By Alexa Joy Sherman
Kids and snow are like Ernie and Bert…green eggs and ham…cocoa and marshmallows. They just go together…right? After all, have you ever heard anything but tiny squeals of delight as the first snowflakes fall and, within minutes, the ground is shrouded in a soft, white, wintry sheet?
Doesn’t every child want to race outside and make snow angels…or lick an icicle…or have a snowball fight? Sure, that’s what holiday movies and cards might tell you. That’s what you might even tell yourself when you reflect on the winter vacations of your past-before you had kids, or when you were a kid.
I’m as guilty as the next delusional parent. My husband and I can’t stop talking about the day we’ll get our son Jack on skis or help him build his first snowman. Of course, idyllic as it often sounds, whisking your wee one out to a winter wonderland isn’t always the warm and fuzzy experience you might imagine. But it can be done. And it can be fun. Here’s how.
Planning the trip
If you’re just looking to play in the snow with your little one, the fun may be as close as your backyard. But if you live in a snow-free zone (like yours truly), you’ll need to travel-and since doing so with small children can be challenging, to say the least, you’ll probably want to look for a spot that’s no more than a few hours away (by car or by plane). Here’s a money-saving tip: Book a trip through ski.com and you’ll score rentals, lift tickets and sometimes even airfare free for kids under the age of 12.
Particularly if you’re hoping to hit the slopes yourself, you’ll want to make sure your destination has some sort of childcare facility, preferably a state-licensed daycare. Many of these are connected to ski and board schools for little ones (usually ages 3 and up), so if that’s something you’re interested in, be sure to ask if the daycare fees include snow play, ski lessons and gear, suggests Mike Wenger, certified children’s ski instructor and manager of the Children’s Center at Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico. Be sure to reserve services like daycare and lessons well in advance-they book up fast!-and avoid peak holiday crowds if your schedule allows, Wenger adds.
As you probably know, good-quality snow clothes and equipment are crucial, but costly. It can be a particularly bitter pill to swallow when you buy said items for someone who’ll wear them once or twice and outgrow them by next winter. That’s why Shelly Schaffer, director of Treasures Child Care Center at Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Jeffersonville, Vt., recommends buying items at consignment shops or on Craigslist or eBay. “I never buy new,” Schaffer says, adding that you don’t even need a ton of bulky attire: “It’s easier to layer according to weather conditions.” Just make sure each layer is reasonably warm, and not cotton. “Cotton gets wet quickly and can become cold quickly,” explains Kevin Mitchell, Ski and Snowboard School Director at Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort in Lake Tahoe, Calif., who adds that borrowing clothes-from friends or the resort itself-is another great option. “Many resorts [including Sierra-at-Tahoe] rent the bigger-ticket items like jackets,” he says.
Most of the items on the list for your little one will be similar to what you need for yourself-sunscreen; goggles or sunglasses; long underwear; good-quality snow boots; and a windproof and waterproof jacket-with just a few extra considerations. For instance, instead of waterproof gloves, look for a “user-friendly” waterproof mitten: “One with Velcro halfway up the hand that slides on with ease and is long enough to cover the wrist is best,” Schaffer says. “Stay away from gloves; it takes a lifetime to get their little fingers in the right holes!”
Also, look for a balaclava (made by companies like Turtle Fur)-a thin polypro/fleece head, ear, and neck liner that fits well under a helmet. For keeping those tootsies toasty, get long, non-cotton socks that cover the entire calf so that nothing bunches under the boot, Schaffer says. And instead of pants, go for a bib (like waterproof overalls) since your little one will probably be doing a lot of falling and rolling around, and the extra coverage helps prevent the cold stuff from creeping inside.
What about skis, boots, poles, boards and helmets (if snow sports are part of the plan, that is)? “It’s always best to rent,” says Harley Johnson, certified ski instructor and operations director of the Snow Sport University at Smugglers’ Notch. “That way, you can get the most current gear and the right size. It won’t necessarily be ‘high end,’ but it will be what’s right for you child-and you can exchange it if it isn’t working.” Borrowing or buying something may also mean you don’t get the right size, which can be risky, Johnson notes. “You want to make sure it’s modern equipment,” he adds.
Most kids under the age of 3 just want to play in the snow and learn about the new environment, says Mitchell. “At age 3, children can enter ski school, where they take lessons for a few hours during the day but can also play in the snow,” he notes. “By age 4, children are learning how to ski for a few hours in the morning and then again in the afternoon, and still have some free time to just play.”
A lot of ski resorts have designated “snow-play” areas all over the place, where you can grab your sled, go tubing, make snow angels, build a fort or snowman, or have a snowball fight. “These areas are just on the side of the highways and allow you to pull off the road and enjoy the forests and meadows,” says Mitchell. “There are also cross-country areas that rent ‘polks,’ which are basically sleds that you attach to your waist so you can cross-country ski and pull your toddler behind you.” Other fun things to do with kids in some areas include horse-drawn sleigh rides and dog-sled rides.
