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Facebook decided to remind me that on this date many years ago, we were skiing, and my oldest daughter, then 3 years old, was at her first day of ski school. While that may have been her first day in ski school, it was far from her last. We have been to multiple ski schools, had multiple private instructors, tried to teach her ourselves and have even introduced a second daughter to the sport since that first photo was snapped.

Ski school.jpg

Now 9-years-old, she looks so little on that first pair of skis. It was this Facebook flashback that led to some thoughts and discussions about when is actually the best time to take kids skiing for the first time. Over the years, we have had some high points and low points with our two daughters on the mountain. This has ranged from “Best ever, I love skiing!” to lots of tears and reports that included, “Um, your daughter ran away from ski school for a bit today.” As was common with many things we tried with our firstborn, I think we went “too much, too soon” with some ski-related activities.

Not feeling ski school at 4
Not feeling ski school at 4.

However, every kid is different, so what was too much for her may be just right for another kid (like our second daughter).

Ski School Starts as Young as 2.5 Years Old

Many of the major mountains offer both child care for kids as young as 8 weeks. The actual ski school programs, where you strap skis on and get on the snow, have historically started for children around 3-years-old. But I now see some for children as young as 2.5-years-old. The best programs have hybrid-models for those in the 2- to 4-year-old range that include a combo of indoor and outdoor time. For example, Telluride has a Cubs program for those 2.5 to 4 that includes one hour on skis with a personal instructor, and the rest of the time is spent in the nursery.

I have seen some very, very tiny kids who are probably just 2 whizzing down the mountain with their parents, but those kids have parents who ski far better than me and they probably live near the mountain. In other words, if you are a once-a-season-ski-family, I would recommend 100% ignoring the possibility of your 2.5 year old actually skiing on their own. Honestly, even most 3 or 4 year olds that will only have one ski trip per year are probably not going to really be skiing, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid ski school.

Avoid Actual Ski School Until Your Child Is Ready

Many mountains offer child care (sometimes in cool settings like the Treehouse at Aspen Snowmass) for children until they are 5 or 6 years old, such as at the Playschool at Keystone, With these solid options available, I highly recommend not rushing into actual ski school if your child is hesitant or you don’t think they are ready. Your 3-year-old may be ready and excited for ski school as my second daughter was, but if they aren’t, don’t send them.

Ready for ski school at 3 and 9 years old
Ready for ski school at 3 and 9 years old.

Getting the privilege of learning to ski should be exciting for your kid, and if they aren’t feeling it as a preschool-aged kid, then skip the drama and don’t risk tainting their view of skiing. Instead, opt for the mountain’s child care option until they are a little older and ready to learn the joys of skiing or boarding.

Alpine Climb Room at Aspen Snowmass
Alpine Climb Room at Aspen Snowmass

Just like we sort of ruined dance classes for our first daughter by sending her to ballet too young as a 2-year-old (yes, idiot parents here), we came very close to doing that with skiing by proceeding with ski school when she wasn’t feeling it as a newly 4-year-old.

On that trip, she ran away from ski school, and we pressed forward when we should have bailed out and opted for a different non-skiing option. She may have still been unhappy that she wasn’t with us, but at least the negative connection won’t be associated with learning to ski. We then turned to a very expensive private lesson on our next ski trip to counteract that experience.

Cubs on Skis
Cubs on Skis program for 2.5 years and up at Snowmass.

If you do believe your 3- or 4-year-old is ready for ski school, make sure they are potty trained and able to get through the day successfully without a nap. If they aren’t, don’t stress, just go for the child care or hybrid-option.

The Magic Ski Age Is 5

Some kids learn to legitimately ski outside of the ski school corral earlier than 5 but, for the most part, those will be the local regular visitors or physically gifted kids. In general, the magic age for skiing is around 5. If given the chance, and at least three consecutive days of learning, a kid around 5-years-old may be able to get the basics of listening, turning, stopping and managing the lifts enough to get out of the ski school corral and onto the wide-open green runs.

My 5-year-old skiing happily at Steamboat.

For most kids, any lessons before about 5 are truly just for fun and to give them something to do while the parents and older siblings hit the mountain. At 4 and a few months, my daughter got out of the ski school corral (since she wouldn’t go anyway), and we went down a very green run together at Whistler.

Ski lift at 4 years old
Ski lift at 4 years old

It was so much fun at first, but ultimately this was the run where I blew my knee because we got tangled in a way that I couldn’t stop. Since I’m clearly not a ski instructor, I wasn’t prepared to teach her in a way that kept us both safe, and she wasn’t yet ready to be able to manage the run without me. Had I not gotten her to strongly dislike ski school by attending when she was not ready, she might have enjoyed ski school on this trip instead of insisting on sticking with me or an (expensive) private instructor. Lots of tears, knee damage and money could have been saved.

Consider Combo Programs and Private Lessons

Ski school and ski lessons don’t have to be an all or nothing scenario. For the younger kids, I have seen success with the previously mentioned combo programs that mix together a little time on skis with time in a more daycare-esque environment (such as at the Kids Vacation Club at Steamboat). Breckenridge also has an optional “Little Rippers” $60 add-on to a day of child care that gets the little ones aged 2 and up on skis with a private instructor for one hour of their day. At Deer Valley, 3-year-olds only have the option of a hybrid model that includes indoor play time along with a session of ski time.

I have also seen small group lessons with just three or four kids, such as the Quad Ski Lessons at Breckenridge, that combine the lower price of group ski school with more individualized attention and the same instructor each day. At Park City, 3- and 4-year-olds are put into small groups with no more children than their numeric age (Ultimate 3 for 3s and Ultimate 4 for 4s).

Private family lessons can be another alternative to help get and keep the family together, but still offer instruction to all members. We did this option at Breckenridge to keep the three youngest cousins (aged 3 to 6 years) together for a half-day. This allowed them to be less anxious about ski school since they were all together, and it ended at noon so they could then take an afternoon nap, if needed. They also got many more practice runs at ski school since there was a small number of them in the group.

The private lesson was more expensive than ski school, but not by all that much when you factor in that three kids benefited.

Another fun alternative to ski school for the younger crew can be using the mountain’s child care facilities while you ski in the morning and then build in time for other snow activities together in the afternoon. Tubing or playing in the Kidtopia area at Keystone are sure-fire ways to make kids love snow!

Bottom Line

I know firsthand how hard it can be to really want your little one to learn to love skiing as soon as possible. But, the reality is that just because ski school is available to very young children, doesn’t mean they are all necessarily ready to start skiing in the cold snow at such a young age.

Many kids who just ski occasionally on vacation will be best served at those young ages 2, 3 or potentially even 4, by on-mountain child care, or in a combo program that combines indoor play and a little outdoor time on skis. As they cross the threshold toward kindergarten, they will likely have more success learning to ski in ski school — even if they only go once per year. Regardless of your choice, the most important elements at those young ages are that they have fun and stay safe.

At 9, my oldest daughter now (thankfully) loves to ski.
At 9, my oldest daughter now (thankfully) loves to ski.

What do you think is the right age to start skiing and ski school for occasional vacation skiers?

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