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October 22, 2004 12:48 pm

From nursery to the slopes

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Idon't really see myself as a pushy mother, but I must confess that when my three-year-old son was standing at the top of a mountain I gave him a little shove and watched, smiling, as he careered down it.

To be fair, he was on skis, and as he had been having lessons all week I reasoned that he was up to the challenge. Plus his father was waiting, arms stretched out like a goalkeeper, just 50 yards or so downhill.

The fact that I had to give my son such a start should also reassure you of how gentle the gradient was - nearer to that of a plateau in fact than one that would have an adult gulp.

What adult skier hasn't marvelled at the ability of the very youngest children to tear downhill on stunted skis, oblivious to speed, bumps, other skiers and with their little legs planted out at a seemingly impossible, but surprisingly secure, angle?

My husband and I had skied for many years together and were keen that our pre-schooler William should learn the family sport too. He had expressed interest from a very early age: aged one in a ski shop in Samoëns he spied a pair of yellow strap-on play skis for toddlers and had shouted "My skis!".

Then at age two in Megève we tried him out on these plastic strips, with me, on skis, holding his hand as we inched along a barely-there gradient. Until he spotted my sticks in my other hand and he, who had been on skis for all of five minutes, crossly told me: "Mummy, you don't hold your sticks like that. You hold them like this," as he wriggled free of my grasp and demonstrated the correct stance. But then that's boys for you - even before they grow up they never miss an opportunity to tell girls how to do things "properly".

So in March this year, when he was approaching his fourth birthday, we decided that he was old enough to take a more formal approach to skiing and enrolled him in a week's lessons on our family holiday in Kaprun, Austria. We employed some very loose economic reasoning in William learning to ski at such an early age.

Ski holidays are expensive enough as it is; skiing with children really hurts the wallet. So better to have him learn the basics on off-peak weeks before he is at compulsory school age. That way he can get a head-start on the fundamentals before we are forced to cash in his inheritance to pay for family trips during the astronomically priced school holidays. That may just provide us with a window of a few years' skiing together, before he turns into a dude, sneers at his fogey parents and disappears into the great white yonder on a snowboard.

Andy Perrin, managing director of family operator Ski Esprit, supports pre-school instruction. He says: "Three-and four-year-olds are fantastic fun to work with and keen to do more. By five and six they are ready to go and they feel at home on these things sliding around beneath them. It pays such huge dividends if they learn early - by the age of five and six there are all sorts of hurdles that the child and the instructor are not having to cross."

The day before his first lesson we kitted William out in hired helmet (compulsory in most resorts), skis and boots. You may believe that children wear helmets to avoid head injuries while skiing. Wrong. Children wear helmets because they are physically incapable of carrying their skis in such a way as to avoid clonking other children on the head. Plus, of course, it makes them look cute.

William was enrolled with a class called Spritelets, run by Ski Esprit specifically for three and four year olds. Also in his class of six was his very best girlfriend Amy who celebrated her third birthday on that first day's skiing, guaranteeing that the little troupe would have a sticky cake to tuck into after their exertions.

All week the Spritelets enjoyed activities in the morning, such as snow play or arts and games, before fuelling themselves at lunchtime for a two-hour lesson in the afternoons, punctuated by a hot chocolate and loo break. Esprit argues that afternoons lend themselves better to teaching very young children, as it is often warmer and they can be prepared for lessons at a more leisurely pace than is possible in the mornings. The tour operator rents local English-speaking ski instructors who follow its own programme that is applied across all its resorts.

In Kaprun, the children's fenced-in learning slope was marked by a giant inflatable penguin, and contained arches to ski through, while a conveyor belt in the centre carried each child up to the top of the slope again, rather like a munchkin production line.

The emphasis is on fun, with each stage made into a game. It is obvious for any observer how very young children adopt a very natural stance on skis, compared with adult learners, who are often tensed up around stooped shoulders and stiff limbs. From the beginning the little ones ski with their hands on their knees, which puts them into the optimum position for balance and control. Drills are then introduced to increase their flexibility and to prepare them for turning.

The children may believe that when they are told to slide down the slope stretching themselves "as tall as a dinosaur" or "curled up as small as an ant" that they are playing a game, but with each exercise they increase their balance and therefore their confidence.

On another occasion the children were each given a small steering wheel and urged to "drive" their car around some cones, an exercise that naturally shifted their body weight in such a way that they were doing turns without having to go through the trauma of getting their heads around Stem Christies.

Andy Perrin says: "The mistake sometimes made by overseas ski schools in some resorts is they try to start children on proper ski lessons too early. The way to do it is to have fun and games. They get used to ski boots if you have jumping games and so it becomes second nature. If it's a game you have happy children. They won't come back from a lesson saying what they've learned today: they'll come back saying what fun they've had."

On our final day of the holiday we decided to ski as a family, and chose the small Lechnerberg nursery area serviced by a T-bar lift. William rode the lift curled under his father's arm like a rugby ball, and at the top we pointed him in what we thought was the safest direction before he set off downhill, with me often (though not always) within arm's reach.

His enthusiasm grew alongside the pinkness of his cheeks as he discovered for himself the excitement and freedom of skiing a pure white hillside. Then on the final run he spied a large snowman at the bottom of the slope. "I want to crash into that!" he yelled. With that attitude, I thought, the day that he rides off on the back of a snowboard with barely a backward glance at his parents is not so very far away.

Tips

Remember that this may be your child's first mountain trip and you should factor in the sometimes dizzying effects of altitude, on top of what will already be a busy and tiring week. In this case therefore, higher is not necessarily better.

Andy Perrin of Ski Esprit says: "Skiers can get fixated on the question of altitude. The reality is that 800m in Austria is completely different from 800m in France." Bullying In this case, not from the child's peer group, but rather the pressure that parents can put on their offspring.

Have realistic expectations of what your child can achieve. Stress what fun the adventure is going to be, rather than what colour slopes you expect them to be tackling. Clothing Even though three and four year olds are well advanced on toilet training, do bring a spare ski suit.

While ski lessons will have staff on hand to assist your child, sometimes all those zips, layers and the complexities of the one-piece, on top of the hot chocolate treats, can result in a small disaster. Do dress them in layers as it makes it easy for the staff to take off according to the temperature.

Perrin stresses the importance of good gloves. "Gloves are one of those pieces of kit that are very easy to pick up cheaply in a supermarket that look like the real thing, but once you've made a snowman and thrown snowballs they're soaking. Cold hands causes more upset than anything else."

www.ski-esprit.co.uk Tel +44 (0)1252 618300

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