Easing into it
New experiences aren’t easy for anybody, especially little ones. So familiarize your child with the gear, equipment and activities you’ll be exploring together. Schaffer recommends reading books and watching videos about skiing and other snow sports-as well as letting your child play with all the gear-ahead of time. Let him stand on the skis or snowboard while he’s still inside, or pull him around the living room in a sled, and practice putting on mittens, hats, bibs, boots and helmets, too.
Even if you’re just planning on going to a snow-play area, explore the outdoor environment bit by bit rather than throwing your child straight into it. “Let them practice stomping through packed, loose or icy snow,” Schaffer says. Remember, you want this to be a fun new discovery-not a frightening one. “Just like at the playground, allow your child to explore,” Mitchell says. “Perhaps the first time you go to the snow, you simply allow your children to roam around. Teach them how to make snow angels. Don’t worry about putting them in ski/board school right away.”
If you’re intent on having your child learn to ski or board, present it in an optional way. “Let them watch the other children in ski school and see how they react,” Mitchell says. “Many parents choose to start with a half-day or a one- or two-hour private lesson. Their first few days aren’t just about learning to ski or ride, but also being with new people [fellow students and the instructor], the new environment and all the new equipment and clothes.”
If you’d prefer to be your child’s instructor, it can be done-although most experts agree that certified instructors may be a better bet. Of course, a lot of ski schools offer private family lessons that will help you get a sense of how to hone your teaching skills. “Obviously, it’s best if parents understand basic skills and have taken lessons themselves,” Schaffer says. “They need to have limited expectations, be extremely patient and use small words and phrases to describe skiing fundamentals.” Above all, never let your child go more than a few feet away from you, or out of your sight, when skiing or boarding. “Children need to feel safe and know that you’re totally focused on them,” Schaffer says, adding that you should limit the lesson time to a half hour to an hour.
Keeping your cool
Perhaps the most important thing to pack on a trip to the snow is your perspective. “It’s important for adults to recognize that skiing or snowboarding becomes just another part of this new environment, rather than the child’s purpose for being here,” Mitchell says. “Understand that no matter how excited your child might be before arriving at the mountain, he may just not be into it when you arrive.” If that happens, there’s nothing wrong with cozying up by the fire, pulling out a favorite book and sipping some hot cocoa together.
Go to the next page to see four family-friendly snow spots…
Four Family-Friendly Snow Spots:
Whether you’ve got a toddler too small for her first pair of skis or a snow bunny ready to hit the slopes, these cool destinations are all about keeping the whole clan happy.
Keystone Resort, Keystone, Colo. (800-255-3715; keystoneresort.com)
Keystone Resort prides itself on appropriate terrain for all ages, as well as great daycare ($100 a day, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; an additional $20 gets 3- to 6-year-olds snow-play activities like arts projects and tubing) and the Children’s Ski and Ride School, expanded and remodeled in 2006. At the school, a “Mom, Dad and Me Program” features an hour-long private lesson for the whole family. Other fun activities include horse-drawn sleigh or wagon rides.
Smugglers’ Notch, Vt. (800-451-8752; smuggs.com)
Frequently hailed as one of the best family ski resorts in the country, Smugglers’ Notch is home to the award-winning Snow Sport University children’s ski and board school. Treasures, the million-dollar childcare center for kids 6 months to 3 years, boasts 5,400 square feet of indoor space and more than 4,000 square feet of outdoor playground ($85 a day, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Your kids will also be entertained by afternoon shows, including movies and magicians, and evening pizza parties or “Kids’ Night Out” (allowing you to have a nice, romantic meal on your own!).
Sierra-at-Tahoe, Lake Tahoe, Calif. (530-659-7453; sierraattahoe.com)
Family-friendly amenities include a “Parent Predicament Lift Ticket” (allowing parents to transfer their ticket depending on who’s watching the kids), private family lessons and the Parent Zone at Thunder Gulch bleachers, which allows parents to watch their children taking lessons. The fully licensed Wild Mountain Daycare, for children 18 months to 5 years ($108 a day (price subject to change), from 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.), is located right at the base of the mountain and offers plenty of outdoor snow play, arts and crafts, lunch and snacks. Meanwhile, lift tickets for kids 4 and under are free!
Taos Ski Valley, Taos, N.M. (505-776-2291; skitaos.org)
At the state-of-the-art Children’s Center, $75 a day gets kids 3 and under snow play, creative indoor activities, two snacks and lunch. For $105 a day, kids 3 and up can also take ski lessons-with the cost including lift tickets, a rental package (skis, boots, poles and helmets) and, depending on the child’s level, a morning and afternoon lesson, and lunch. Children even have their own ski area, as well as smaller lifts, special terrain and a kid-specific equipment shop.
Los Angeles-based writer Alexa Joy Sherman is looking forward to seeing her 3-year-old son on his first pair of skis-whenever he’s ready, that is.
Planning a ski trip this season? Follow this helpful guide.