Teaching Kids to Downhill Ski

How to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski

Kids can learn to downhill ski at a very young age with a little bit of patience, some key gear, and a few tried-and-true pieces of advice. Check out our tips, tricks, and gear recommendations for teaching kids to ski below.

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Get Them Excited for Skiing!

A few weeks ago, my bleary-eyed and pajama-clad 4-year-old hopped out of his room and up onto the couch for his morning weather observations.

I watched his entire face light up as he pressed his nose against the front window. He pointed aggressively at the layer of frost on the neighbor’s roof shouting, “Mom! Look! It snowed! Now we can go skiing!!”

Poor buddy doesn’t quite realize that we need a little more than frost to make his dreams a reality (come on, Pacific Northwest winter!). But his enthusiasm was a sight to behold! And man did it warm my heart to see that he is as excited for ski season as we are.

Our skiing journey with Micah started when he was about 15 months old, a few months after he started walking. That first winter his feet were still too small for standard ski boots. We had some hand-me-down plastic skis that strapped on over regular winter boots, so we started with those.

How to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski
That smile was well worth the lower back ache!

These skis were ergonomically horrendous for us as parents. We basically had to bend over and hold him upright while shuffling forward in a wide-legged stance. That year we limited our adventuring to my in-laws’ slightly sloped cul-de-sac and the park down the street from our house.

But the first time we heard his uncontrollable giggling, clapping, and shouts of “More! Again!” we knew we were in this for the long haul.

Getting Started is the Hardest Part

We now have a few years of skiing with small people under our belts. We’ve learned a few things along the way! It hasn’t all been smiles and successes, but it has definitely been an experience we wouldn’t trade for anything.

How to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski
Not a bad spot for a pep talk/neck warmer adjustment

Getting started is the hardest part. My hope is that a little peek into our family’s experience can help encourage you to do just that!

For some great tips that apply almost across the board to snow sports, check out Amelia’s post on Tips for XC Skiing with Kids (think: snacks, bribery, peer pressure, dressing for the weather). We’ve limped our way through many a difficult and tantrum-filled day on the mountain with the help of hand warmers and Annie’s Bunny Grahams.

How to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski
A little bribery goes a long way…

Start Early, Start Indoors

Before you even think about going out into the snow (and cold!), practice everything at home, inside, in a familiar space. Put on all the layers. Walk around in ski boots (on carpet – hard floors are crazy slippery). Strap on skis and slide around a bit to get them used to what everything feels like.

The more familiar everything is, the more you can focus on actually teaching kids to ski when you get into the snow.

How to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski
One of many living room ski boot walking practice sessions

The Gear You Need to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski

Obviously teaching kids to ski requires gear (skis and boots!), but some things are more crucial than others. And remember it doesn’t need to be top-of-the-line to be successful. Here are our best tips to get what you need:

Borrow Before You Buy

If you have friends with slightly older kids, ask if they still have gear from when their kids first started skiing. Hop onto neighborhood Facebook groups or message boards and see if anyone has extra stuff laying around.

Especially for initial exposure to the gear, you don’t need to break the bank. We’ve even found perfectly good kids’ skis given away for free on the side of the road in the summer!

If those options don’t yield any results, look into renting gear. Youth rentals are usually reasonably priced.

If You Have to Buy, Buy Used

Little kids rarely wear through much of anything, so there is a ton of used gear out there. Local ski swaps are a great place to look for things like skis, boots, and goggles if you have that opportunity in your area.

We’ve found great deals on most of our base layers and outerwear either on eBay or at consignment shops. Just be sure you’re layering kids well (check out this post for a full guide to layering kids for winter weather). Be conscious about avoiding cotton and keeping them as warm and dry as possible.

Quality makes a difference, but great deals are out there if you’re willing to look for them!

Amelia has also had great luck purchasing family-friendly sets at Level Nine Sports.

Gear to Invest in (Because You WILL Need Some!)

Edgie Wedgie

The best $15 we’ve ever spent was on the Edgie Wedgie. This little gadget keeps the tips of your kid’s skis from crossing. It basically forces them to “pizza” and gives them much better odds at staying upright.

