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Ski/Board School - What's It All About?
By Mitch Kaplan
Okay, I'll confess. When I put my kids into ski school, I just did it. I figured, "Hey, it's ski school, they'll know what they're doing." And, luckily for me (and my kids), they did. But, looking back, I'd say my attitude was cavalier. Perhaps there's more to this ski school thing than just signing 'em up. To find out how best to approach placing kids in snowsliding school, I talked to a few program directors. And, hey, I got some pretty good advice.
"Most of all, we recommend that parents plan ahead," says Erik Barnes, director of Mount Snow's Perfect Turn program. "Call the resort reservations number about a month in advance. Be prepared to know what programs you want to put your kids in - we have them listed on our website. If you don't know, our reservations people will ask the right questions and go over what's available."
Mt. Snow then sends a reservation confirmation with information parents need before making the trip that includes anything from what to bring, what to wear, when to be there, and other items specific to the program. "Ask if there's an early check-in, especially if you're coming for the weekend," Barnes adds. "Here, we have late-night check-in, so you can pick up tickets and rentals the night you arrive. If you're coming that day, ask questions like 'Where's the ski school and rental facility?', 'What's the best time to get there?', and 'What's the check-in the process?' I always tell people to get there early - certainly by eight o'clock."
Barnes offers another useful tip: if possible, two adults should participate in the check-in process, especially for families needing rental equipment. "One to get tickets and the other to help the child through the rental area," he explains.
Peter Pelinski, manager of the Mighty Mountain program at California's Kirkwood Resort asks parents of young children to preview the day. "We like parents to explain to kids what's going to happen," he says. "A four or five year-old often doesn't know what's going on. Suddenly their parents are gone and people are strapping weird stuff on their feet. Explaining to them ahead of time is very helpful."
Comments Maura Gorman, director of the Learning Center at Mt. Sunapee Resort in New Hampshire, "I advise parents that there are two major questions they should ask. One, you want to know the number of students per instructor. And, you should ask if this is a skill-based program."
The expected answer to that first question is mitigated by a child's age. The younger the child, the lower the ratio of kids to instructor. "You need more coverage (a lower ratio) for four and five year-olds than you do for sixes and sevens," Gorman says, "and a lot of that has to do with the children's socialization levels. Older kids are in school, they know how to follow directions and are used to being in a crowd. You have to judge a child's ability to be in a group learning situation."
The response to Gorman's second question can be more difficult to pin down. Ski school should attempt to balance a group lesson by both age and ability. Most schools group ages three and under, four-to-six and seven-to-twelve. But, if you have a seven year-old skiing at Level Four, for example, s/he shouldn't be kept with a group of Level Threes just because they're all his/her age. "If in a group of six, three get it and three don't," explains Gorman, "ask, 'Do the three who get it get to move forward?' Adjustments should be made."
At The Canyons in Park City, Utah, for example, they've created a centralized shuttle stop. "All children's lessons do 'laps' in the morning, and every instructor stops his group at the shuttle stop after very run," explains Rich Weeks, children's program manager for the Ski & Snowboard Schools of The Canyons. "If we have a kid who is skiing above (or below) the level of the group, that child is handed off to a more appropriate group at the shuttle stop, so everybody gets to the right level. If necessary, further exchanges can be made at lunch time. In the afternoon, then, groups go anywhere on the mountain that's appropriate to their ability."
Most major resorts address the common safety issues very effectively. Foremost, ask about the child pick-up policy that assures that a child leaves at day's end only with the appropriate adult. On-hill, ask about policies and procedures for keeping groups together and handling children who become separated from their group. At The Canyons, Rick Weeks explains, "Everybody has to wear a bib or helmet cover that identifies them as being in ski school. They're very visible and easily seen by instructors or other people if the child gets separated. Lift operators are trained not to let kids on the lift if they arrive alone wearing a bib and to call for help. At the start of the lesson, every instructor creates rules for what to do if someone gets separated - go to a lift operator and tell them you're lost. Or, if someone falls, we call out a code word that means everyone stops and waits."
As to the instruction itself, parents must understand that children learn differently from adults. "The big difference between kids and adults isn't the skills we teach, but how we teach them - we create games rather than getting technical, says Weeks. "Parents, too, must allow that certified instructors are trained to do their job properly. We try to balance what parents want with what the child will get. A parent may say 'I want my kid to use poles.' To which we try to say, 'This is what we think is best that they learn before they learn to use poles,' and we foreshadow the lesson for the parent."
The snowboarding processes and parental questions are pretty much the same, although few resorts will put a child under age seven into a boarding lesson. The muscle/strength/coordination requirements for boarding are generally too great for really young ones, whereas sliding on independent feet, and being able to rely on a wedge, make skiing easier to learn. If you've got a five year-old who is hell-bent on learning to ride, put him/her in a private lesson. Older children should be allowed to try the sport they prefer, even though the first day on skis will be easier than one on a board.
In general, all snow-schools only encourage parents to ask questions. "It's hard to walk in and know right away what you're looking at," comments Kirkwood's Pelinski. "Ask friends about their experiences, and make a phone call to school ahead of time to ask specific questions. Sometimes school looks like controlled chaos, but the staff should be more than happy to talk to you and offer advice on best way to go."
Among the other elements to keep in mind for a successful ski school experience?
Dress them properly - warm, waterproof clothes
Supply them with sunscreen and lip balm when skiing out west or in springtime
Inform ski school personnel of any behavior concerns like extreme shyness or even crankiness from having just arrived after a long drive
Alert ski school personnel of any allergies
Once you leave them at school, leave them alone; if you must check up on them, do so from a distance
Supply them with proper equipment - especially wrist guards and helmets for snowboarders, and sun glasses or goggles for everyone
Emphasize having fun.
And, perhaps most importantly for parents, adds Mt. Snow's Barnes, "Relax and be patient. You're on vacation!"
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