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For kids, it’s all downhill

New England ski resorts help youngsters learn the basics

Wachusett Mountain ski school director Bruce McDonald says private instruction teaches students at their own pace. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff) Wachusett Mountain ski school director Bruce McDonald says private instruction teaches students at their own pace. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff) (Bill Greene/Globe Staff (Above); David Mclain/Sunday River (Below))
By Eric Wilbur
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011

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My son pointed to the quad chairlift that was shuttling skiers and riders to the summit of the genteel trail at the learning center at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire. It was his first day on skis. He had spent the past half-hour mastering riding the magic carpet up the slightest of inclines and proving he could keep some semblance of balance while sliding around on the early January snow.

Clearly, he felt he was ready for the next step. No matter that he was 3.

After being told for the fifth time that he was not getting on the lift, he said he was ready to make his way to the lodge to play the video game he had seen while we were renting his equipment and to have some hot chocolate with his mother and grandparents, who were there to document the brief, yet noteworthy, event of his introduction to skiing.

The experience was a far cry from my own more than 25 years ago, a learning process filled with J-bars, skinny skis, and a father whose frustration never showed even as I twisted in a rope tow, or leaped some 10 feet off the chairlift I had failed to navigate properly. Children have it much easier today, with more sophisticated learning equipment and resort environments tailored to their age and skiing or riding level.

That doesn’t make it any less intimidating for parents.

My son, now 4, will be checking into his first ski school this season, a prospect that can fill any parent with a certain mix of pride and fear. Having children slide around on snow is one thing. Teaching them how to control their speed, turn, and stop, all while dealing with the expected complaints of tight-fitting equipment, the cold, bathroom breaks, and snack requests, is something else entirely. That’s a job better suited for professional instructors.

So where to start? Dan Bergeron, Okemo Mountain Resort Ski and Ride School director, suggests beginning the process in your own living room.

“Get a pair of skis from a local shop in the offseason,’’ he said. “Bring them home and let the child play with them - slide on the carpet. Let the equipment be a toy, something they can be familiar with.’’

Most ski school programs, including Okemo, in Ludlow, Vt., put children as young as 3 in a group environment with a low ratio of skiers to instructors (Okemo’s Mini Stars program offers a 4-to-1 ratio), and many also offer private lessons for any age. Typically, the day will consist of either a half or full day of instruction (1½ to 2 hours in the morning, repeated in the afternoon for a full day) aimed at teaching youngsters the basic skills needed to maneuver on the snow.

“Get them comfortable and have fun with it,’’ Bergeron said. “Get them comfortable with these big feet they have on all of a sudden. A lot of it is kids learning from other kids.’’

That’s why Bergeron prefers that children in the 3-to-5 age range take a group lesson. “Private instruction is great, but it’s not always the way to go,’’ he said, maintaining that children benefit from the social interaction of a group.

Bruce McDonald, Wachusett Mountain ski school director, a 42-year veteran at the Princeton ski area, disagreed, saying that a group instructor can teach only at the pace of the slowest student. “It’s not necessarily more fun,’’ he said, “but private instruction is always the best lesson.’’

Each ski area brings its own philosophy about how to best approach the youngest students. Some will not offer group lessons to children under 4, while others feel that 3 is a more than adequate age to begin the process.

“I’d like to see them get started as early as 3, but not every child is ready for that,’’ Bergeron said.

“That’s a great age from a development standpoint,’’ said Luke Martin, operations manager and training coordinator at Sunday River in Newry, Maine. “They’re able to physically be successful.’’

Instructors attempt to keep the attention of youngsters through on-snow games aimed at getting them involved in the physical nature of the sport without feeling they’re being instructed. “Let them forget about the technical part and do what’s fun,’’ McDonald said. “Once they feel it, once that muscle memory kicks in, you’re golden.’’

That’s why many ski schools recommend that children take a full day of lessons. Not only does a double session create a certain group dynamic imperative to the skiing and riding culture, but the learning process is normally more successful than half-day lessons on consecutive days.

“I definitely encourage parents to put their kids in a program, and encourage full day,’’ Bergeron said. “It’s not their minds that remember what to do, it’s their muscles.’’

Over the course of a full day even the youngest skiers will be introduced to basics. For McDonald, the most important lesson is how to turn, a basic skill that many parents take for granted when teaching their children.

“They think they know what to teach their child when they don’t,’’ he said. “Going straight isn’t going to teach anything. I can put a bowling ball at the top of the hill and watch it go down.’’

Speed is also a concern. The fewer turns a child makes, the faster he or she is flying down a mountain. It’s seen too often on slopes, and can be dangerous for the child and others in the immediate area.

“Kids love to go fast,’’ Martin said. “One of the challenges is to set up scenarios where they aren’t going to go too fast and stop and turn.’’

But speed is controllable. Probably the biggest hurdle instructors face is parents who are overly eager to see their offspring progress.

“Parents are probably the bigger challenge than the kids,’’ Bergeron said. “We don’t mind when a parent wants to sneak a peek, but we prefer they do it out of sight of the child.’’

Wachusett offers a parent and child lesson, where the mother or father can watch nearby. “It’s our way of saying, ‘If you don’t have that lesson, don’t show up,’ ’’ McDonald said.

“Try to make yourself inconspicuous,’’ said Martin, who encourages parents to watch from a distance, perhaps a balcony at the lodge, or another spot at the base area. “We love to have you watch, but we want to make sure the kid is focused on the coach and not the parent.’’

At the end of the day it is realistic to expect that a child would be able to stop on his own and make some semblance of a directional change, Martin said.

Instructors will also temper the learners’ enthusiasm by instituting a set of goals throughout the day. If they accomplish them, maybe a steeper portion of the slope, or yes, even a ride on the chairlift, is a possibility later in the day.

Failing that, there’s sure to be a video game nearby.

Eric Wilbur can be reached at ewilbur@boston.com.

If You Go

Mount Washington Resort
Route 302
Bretton Woods, N.H.
800-314-1752
www.brettonwoods.com
The Hobbit Ski & Snowboard School services skiers 4-12 and snowboarders 6-12. Full-day program includes instruction, lift ticket, and lunch, $115. Half-days, $85. Rentals an additional $15.
Okemo Mountain Resort
77 Okemo Ridge Road
Ludlow, Vt.
802- 228-1600
www.okemo.com
Okemo’s Mini-Stars (3-and-4-year-olds) and Snow Stars (4-7, 5-7 for snowboarders) offer both half-day and full-day instruction. Mini-Stars rates based on day care add-on, $92 full day, $67 half-day for ages 6 months to 4 years. Snow Stars: $120 full-day skier, $140 full-day boarder and $84 for a half-day.
Sunday River
Newry, Maine
207-824-3000
www.sundayriver.com
All-day clinics ($82) available for children 3-6, including lunch. Half-day clinics run $62-$67 depending on morning or afternoon sessions.
Wachusett Mountain Ski Area
99 Mountain Road
Princeton, Mass.
978-464-2300
www.wachusett.com
Polar Kids learning program available for children at least 4 years of age. Full-day weekend lessons run $85, $60 for half-day. Equipment rental an additional $20.