This does prevent kids from initially learning to control their skis and turn on their own. However, we have found that for small, light kids it really helps them get basic balance figured out and minimizes discouragement.

A Helmet

A snow-specific helmet is non-negotiable. Remember, even if YOUR kid is safe and going slow, there are other people on the hill. There are lots of great options out there depending on your budget and the size of your kid’s noggin.

We love our Giro Crue, and Sarah has a great review of the Anon Define that you can find here. Check out other helmets we recommend here.

Bottom line: even at super slow speeds, little heads need protection. Once you’ve moved on from walking with them between your legs, it’s a good idea to start getting them used to a helmet.

A Kinderlift Vest

There is a reason why the Kinderlift vest is a staple at most ski schools around the country. It zips on easily over a jacket and has a reinforced handle on the back.

The handle is perfect for picking kids up after tumbles in the early stages. Once they are ready to start riding lifts, it also makes loading and keeping a grip on them infinitely easier and safer.

The Kinderlift vest also works great for learning to cross country ski (and helps save your back!)

How to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski
We chose the brightly colored helmet and vest for higher visibility on low light days

Pack Smart for Lower Stress Downhill Skiing

We typically keep ski gear stored in separate plastic totes (one for each kid, one for adults). This way we aren’t rummaging through bags trying to figure out whose gloves are whose while standing in the freezing cold. Bonus: this also helps us get out the door in the morning because everything is already packed!

Each tote contains: helmet, goggles, gloves/mittens, extra ski socks, ski boots, snowpants, jacket, balaclava, and regular winter boots. To streamline things even further, pack it in reverse order – last items to go on are the first to get packed.

At the end of the day, all the wet gear goes back into the tote. Once everything is all dried out at home it goes right back into the tote to be stored for the next outing – voila!

Toss a small, snow-friendly toy into your bag – you never know when you’ll need it!

We also always dress everyone in their base layers for the ride up. That makes one less thing we have to worry about once we arrive. I highly recommend packing a spare set in case of any in-car mishaps – take it from a mom of carsick kids who has cleaned vomit out of the nooks and crannies of a car seat one too many times in her life!

Plan Your Approach

As any parent of a toddler knows, all transitions are hard! The one from the warm car to the cold ski hill can be a real doozy if you’re not prepared. Teaching kids to ski starts with setting them up for success as much as possible.

Once you get yourself dressed in outer layers and ready to go (always do that first to minimize time kids are standing around), get kids dressed in all their outer layers before you leave the car. This means less gear to lug up to the hill, less exposure to the cold, and less chance of base layers getting wet.

Team Member Ginny’s son River fully dressed to impress

Now comes the really fun part – lugging everything to the hill! This probably includes your toddler, especially if you have a decent amount of ground to cover and they are still getting used to the joy that is walking in ski boots.

Gear to Get You From Here to There

If you have the space to fit one more thing in your vehicle, you may want to invest in a collapsible wagon like this one from Mac Sports. Toss everything in and be on your way! Or if you’re planning on bringing a sled anyways as a backup activity, you can use that to pull gear (and kids).

My husband has mastered the art of balancing our son and 2 pairs of skis on his shoulders (insert surprised/terrified face emoji here!). I carry our younger child and any snacks, hand warmers, and extra clothes in a framed kid carrier.

There are also a lot of great backpacks out there with built-in ski carrying systems (like this option from Deuter), as well as creative ways to strap skis to a regular backpack. Backpacks are a great option if you’re going to be moving around quite a bit and want to have access to everything on-the-go.

If you don’t want to worry about trying to attach skis to a backpack, you can also find relatively cheap shoulder strap carriers for skis. These could be used in addition to any other backpack that you already have.

Chill Out and Keep it Fun

The first time we took our son out on “real skis” it was a couple months after his 2nd birthday. We had no idea what to expect, but we did know that he tends to be pretty cautious and nervous when it comes to new experiences.

Our primary goal for this introductory day had nothing to do with skill, and everything to do with having him enjoy himself. Our primary hope was to build positive associations with the idea of skiing and the atmosphere of the mountain.

We arranged to meet another family at the mountain so he had a buddy to help keep him motivated. We took lots of snowman breaks.

