they’re young: so that when they start ski school properly, it’s not an overwhelming experience. At Esprit, we offer the exclusive Spritelet class for children aged 3-4. The little ones are accompanied by one of our Snow Rangers, and are taught by a qualified instructor. The aim is get them used to wearing skis and ski boots whilst playing in the snow, and the most important thing is that they enjoy themselves. At whatever age your children start, they’ll progress much more quickly if they’re having fun.
Often, getting the oldest child started is the biggest hurdle. Younger siblings are usually less apprehensive, because they’re so desperate be like their older sisters/brothers. But I wouldn’t get them started at an earlier age. Three or four is quite soon enough!
Ellie Richards, Mark Warner
Ellie is head of childcare at the Chalet-Hotel Christina in La Plagne. It’s run by Mark Warner, which specialises in family-friendly ski holidays in six Alpine resorts, including Tignes, St Anton and Meribel.
It’s hard to say exactly when a child will take to skiing. But the most important factor is how he or she is taught. If the instructors know how to encourage and help children, those first ski lessons are much more likely to be a success.
Parents can also help by taking their children to an indoor snow centre in the UK before the trip – so they’ll get a feel for how the skis and boots fit, and what it’s like to slide on snow. Then, once the holiday’s underway, they should encourage their kids to practise what they’ve learnt in ski school when the lessons are over. Don’t push them too hard: at this stage it’s really a case of having fun and boosting their confidence.
Sean Newsom, Welove2ski
In recent years, Sean’s seen his older son transformed from a ski-school hater, into someone who loves the sport. Like many parents he has plenty to say about the experience.
At what age should a child start to ski? Well, it all depends on the context. I meet a lot of sons and daughters of ski instructors who were on skis almost as soon as they could walk. Obviously, their parents were keen for them to start early. But I think what really mattered was the fact that they lived in the mountains, grew up in the midst of skiing culture, and saw people going out onto the slopes every day. It seemed natural to them: like getting on a bus is for a child in London.
But if the pistes are a brand-new environment, then it’s another matter altogether. Most young children can’t see the point of what they’re doing, don’t like wearing ski boots, and hate being left by Mum or Dad with a bunch of complete strangers. Utter misery is the end product: and it’s going to suck the joy out of your own holiday to see them so unhappy. So save yourself the heartache, and the money, by waiting until they’re settled in Reception or Year One back home, before you put them into ski school.
My own son’s experiences seem pretty typical. Aged two and three, he didn’t mind an hour or so of sliding on a very flat slope with Mummy or Daddy (and preferably both). But what he really enjoyed was zooming about on a bum board or a toboggan, riding on the bubble lifts, and playing with us in the swimming pool.
At three years and nine months, he hated his first experience of ski school. We took him out after a couple of days.
But on the next holiday, when he was nearly five, everything changed. The fact that there were slightly older kids in his chalet made a difference. They were self-evidently cool and he immediately wanted to be part of their gang and do what they were doing. That got him into school without any tears, and once he was there he discovered he was actually pretty good at skiing. A year later, he was loving it, and now is begging to go back. (Though he says the best bit was the final morning when he skied with us.)
Of course you can happily leave it for several years beyond that. But Gerhard Told, who’s been teaching children to ski for nearly forty years in the Skiwelt reckons that once they get to nine or ten they don’t learn so quickly or completely. “It’s got something to do with the feeling of skiing,” he says. “It doesn’t become second nature to them in the way it does with the younger kids.”
By the way, if you want your child to become a ski racer, “You can’t really start them soon enough,” says Told. “It has to be second nature to them, almost like walking.” Moving to the Alps will probably help, too…
Chris Thompson, Ski Famille
Chris is Programme Director at Ski Famille – which specialises in holidays for families with pre-teen children in Les Gets, Reberty and La Plagne.
Most children enjoy having a play on skis with Mum and Dad from two or three but it’s a rare child who is ready for more formal instruction until they are four. Once they have started school back home, they are generally used to being in groups and having someone they don’t know telling them what to do!
We have introduced our own ski taster sessions for three and four year olds in Les Gets this winter; they’re made up of four separate hour-long sessions across the week in small groups with childcare support. We trialled it last season on a few weeks and it proved a great way of gently introducing children to the snow without risking putting them off.
Tom Saxlund, New Generation
Tom started skiing at the age of 3 in Norway, and founded New Generation ski and snowboard school in 1998. His son Oscar started skiing at 18 months.
It really depends on the age of the child. As soon as they can walk they can start playing on plastic skis at home. The skis don’t have metal edges, so they won’t hurt themselves. I like to think of it as though they are trying on Daddy’s slippers or Mummy’s heels. The plastic skis are an extension to that.
On the snow our group lessons start at age 4, and private lessons can be from 2½ to 3 years, depending on the child and their individual development. The lesson should be short, and focus on fun.
One of the key things for us is that parents learn the best way to help their kids outside ski lessons. That way, your child will learn how to balance on their own from the start. Get it wrong (for example, holding them between your legs) and it’s like skiing around with a sack of potatoes. If you’re not sure, ask an expert or have a private ski lesson as a family.
John Yates-Smith, YSE
John first went to Val d’Isere to wash dishes in 1976. He’s been there ever since. In 1991, he founded YSE with former Olympic skier Fiona Easedale. The company operates 20 chalets in Val d’Isère, and John now has three children of his own.
Having watched multicoloured snakes of tiny children on the ski slopes, many parents are desperate to take their own offspring skiing. They have this idea of what fun it would be to glide elegantly en famille down the blue runs, their grateful children glowing with health and grinning from ear to ear…
It can happen like that, and when it does there’s nothing better: but there’s a lot of work along the way before you arrive at that stage.
Children can start to ski a little at two, if they are confident, co-ordinated and relatively fearless. Little boys seem to take to it earlier than girls, perhaps because they don’t have the intelligence to imagine how much careering into a tree will sting! But you need good weather, good snow, a very gentle nursery slope and lots of time and patience, one to one. They can manage about an hour per day, probably at lunchtime, when the weather is warmer and the slopes at their emptiest…
From as young as their third birthday, children can learn to go up the drag-lift and ski back down in gorgeous little parallel turns, though still only for about an hour per day. A parent can help with the initial stages, such as getting used to the drag-lift. You put one of your skis between the child’s, put the drag between your own legs, and push the child along with your leg. But most parents are survival skiers, getting down the piste in spite of their technique, not because of it. Children learn largely through imitation, and they need someone technically perfect to copy.
If you can get an instructor from your own country, it makes life a lot easier. Children find even practically bilingual foreigners very confusing. We met a Londoner furious his child had been criticised for not using his aitches properly. It took a while to work out that the teacher meant edges.”