By Erica Houskeeper
It’s not every day an Olympic gold medalist skis with your preschooler. Unless you’re in the Ski Tots program at Cochran’s Ski Area.
I started the Ski Tots program in early January with my three-year-old daughter, Phoebe. The four-week program teaches parents how to teach their preschoolers to ski. How hard could it be teaching little ones on the slopes? Trust me, it’s not as easy as you might think.
Phoebe fortunately has a keen sense of adventure. The idea of skiing appeals to her, and she always enjoys the outdoors. But I know my limitations. I’m neither an athlete nor a saint, and I quickly realized that teaching my child the joy of skiing requires a combination of physical strength and lasting patience. Lots of it.
Things started off on a good note at our first lesson. Outfitted in a blue-and-white ski bib that stretched over her polka dot winter jacket, Phoebe beamed as I clipped on her tiny Blizzard skis and tightened her helmet. Trying to form a wedge as best she could, she giggled and wobbled down the bunny hill while I stood below to catch her in my arms. We had a blast.
Piece of cake, I foolishly reassured myself after that first day at Cochran’s. Truth be told, it really wasn’t that easy. My body hurt and I was exhausted from lugging around my 30-pound daughter and her kiddie ski equipment. Still, Phoebe was happy and having fun, so my physical aches and pains were well worth it.
Then my overconfidence came back to haunt me. Shortly after we donned our boots and skis for lesson two the following week, things started to fall apart. The Ski Tot program instructors offer some one-on-one time with parents and kids, but there’s also down time where parents are trying to figure things out own their own. For us, that down time spelled trouble.
For our first run during week two, I decided to wing it so we wouldn’t have to wait too long for an instructor. I struggled to keep Phoebe upright on the Mitey-Mite rope-tow lift, and we only made it 10 yards up the hill before we ditched off to the side. I then scrambled to keep my wits about me as I placed Phoebe between my skis and snowplowed down the hill. “Too fast!” she yelled. “I don’t want to ski anymore. I want to go inside…I want to go home.”
Was our first run of the day also our last? If I forced Phoebe back up the hill, I would risk her never wanting to ski again. If we packed up and went home as she wanted, she might never want to return.
As I weighed my options, Barbara Ann Cochran skied over and came to my rescue. Cochran, who won the gold in slalom in the 1972 Winter Games, is the director of the 30-year-old Ski Tots program. Sensing our frustration, she pulled me aside and asked if she could talk to Phoebe.
“At her age, skiing is all about play time. Give her lots of choices and see what she wants to do,” Barbara Ann told me. “If she doesn’t want to ski anymore today, then don’t.”
Barbara Ann is a gifted instructor and seems to know exactly how to talk to kids. As Phoebe sat quietly in the snow at the base of the mountain with her skis discarded off to the side, Barbara Ann knelt beside her and smiled. She offered Phoebe an M&M (with my blessing) and asked her to take another run. Phoebe nodded, and in a quiet voice, said, “Sure.” I happily tagged along.
We took three runs with Barbara Ann, and her guidance made all the difference. While my intentions were good on my instructor-free initial run, my technique was all wrong.
After spending time with Barbara Ann, I learned the right way to ride the Mitey-Mite with a youngster. Believe it or not, you don’t hold your child like a rag doll and hope for the best. Instead, you prop your child’s body firmly against your knees and make sure their hands are wrapped tightly around the rope tow’s orange handle with yours.
As for skiing, Barbara Ann showed me a much easier way to get Phoebe down the hill. “Make it a game,” Barbara Ann suggested, turning to my daughter. “Phoebe, see if you can catch your mom.”
Facing Phoebe, I slowly skied backward and gave her just enough space to glide on her own. To start, I made a fist and placed it on her chest to control her initial speed and alleviate any fears (mine, mostly).
Then I let go so she could ski by herself. And she did.
Erica Houskeeper is a writer and communications professional with nearly 20 years of experience. She grew up in Manchester, Vermont, and started skiing at age 4 at Bromley Mountain. She also spent her childhood skiing at Stratton, Magic, and the former Snow Valley ski area. After working as a journalist in Vermont, Erica later became director of communications for the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. In 2009, she launched www.happyvermont.com, a Vermont travel blog that explores the places and people of the Green Mountain State. Her blog has hundreds of subscribers and a loyal following. She currently works as writer and photographer, and lives in Burlington with her husband and young daughter.