Warm Up to Winter Sports

By Christine Phelan Kueter

Originally appeared in December 2011

Wintertime. For some families, its a time to hunker down and hibernate for the season. But for other families, its time to bundle up and head out. To high places, that is. For the swish of snowboards slicing through the snow. The spray of ice crystals on the cheek. The squint of near-blinding pure, white snow. And, best, the moments-long exhilaration as you weave your way down the slope or across the rink, the perfect blend of balance, breath and bliss.

If your idea of cold weather fun is less about holing up, fireside, and more about trekking out in the white stuff, then youve probably already got neck gaiters, puffy coats and balaclavas on the brain. But for grown-ups in love with cold weather activities, the season also brings a perennial question: What are we going to do with the kids?

For some, like Todd and Sharon Clarke of Crozet, parents of two small fries, hitting the slopes en masse is a no-brainer. Both boys, Bridger and Braden, now six and two, were strapped onto skis six months shy of their second birthdays, learning to snowplow on bunny slopes while also perfecting their newfound walking skills.

People would stop Braden at the chair lift, noticing how small he was, and ask him how old he was, said Sharon, 38, of her youngest sons first ski season, last year. We had to tell them that he couldnt really talk yet. But hed give everyone a big smile.

Never have their been more options for youngsters ready to rip their way into winter sports. From skiing to snowboarding, ice skating to snowshoeing, manufacturers are responding to an apparently pent-up demand for wintertime gear with ever-smaller-sized clothing and boots, while resorts are increasingly catering to a new generation of parents determined to share their love of winter sports with their children, even at the most tender age.

Starting children off early on skis, skates or a snowboard can be surprisingly easy, as theyre often less fearful, more agile and flexible, and more willing to tackle something new to please the folks  not to mention quicker healers. Besides, most kids are rather used to falling down, and getting right back up again.

I think falling on skis is almost more manageable for kids, said snowboarder Kari Miller, a Charlottesville elementary school teacher whose children, Eliza, three, and Aksel, one, will hit the slopes again this winter. Youve got some support, being in your boots, youre covered in gear, and if you look around you, people are falling  even the adults. And you fall onto whats hopefully a soft surface. And starting early tends to mitigate fears that often develop with age. Kids dont process that fear factor in the same way they do when theyre older, explained Laura Parquette, of West Virginias Snowshoe Mountain Resort, where skiing and snowboarding lessons are offered for children four and up. They tend to bounce back a little quicker than teens or adults.

Theyre high energy, resilient little [kids], added Kenny Hess, director of business operations at Massanutten Resort. Kids do things without thinking about it, things that adults often dont. Or wont. For the Clarkes, skiing with their own youngsters was a bit of déjà vu. Todd, a one-time Olympic skiing hopeful who had a hand in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, was first buckled onto skis at three. Ditto for Sharon, whose father made it a point for their six-member family to hit the slopes at least a couple times a year. Both say that many of their fondest family memories revolved around snow  and these days, they want the same for their boys.

I believe a kids future is driven by what their parents engage them in, said Todd, 39, who grew up skiing in Vermont, Montana, Utah and Alaska before settling with his wife in Virginia, and landing a job as Director of Mountain Operations at Wintergreen. My mom enjoyed it, my dad pushed it, and that was it: their passion was instilled.

But if summertime activity is a cakewalk  more daylight, less cumbersome clothing, not to mention no school schedule to keep  readying yourself for wintertime sports takes a bit more doing. Especially when kids are small. But, say winter-loving parents, dont knock it until youve tried it. For many, that first nip in the air can signal the start, not the end, of together time.

Thats the case for the Ormsby family, of Charlottesville. When he separated from his now ex-wife, Ned Ormsby, 44, wanted to create distinct traditions with his children Charlie, now twelve, and Jane, eight. These days, that means skiing each Sunday, listening to NPRs Car Talk en route, followed by a stop at Vitos Pizza for dinner.

Its my thing, just me and the kids, said Ormsby, who taught both of his children at age four by holding them upright in his arms on their skis, between his own. Being active, and outside is an important part of it for me, celebrating the season. Its family time.

So how do you get started bonding with your children and spouse in the snow, even if youre more fair-weather minded?

Think warm, dry thoughts

Depending on your childs age and activity level, investing in proper gear is key. But the biggest consideration, ski parents say, remains warmth. Wearing stuff thats waterproof is a close second, Clarke said, noting that the extra cost is well worth it. Theres nothing worse than being cold and wet, slope-side, and for tender-aged beginners, its a quick route to tantrums  and getting turned off by the sport.

For skiing and snowboarding, most kids will need a jacket, pants, mittens (fingers together equals warmth), and, underneath, a layer or two of thermal underwear and fleece, depending on the frigidity of the day. Its also prudent to avoid cotton in favor of wool and more technical, wicking fabric, and it is important to seal out crevices at the neck, wrists, waist and ankles to keep wind away and dampness at bay. Socks should rise mid-calf, and be some blend of wool and synthetic fibers (again, not cotton), with a spare pair or two easily accessible. If your child is diapered, make sure to change him just before hitting the slopes.

Though it comes with a somewhat less dramatic indoor climate, ice skating enthusiasts should dress as though theyre going to play in the snow: snow pants, long sleeves, jackets and gloves or mittens. Consider extra padding to body parts that take the brunt of spills on the rink: knees, elbows and bottoms. Extra underpants and flexible and roomy pants (not denim) and wool socks and mittens are a good place to start.

And yes, helmets are a must for children twelve and younger, whether ice skating, skiing or boarding (Charlottesvilles Main Street Arena requires helmets for all kids six and younger, and rental hockey helmets are included with lessons). For skiers and boarders, goggles and helmets, often sold as sets, can last between two and four years.