A well-deserved snowman break

We made sure we had a Thermos of hot chocolate on the ready and threw a sled in the car in case we needed a change of pace (spoiler alert: we did). We mustered every ounce of enthusiasm we could find to keep his spirits up when he started to get frustrated.

Everything is better with a friend

By focusing on fun rather than progress, we were able to keep the tone light and keep frustration to a minimum. And at the end of the day we had a tired, happy boy. He proudly announced that he LOVED SKIING, which was exactly what all of us needed.

Take it Slow

If you’re lucky, your kid may be a natural and ready to hop on the chairlift after a couple of days. For our family, however (along with most families we know), that has not been the case. Micah is naturally cautious and somewhat risk-averse. We are constantly figuring out how to push him out of his comfort zone while still making sure he is having fun and feeling safe.

Expect your toddler’s first day on skis to look a lot like this.

We celebrate the tiniest accomplishments with Olympic gold medal level enthusiasm, because that buoys him up to keep being brave. Teaching kids to ski often requires channeling your inner cheerleader.

When Micah started to get bored with the beginner’s area at Whistler last year, Ben took him on a gondola ride. He did this with no expectation of Micah skiing down. It was just a great opportunity for our little boy to see what the “grown up” part of the mountain looked like.

On the first ride, he had absolutely zero interest in unloading and skiing steeper terrain so they just stayed on and rode back down to the bottom.

Surveying the scene

He absolutely loved the gondola! If his dad had forced him to ski down the first time, I can only imagine how vehemently he would have protested. Instead, they stayed on and rode it a few times.

It was a sacrifice of a couple runs on a beautiful bluebird day, but by the time Micah was ready it was on his terms. He powered through what was by far the longest run of his life. Sometimes teaching kids to ski means surrendering your plans for the greater good.

Made it!

Remember, these early experiences are all about building positive memories. Try to stay focused on that, and the skills and experience will come.

Work With What You’ve Got

If you happen to live near a larger resort with a magic carpet in the beginner’s area, count your lucky stars! Our home mountain is more on the rustic side. We completely abandoned the handle tow after several brutal trips up with Micah either between my husband’s legs, in his arms, or on his shoulders.

While we were focused on slow speed fundamentals, we decided to steer clear of the typically crowded bunny hill. Instead we found some gentle slopes near the lodge where there wasn’t a lot of high speed traffic. Much less stress for everyone.

After each “run”, my husband would hook the end of his ski pole onto the Edgie Wedgie and just pull Micah back up to the top. Teaching kids to ski is a constant exercise in creativity!

Who needs a handle tow?

Of course when we took a family trip to Whistler, we took full advantage of their multiple beginner’s areas. We lapped the magic carpet until the cows came home.

Dreams really do come true

Bottom line: whether you’re at a top-of-the-line resort or in your backyard, you can teach your kids the basics and have fun doing it. Get creative, think outside the box, and don’t get discouraged if your situation doesn’t seem “ideal” for teaching.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Try something different! There are so many techniques for teaching kids to ski. You may have to try a few strategies and methods before you figure out what works well for you. A quick YouTube search can give you endless ideas using everything from harnesses to hula hoops to hockey sticks!

Ginny and River (age two and a half), testing out the hula hoop method

We had a friend whose nanny was a former ski instructor. She recommended tethering littles by their boots rather than using a harness. This enables them to learn to balance their own weight right from the get-go. My husband rigged up his own device with webbing and carabiners and it worked out really well for us. We also recommend the Hookease Ski Trainer for this method.

Micah at age 2, learning to balance himself over his skis using a homemade training device

Amelia’s family uses a Kinderlift vest + Harness and Leashes to learn. See video below!

Do some research ahead of time. Have a few different strategies in mind before you head up to the hill. There’s at least a decent chance that things won’t work out as planned. What may seem like a foolproof strategy for one family may not work for you at all. That’s ok! Take a breath, regroup, and try something else. Teaching kids to ski is not an exact science. It’s an adventure!

This will be our daughter’s first winter on real skis. We know that teaching her will bring an entirely new set of joys and challenges. I’m grateful to pass the plastic skis down to another family with a wobbly toddler in tow. Now to pray for snow!

Aprés ski, toddler style.

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5 thoughts on “How to Teach Kids to Downhill Ski”

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