Ski resorts beckon to preschool set

Trends

December 10, 2006|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,TRIBUNE NEWSPAPER

It's not easy being 3 -- especially at a ski resort.

Just ask Ethan Sitzman, who is 3 1 / 2 (not 3!) and heading to ski school for the first time at Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado. There are all those clothes to put on: long underwear, fleece sweat shirt, heavy socks, ski pants and jacket, goggles, ski helmet, waterproof mittens and the orange bib tied over his jacket that designates Ethan as a ski school cub who hasn't yet learned to stop on his skis.

How come the mittens keep falling off? How do you keep goggles from pinching your nose? How come you need sunscreen in the snow? It's hard enough to move around in the clunky ski boots, much less with skis on, too! And as soon as you get outside, you need a bathroom break.

It's enough to make any 3-year-old say, "Wait till next year!"

And if that's the case, "let them wait," says Charlie Farnan, Crested Butte's longtime mountain schools director. "Don't make their first experience one that might turn them off to a sport."

It's not easy being a parent of a preschooler at a ski resort, either. I've hustled my kids out of bed, rushing through breakfast to get to ski school on time, and once there, bought plenty of mittens, goggles and lip balm when ours somehow got left behind at the condo. I've raced down the mountain at the end of the day, hoping I wouldn't be late to pick up the kids, hoping they wouldn't be too pooped to show me what they learned. I've lugged my share of exhausted children -- and their gear -- at the end of the day.

That all comes rushing back to me as I help Ethan's mom, my cousin Jayme Sitzman, who lives in Golden, Colo., get Ethan ready for ski school and get his younger sister, Hannah, ready for day care at the mountain's center.

Despite the effort involved and the cost (programs can run more than $100 per day for lessons, lifts and equipment), snow-loving parents seem to want their kids skiing and snowboarding earlier than ever, say Farnan and other ski school directors.

This season, ski schools are responding with an array of programs. Breckenridge (breckenridge.com), for example, will show advanced preschool skiers how to do tricks in the terrain park, while Vail (vail.com) offers snowboard lessons for 4-year-olds. Aspen (aspensnowmass.com) has developed "nanny cub care" this season, including one-on-one lessons, even for 2-year-olds. In Utah, Alta (alta.com) has introduced a similar "pre-ski" for 2-year-olds, with lessons and the chance to help mascot Alta Bear get ready to explore the mountain. Smugglers' Notch in Vermont (smuggs.com) will teach "Little Rascals on Snow" as young as 2 1 / 2 .

Increasing numbers of parents are opting for even pricier private lessons that can cost $600 for a full day, with one instructor for the entire family. "It's the biggest new demand in our business," said Dee Byrne, who oversees Vail's ski schools.

Parents are also signing on for the growing number of mommy-daddy-and-me lessons at resorts such as Crested Butte and Keystone in Colorado, Okemo and Smugglers' Notch in Vermont, and Northstar-at-Tahoe in California.

Though Ethan's parents are expert skiers, they know better than to try to teach Ethan themselves. Smart move, says Bobby Murphy, head of Telluride's ski school and father of a 3-year-old.

"I wouldn't teach my own child," Murphy said. "It's frustrating for the parent and for the child."

Ski school directors say that children's ski instructors are specially trained to teach young skiers and boarders, and that the instructors have completed workshops on everything from first aid to developmental issues.

A tip from the pros: If possible, visit the ski school with your child the day before you plan to enroll in order to pick up equipment and give the kids a tour. That will make for a much smoother first day. Give the kids a chance to get acclimated to the mountain environment and the snow, especially if you're coming from warmer climes. (Check out yurmountain.org, the new interactive Web site for kids that is a collaborative effort of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, the American Association of Snowboard Instructors and the National Ski Patrol.)

At Crested Butte's ski school, Ethan immediately makes friends with little boys from New Mexico, Oklahoma and New Jersey. It's not uncommon at ski school for the kids to meet children and instructors from around the world. We're pleased that there are only three kids per instructor in Ethan's group.

Another tip: For smaller classes and better deals, avoid holiday weeks. This season, look for packages at Western ski resorts that offer free flights, lifts and lodging for kids. You can arrange customized packages at skithewest.com, moguls.com and ski.com.

Ethan and his buddies head to the 100-foot magic carpet, a very slow-moving escalator without steps that takes the kids up a slight pitch so they can practice without having to climb back up.

Ethan falls a lot, but he thinks it's funny. Like other parents and grandparents, we stand and watch outside the "corral," snapping pictures.

"Way to go, Ethan!" we yell. His goggles are cockeyed and his mittens keep falling off. His nose is running and his cheeks are red. He makes believe he's Spider-Man (his favorite superhero) on the magic carpet. He's having a blast.

Ethan leaves ski school that day pretty pleased with himself. The next day, his instructor takes him up the beginner lift. Ethan declares that by the end of the season, he'll be such a good skier that he won't need to go to ski school anymore.

Not so fast, buddy!

Eileen Ogintz writes for Tribune newspapers.

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