Tromp around before the snow falls

Get your kids acquainted with snow boots, skis, skates and snowboards early by letting them trek around the house and stomp about the yard in full regalia.

I think a big key in [kids] progress is having them out around the house getting comfortable in the snow, feeling the boots and equipment on their little bodies as normal wear for winter weather, explained lifelong skier and snowboarder Katie Heck, 41, of Palmyra, whose sons John, ten, and Bryce, eight, became snowboarding and ski enthusiasts at a tender age. Skiing and boarding has the chance of being schleppy, but you get them used to the gear early on and it becomes second nature. Ditto with ice skating, where lessons usually begin off the ice, but laced onto blades, readying youngsters on a less slippery surface.

Perchance to buy, swap or rent

Given that youngsters height and weight can change rapidly, even over a few months, renting equipment from skis to boots may be preferable and more cost effective than purchasing, though ski swaps are great to trade in outgrown gear for stuff more appropriately sized. Check with local ski shops, like Charlottesvilles Freestyle or the national chain REI, about dates for ski swaps or trade-ins on old gear (REI offers 20 percent off through their Junior Snowsports Trade-in Program) for a percentage discount off new.

There are some inexpensive devices, too, that can make starting out easier. Some parents leash their kids with a system of nylon cord tethers (Clarke recommends Lucky Bums Ski Trainer) that offer more freedom than a between-the-legs clutch but not as much independence as going it alone. There are also plastic tip clips or edgie wedgies that urge ski tips together, giving kids a feel for snowplowing (a movement where skis are pointed in to form a V, used to control movement).

To ski or snowboard first?

Most slope-loving parents start their kids out on skis, given that, once strapped into boots, kids can move their legs independently. But the learning curve between the two isnt steep, according to Rob Schwartz, general manager of Bryce Resort, just 75 miles west of Charlottesville. Bryce Resort just built its Little Nip Learning Center for the six and under set last season.

Im a snowboarder and a skier, but I recommend that parents wait until about age six before teaching their kid to snowboard, said Schwartz. It has to do with the strength in their legs, and the way kids grow, even though snowboarding is an easier sport to master than skiing.

Leave when they tell you to

As most parents know, or eventually learn, the most surefire way to make a kid hate something with intensity is to insist that they like it. Many resorts, like Bryce, gently urge parents to stay away for a bit. Their Little Nip Center is a parent-free zone, in fact. And that can be a good thing.

Snow sports are an art, however. Dont take it as a bad sign if your kid isnt laughing and smiling at first. Bear with them and be respectful. When the kids learn to ski, or snowboard [with facility], theyll start dragging their parents to the slopes, said Massanutten Resorts Hess.

Join in when its appropriate

Though many of the skiing and boarding resorts prefer to keep lessons parent-free, other spots  like Main Street Arenas ice rink, at the Omni end of Charlottesvilles Downtown Mall  encourage parents and children to take to the ice together, and from an early age. They offer lessons for beginners, starting at age two and a half, as long as the kids a confident walker and the mom or dad is willing to take to the ice, too.

Just remember to laugh  both at yourself and with your child  said the Arenas manager Tiffany Thornton, whose own children started skating at 18 months. Mastering skating, Thornton added, can take time, though she noted that kids who have that natural sense of balance, [like] dancers and gymnasts, tend to pick [it] up at a much quicker pace.

At such a young age, the emphasis is on play, and we incorporate many different games and activities in class, Thornton added. This keeps the kids eager to learn.

Enlist the help of a professional

For those less certain of their own slope-side skills, entrusting your childs ski or snowboarding success to a professional is a good option. Some resorts offer instruction for kids as young as three and four, though some require they be potty trained before being part of group lessons. Too, many have technology to give them skiing or boarding sensations but without the risk. Snowshoe and Bryce both offer a moving sidewalk type carpet lift  called a Magic Carpet  to give kids a sliding sensation to maneuver on, but sans incline. Bert and Kari Millers daughter Eliza, now three, gained confidence as she hopped aboard at Snowshoe last season, easing her into the sensation.

For many uninitiated young skiers, having a neutral party present is key  and doesnt carry the emotional baggage of a parent. Theres a lot between parents and a child, and theres often a level of frustration and annoyance, said Snowshoes Parquette. Learning can be frustrating, slow-going, and it can go either way: parents might be too pushy, or they dont loosen the reins enough so that kids can accomplish what theyre able to do. A neutral party is usually beneficial.

Take a break and do something else

Many resorts offer off-the-slopes merrymaking for small fry as well. Think inflatable slides, indoor swimming pools, game rooms, and endless variety of food. Massanutten has an award-winning water park, complete with a lazy river, all sorts of slides, and a wave machine. Snowshoe has The Big Top, a 15,000 square foot indoor play area with everything from wall climbing to inflatable bouncies.

Wintergreen has an indoor game room  think Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wiis  with skeeball and even a mechanical bull.

Take a break and remind your kids youre proud of them. Preferably over some hot cocoa.

And remember that ski season doesnt necessarily end when the snow melts. Come spring, when other families are dusting off the cleats, shin guards and kicking around a soccer ball on the first sprigs of green grass, Sharon Clarke sleuths around for end-of-season bargains on ski gear. Its all part of the Clarkes distinctive cold weather rhythms.

Here, were lucky enough to have four distinct seasons, added Miller, who anticipates dashing off, Eliza and Aksel in tow, to Wintergreen on the kids first snow day. In the winter, were all outside together, showing the kids a healthy lifestyle. To us, exercise, and family, and being outdoors  its something we really value.

Christine Phelan Kueter recently returned to Charlottesville after 12 years in Boston. She and husband Chris have two boys.

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