By Contributor
updated 1/24/2006 3:48:40 PM ET 2006-01-24T20:48:40

Recent media reports have portrayed ski schools as dangerous, un-family-friendly places where children are taught skiing or snowboarding in classes that are too large by under-qualified instructors. The coverage – “The Ski-School Challenge” in the Friday, January 20, Wall Street Journal – has left parents wondering if ski school is such a good investment after all.

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But the coverage is faulty on many levels and an unnecessary ‘dis’ to an industry that’s already struggling. While enrolling a child in ski school or ski resort child care has its share of hassles and pitfalls – especially during busy holiday weeks – ski schools are generally safe places where children have happy experiences and learn to ski better than if their parents were instructing them.

The public seems to agree, as enrollment in ski schools is on the rise. Over Thanksgiving, Okemo Mountain in Vermont reported a 30 percent increase overall in lessons, with a booming trend in private lessons for kids. Over the same holiday period, 75 percent of private lessons at Okemo were for kids in the 4-14 age bracket. “Parents want to get kids on the slopes faster so they can ski as a family,” Okemo spokeswoman Bonnie MacPherson says. “Parents spend such little time as a family these days. That’s what’s great about skiing. You can do it as a family.”

According to Barbara Thomke, Smugglers’ Notch, recognized by skisnowboard.com as one of the Top 10 for Children’s Programs in North America as well as scores of other publications, has experienced a 22 percent growth in programs for kids ages 5-15.

Winter Park Resort in Colorado has seen similar growth. Last year, the resort launched its Easy Start program. Enrollment in the first-time skier program surpassed expectations by 100 percent, says Darcy Morse, communications coordinator for the resort. Winter Park is listed by skisnowboard.com as one of the Top 10 for Children’s Programs in North America.

As is the case in most children’s learning programs – from swim lessons to gymnastics – parents are encouraged to watch but not interfere. Although this may be perceived as “un-family-friendly,” the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) recommends that parents steer clear of their kids during ski lessons. The organization’s policy, as stated on their Web site, is that “children often listen better and learn more with less fuss when parents are not present.” For any parent who has ever tried to teach his or her child to ski – holding up a whining child who is begging for hot chocolate and goggles like the ones worn by the girl who just got on the chairlift – this policy makes sense.

At Park City’s Kid’s Mountain School, signs reading “No Parents Zone” (not “No Parents Allowed” as the Journal article claimed) use kid-friendly hip language to discourage parents from interfering. “Most parents understand that when kids are in school, that they’re not going to learn as fast as they would if parents were around,” Park City spokesperson Krista Rowels says. But if parents do want to stick around, the resort offers “Mom Dad & Me” lessons that teach parents how to work with their kids when they are skiing together outside of a lesson.

At Okemo, parents are encouraged to watch and take pictures but not to talk to their children or the instructors during a lesson. “We set up bleachers where parents can watch,” MacPherson explains. The bleachers are set up near Okemo’s Magic Carpet learning hill but are in a corner so as not to be obtrusive to the children or instructors. “It’s very distracting for the kids and instructors [when parents talk to their children during class],” MacPherson adds. “It interrupts the learning process.”

And most of the instructors do know what they’re doing. At Okemo, 54 percent of the ski school staff is certified by the PSIA, while 31 percent of the snowboard instructors are certified by the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI), says Okemo’s learning center director Dan Bergeron. “We encourage staff to be certified,” says Bergeron. “But it’s hard. It takes a financial commitment to reach each level of certification.”

Instructors who are not PSIA certified must undergo required training before the season begins, then keep up with training as the winter progresses. They are also required to shadow certified instructors for a minimum of two lessons, then team teach their first classes with more experienced instructors. Okemo also does reference checks on new instructors and face-to-face interviews before hiring them.

For children who do not want to ski or are too young, child care centers can be more fun than playing at a friend’s house. And far safer. Most are licensed by the state and must stick within allowed child-to-caregiver ratios. In California, the state child care requirements are particularly strict. Although California’s 1:4 caregiver-to-infant ratio is similar to those mandated by most states, the state is very particular about teacher qualifications, sanitation, and even toilet training, so much so that only a few resorts – namely Heavenly and Mammoth – offer child care for children under 2 years old.

At Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont – also listed by skisnowboard.com as Top 10 for Children’s Programs – the child care center is a state-of-the-art 5,400-square-foot building that opened in 2002. Among other amenities, it has age-specific play rooms with one-way mirrors for parents to check on their children, and the giant fish tanks in every room are one reason little ones don’t complain when they’re dropped off here.

Caregivers at Smugglers’ must meet the licensing requirements established by the Vermont Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services and be trained in first aid, CPR, child development, and behavior management. Staffing ratios are 1:4 for ages 6 weeks to 30 months; and 1:5 for ages 2-1/2 to 6 years. Parents must show color-coded, numbered security cards to pick up children, and they are not allowed to pick up their kids without the cards, even if their child runs into their arms.

The Journal also stated that there was a “mixed bag of safety precautions” at ski schools, citing lack of helmet policies to long distances to hospitals with Level 1 trauma facilities. While some ski schools require that children wear helmets when enrolled in a lesson, others leave it up to the parents. “Our policy is one of education and choice for parents, along the lines of NSAA’s (National Ski Areas Association) ‘Lids on Kids’ policy,” Okemo’s MacPherson says.

Research has shown that helmets are not effective in certain instances, and in some cases, helmets instill a false sense of security, leading skiers and snowboarders to go faster than they might otherwise. Thus, the NSAA, the trade association for ski areas across the country, recommends that parents, skiers and snowboarders make their own choice about wearing a helmet. “It's up to you to educate yourself about [helmet] benefits and limitations,” reads the NSAA Web site under “Safety & Education. “Ultimately, the choice of whether to wear a helmet is one of personal or parental choice.”

As for ski resorts’ proximity to Level 1 trauma centers – which not only handle the most critically injured but are also research and teaching centers for trauma and are mostly located in major cities – this criterion listed in the Journal article illustrates a false sense of danger in skiing and snowboarding. Children “very rarely” suffer the types of injuries that require this level of treatment, says a long-time ski patrolmskan from Bromley in Vermont. These types of injuries most often result from high-speed impact crashes most often suffered by adults. And he adds, “It’s not the miles, it’s the minutes,” referring to time it takes a helicopter to reach the trauma center from a ski resort.

However, many ski resorts are only a few miles from hospitals with Level III trauma centers. These centers are staffed 24 hours per day with emergency physicians and surgeons and are equipped to handle severely injured or ill patients. For example, the Vail Valley Medical Center in Vail, Colorado, has a Level III trauma center and one of the most renowned orthopedic clinics in the world. When U.S. Ski Team members are injured in Europe, they often fly directly to Vail for treatment.

With ski school costing, at some resorts, upwards of $100 per day, some parents might expect instructors to teach their charges en francais or perhaps throw in some analytical geometry while demonstrating the wedge. But for the most part, ski schools do a good job at what they are supposed to do: Teach kids (and adults too) to have fun on snow. Kids can be stubborn and reluctant to try something new – especially if the word “school” is involved. But ski schools are safer and more family- and kid-friendly than the media would like us to think.

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