Sounds easy — let’s take the kids cross-country skiing today! We’ll all have a great time! When you’re heading out skiing, it’ll all go better if you have a game plan. If you don’t consider kids’ needs before you go, chances are it won’t work out the way you imagined. What you thought might be a wonderful family outing may end in disaster.
What should you plan for when you take children skiing? Think like a child. They need to feel safe, be comfortable, have fun, feel rewarded and maybe learn some new skills. Parents have to figure out how to meet all those needs.
Start with safety first. No one wants their kids to get hurt or scared. Parents should look for a safe environment that matches their children’s skills and stamina levels. The ideal beginner area is “relatively flat, with a gentle hill on the side,” according to Steve Hindman’s, “Cross-Country Skiing for Fun and Fitness.”
It needs parameters so they know the limits of where they can go. You can do that verbally or with cones. It should be close to shelter, bathrooms and hot cocoa.
Comfort: Kids get cold or hot faster than adults. Watch for signs of either and take care of them. Children get hungry and thirsty, too, and those needs have to be addressed. Tired and frustrated kids won’t learn much. Comfort is a basic need that comes before anything else. Take frequent breaks to have snacks, rest and water. If parents pack snacks in a backpack, there’s sustenance right on the trail. A pack is also good for carrying extra clothes, stashing shed layers and other necessities.
Fun: If the children aren’t having fun skiing, they won’t do it again. Make activities fun, interesting, challenging and playful. Kids “learn to ski by playing on skis,” according to Hindman. Playing games is a great way to get kids moving on skis —more about that later!
Rewards: When children feel success, have fun, meet their goals (getting to the covered bridge, making it down the hill), they get intrinsic rewards. Add extrinsic rewards like cocoa, snacks, stickers or a “high five” to reward their efforts.
Skills: In “Teaching Children to Ski,” Asbjorn Flemmen and Olav Grosvald said, “Terrain teaches better than most people do.” Kids first learn to move on the flats. My children and now my grandchildren started skiing when they were two by shuffling around the yard on boot-strap skis. They fell, learned to get up and tried again.
Hindman, a PSIA certified instructor and member of the PSIA Demo/Education Team, says “You can’t go wrong putting kids on skis at a young age as long as you take off the skis as soon as they are done.”
As they developed more balance on their skis, we added in small hills for them to go up and come down, over and over again. Kids love going down hills! It’s the “wee” factor. You might have to pull them up the hills with your ski poles until they learn how to climb them, but once at the top, they’ll want to go down.
The general consensus is to put kids on skis as soon as they can walk, keep it fun and play ski games. We all know as soon as they can walk, kids can shuffle on skis. According to a Cross-Country Ski Areas of America survey, the earliest age to offer structured lessons for children is 5 or 6 years of age.”
That’s been my experience, too, trying to teach young children to ski. Children that are younger than school age don’t get a lot out of “lessons.” They don’t have the attention spans, motivation and coordination for direct instruction. It’s better for them to have short periods of “play” on their skis with their parents, with no poles. I like Hindman’s idea of keeping skis at home so kids can ski around the backyard whenever they felt like it.
Games and activities teach skills better than direct instruction. An astute ski instructor or parent “leads them into activities that develop their balance on skis,” according to Hindman. Whether it’s “Red light/Green light”, scooter races or “Sharks and Fishes,” games get kids moving and playing on skis. Along the way, they’ll learn balance, steering, stopping and all sorts of other skills.
Games and activities: Jackson Grammar School kids come to the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation on Mondays for their physical education program. Many of these kids were on skis as soon as they could walk. Others are just learning. Physical education teacher Sonya Porter has to figure out how to address this wide range of skills while teaching them new skills and making sure they get exercise. She uses games to get everyone engaged, from simple “Simon Says” to tag and ball games, with her goal to get everyone moving on skis.
When a child is involved in a game, he/she isn’t thinking, “What am I learning here?” They are focused on the game and fun. Along the way, they learn all kinds of skills. Just don’t tell them you’re “teaching” them how to ski.
When I have young children in lessons, I choose a game they know — something simple and easily played. Kids from an early age know “Simon Says” and “Follow the Leader,” so I might start with those. I have specific skills I want them to work on, but I don’t give away my “game plan.” I let them be the “leader,” too, so they feel in control. “Act like an Animal” is another fun activity on skis!
“Red light, Green Light” and “Mother May I?” are good games, especially for small school-age groups. “Sharks and Minnows” keep everyone moving as well as “Freeze Tag,” “Capture the Flag,” and “The Blob.” Other games can be found on New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA), under the Bill Koch League manual for parents and teachers at tinyurl.com/ybvy9xnm.
Races: When students move well on skis, races are another way to get them involved. Scooter races on one ski teach balance, relay races keep everyone active and “snail” races down hills teach kids to control speed.
Training courses and terrain parks: Bill Koch League activities are great for building ski skills. At every BKL Festival, I’ve been to, there’s an obstacle course. Kids ski under arches, over hay bales, around poles, and through tunnels. There are some “bicycle dips” where kids work on balance. Kids love them!
Terrain parks are showing up at Nordic centers, too, to add some fun and challenge for daring skiers. Kids will ski these over and over, trying to “catch air” without falling.
With February vacation coming up soon, it’s time to get the family out on their cross-country skis, enjoying the snow. Don’t forget to have a good game plan in mind, subject to change at a moment’s notice to meet everyone’s needs.
Special February events
Feb. 9 — Great Glen Trails Kids’ Ski Fest, 9am-3pm, Grades 1-8, games, lollipop races, mazes and jumps, plus tubing, scavenger hunts and lots of skiing.
Feb. 9 — Tin Mountain Conservation Center Backcountry Ski Trip, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., meet at Downes Brook/UNH Trailhead off Kancamagus Highway for a moderate ski with TMCC’s naturalists.
Feb. 9 — Coaches Series Classic Ski Race at Whitaker Woods, 10 a.m. start, Kennett High School Nordic Team hosting.
Feb. 16 — Great Glen Trails Ski with a Naturalist, 10:30 a.m.-noon.
Feb. 17-19 — GGT Penguins (ages 6-8) and Polar Bears (ages 9-11) Nordic Ski Camps, 9-11 a.m. Ski games, tubing and lots of skiing.
Feb. 24 — MWVSTF’s 30th Annual Chocolate Festival, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., ski, snowshoe or shuttle to trailside lodging establishments, restaurants and stores and sample delicious chocolate treats. $30 advance and $35 day of event tickets support the Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring and Snowshoe Foundation, a non-profit organization.
Sally McMurdo is a cross-country ski instructor at Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. For almost four decades, she has explored New England's groomed and ungroomed trails on all kinds of skis.