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Starting young; when and how to get children on skis? There's new thinking ... and new services at ski areas.

When and how to get children on skis ? There's new thinking . . . and new services at ski areas

A small revolution is afoot at ski areas all over the West. You see its perpetrators-little bundles of nylon and wool-barreling downhill in stem christies; wrestling with a fair imitation of a diagonal stride on nordic trails; in a backpack or sled, nodding off to Mom's or Dad's rhythmic kick and glide; and even building snowmen outside the lodge (day care, too, has hit ski areas in a big way).

"These days, if parents can't bring their kids, they may not come," one resort staffer told us. Working parents may be eager to have their children along on precious vacations, but tbey also want to pursue their own outdoor interests.

Six years used to be the usual starting age for ski school; today it's a rare ski area that doesn't have some kind of on-skis program for preschoolers, be it the nationwide Ski Wee program or classes developed by a ski area's own ski school. Day care is not yet available at every area, but it's quickly becoming a common amenity. Most recently, a few nordic centers have begun offering programs for children as young as two years. Traditionally, crosscountry instruction was unavailable for anyone under 10.

Skiing with children isn't without its hassles. For this report, we spoke with more than a hundred children's ski professionals and dozens of parents. Do children enjoy these early outings? Yes, most of the time-depending mainly on the parents' preparedness and approach. Keeping your expectations low is crucial.

No "right" age to start downhill skiing Although some children are ready at three, even six-year-olds may have to work at adjusting-all at once-to being in a new environment, wearing unwieldy equipment, and being taught a new skill. Almost always, a child will learn far more easily from a trained instructor than from a parent. Some programs offer lunch and supervised indoor time, so parents don't have to rush down the mountain as soon as their children's lessons end. Full-day programs run between $25 and $50.

Don't assume that the most expensive areas will have the best programs. Instead, try to assess an area's commitment to children by calling ahead and asking questions, or ask friends who've tried it. When you call, ask for a description of the children's facilities. Is there a separate teaching area? Most areas have terrain designed to develop half-pint skiers' techon crowded slopes or fast-moving chair lifts. Nordic skiing is a different story. Don't try it unless you're already competent on skis. Most parents use a hiker's baby backpack. The rhythm often lulls children to sleep, so choose a pack with a headrest. Zippered compartments for food and extra clothes are handy.

Increasingly popular are pulks, Scandinavian sleds designed for skiers to pull children. These work best on groomed trails. Keeping an immobile baby warm is the first priority. Dress your child in loose, warm layers, bundle him into a cozy sleeping bag, and check often. Don't plan to go far, save diaper changes for the trailhead, and carry plenty of snacks.

By age two or three, your child may be too restless (and too big) for a backpack or pulk, and might be ready for some ski play. Most won't actually be coordinated enough to follow a trail. "Moon boots," with extended toes that strap into matching skis, are okay for the very young; by age four or five, children are better off with real boots and skis preferably with three-pin bindings for lateral stability.

A four- or five-year-old may last an hour or two "if he's not hungry, it's not nap time, and it's not too cold," said one mother. A few nordic centers now offer structured lesson programs, mostly for ages four and older. Look for programs that emphasize learning through play, since children aren't usually ready to work on technique until at least age seven. We found some programs much more competition-oriented than others. Unless rearing an Olympic medalist is your first priority, stick with those that put fun ahead of achievement. Cost runs about $12 for 1-1/2 hours, $25 for 3 hours, including gear.

Downhill or cross-country, be prepared When equipping fast-growing youngsters, renting is the best idea. Ski swaps have low-cost gear, but educate yourself about sizes and makes beforehand. We highly recommend good secondhand equipment over cheap plastic skis, which are prohibited by some ski schools.

Dressing ski-bound children in layers, with a water-repellent shell, is the warmest-and cheapest-way to outfit them. One father recommended polypropylene long underwear and polyester fleece mittens and hats: "They don't itch, so they tend to leave them on."

Mittens are warmer and easier to put on than gloves; choose ones that overlap with jacket sleeves and, if your child will be using a rope tow, ones with leather palms. A change of clothes is imperative; extra socks and mittens are especially important. It's hard to describe the looks of relief we saw on the faces of two soakingwet little skiers when Dad pulled out dry ski outfits from the family gear bag.

Talking older children into wearing sunglasses (or goggles) is generally not a problem. Babies should wear them, too, though they may grab at them; a snug jacket hood foils removal attempts.

Sun screen is a must, since dermatologists now believe sunburns during childhood can drastically increase the chance of skin cancer later in life. Use waterproof screen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Barring allergies (spot-test beforehand), doctors feel PABA is safe, even for infants.

Day care for skiing families

Of the 35 biggest ski areas in the West, more than half now offer some form of on-site child care; many smaller areas offer it as well. A few take children as young as two months; almost all accept ages two and older. Most charge about $30 for a full day (up to $50).

Ski-area day care usually offers indoor activities and snow play. With some, there's no need for parents to check in during the day; others ask parents to come in at lunchtime.

Call ahead to make reservations (most require them). Remember to ask questions about the center's facilities and routines, and find out whether you need to bring a sack lunch or any nursery gear. nique. In Colorado, Vail and Beaver Creek have three huge ski-slope playlands based on Western themes; they include such skill builders as banked turns and "bump" and "roll" fields.

Ask how many will be in a class. The usual range is I to 10 children per instructor, although experts generally caution against assigning an instructor more than 4 or 5 children under six.

In programs that include play other than skiing, what exactly will the children be doing? California's Mt. Reba/Bear Valley has coloring books and games with skiing themes to entertain youngsters inside. Northstar-at-Tahoe includes music and storytelling in its program.

Tackling the nordic trail with a child Few alpine skiers want to don a backpack containing an infant when they head out
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Date:Dec 1, 1988
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