Dossier: Family

Skiing and snowboarding: when are kids ready for the slopes?

Winter sports are fun for the whole family, but at what age should children start to ski? And what do parents need to know so their first attempts don’t end in tears and tantrums?

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: iStock

Some children whiz down the piste and do the most amazing tricks at a young age or ski down the slopes with the grown-ups on a ski leash. Many families can’t wait to get on the slopes as soon as the first snow hits. But tears and tantrums aren’t uncommon either. What’s the best age to start skiing?  

Early learning: at what age can kids start to ski?

“Learning to ski is relatively easy. In Switzerland, most children start between the age of two and four”, says Roland Primus, Director of the Schweizer Schneesport Berufs- und Schulverband (Swiss snow sports professional and school association). Physically, there’s nothing to be said against such an early start and the risk of injury for small children in the snow is very low. And of course, exercise in the fresh air is healthy and it helps to strengthen the muscles and improve balance. Perfect!

“It only makes sense to put children into ski school if they are happy to leave their parents and are out of nappies.”
Roland Primus, Director of Schweizer Schneesport Berufs- und Schulverband

Out of nappies and onto the slopes

Once children can stand and walk properly, they’re good to go. Many parents take their kids to a nearby mountain to get started. The confidence and security skiing as a family then lays the foundation for a good start to snow sports. “It only makes sense to put children into ski school if they are happy to leave their parents and are out of nappies”, says Primus. Then learning in a group offers a lot of benefits: “Children have fun learning with a professional instructor with kids of the same age. They learn from each other and spur each other on.” 

What’s easier: skiing or snowboarding?

Different rules apply to snowboarding. Children physically don’t have the tools they need to learn the challenging movements and keep their balance until around the age of five or six. “At this age, young snowboarders can also free themselves from the snowboard if they need to walk”, says the expert.

Despite all the recommendations, parents shouldn’t feel pressured to get their kids out on the mountain. Skiing can be picked up later on and children catch up pretty quickly. Starting later isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Primus says, “The child needs to show an interest in skiing. They shouldn’t be forced into it. Parents should wait until the child is ready and willing”. After all, skiing is a leisure activity, not a school subject. Generally speaking, if parents enjoy skiing, children will tend to follow suit.

Where and when should children learn to ski?

Having fun in the snow and on the slopes depends to a large extent on external factors. Ski holidays should be as practical and stress-free as possible. So it’s worth doing a bit of research before hitting the slopes with the whole family. “You’ve got to think about the altitude, the weather and the temperature”, says Primus. It’s often freezing in shady or high Alpine ski regions, so it’s a good idea to opt for lower, sunny and family-friendly slopes with a good infrastructure.

“Young kids get practice for around two hours in the snow when the sun shines and it’s warm”. The later in the season you go, the more hours of sunshine you’ll get. So the Easter holidays are perfect. The practice area should taper off and not be too steep. “That makes it less scary”, says Primus. “This way, children can learn by doing rather than clinging to their parents”.

If parents take turns with the child, swapping at lunch, they can each have half a day to ski themselves, so everyone’s happy. So, it saves time and means it’s less stressful if your accommodation is within walking distance of the lift. Speaking of chairlifts – from what age are children allowed to use them? Chairlifts can be difficult to manage for kids. “Although modern chairlifts are designed to prevent children falling out, there are models where children have to be accompanied by an adult until they reach a height of 1.40 m”, says Primus. Of course, they can use the lift at any age when accompanied by an adult. 

What equipment do you need? 

All you really need is warm and water-proof clothing, sunglasses and skis.  Kids train initially without poles. And, on the nursery slopes, children can wear a woolly hat to keep warm instead of a helmet. Back protection is also not necessary at these speeds. It is important, however, that the equipment fits: “Ski boots have to fit comfortably. Don’t buy them two to three years in advance. It can be dangerous if the boots are too big, because then there’s not enough grip, which increases the risk of a fall”, warns Primus. The skis should reach to around your chest and shoulders and not be too long.

Gadgets: yes or no?

Primus has noticed a worrying trend to take children onto difficult pistes too soon. “Children learn about the world through playing and by trial and error. If children are strapped into a harness and taken onto steep slopes too soon, they will be out of their depth and won’t learn to brake. They then switch to survival mode.” This increases the risk of injury. “Parents don’t usually have the expertise or know-how to keep their children safe in case of accidents at high speeds.” 

Primus also doesn’t recommend clamps that prevent skis from crossing in front and advises that it’s better to learn slowly and naturally. Going slow is a good idea not only on the piste, but also for ski holidays in general. For example, you can switch things up now and again by going snowshoeing, sledging, tobogganing and having snowball fights – for more fun, variety and relaxation while on holiday.