Best Time to Start: When your child is about 1, try a short run on a gentle slope, holding her securely on your lap. By age 4 (or 3 if they’re tall enough), most kids can ride by themselves on easy hills, though they probably won’t be able to steer. Make sure that your child has enough coordination to use her feet as brakes if she needs to stop suddenly.
Where to Start: It’s best on a shallow hill clear of trees and other solid objects, with an adequate flat runout (about half the length of the hill). Hike up before you slide down, looking for things to avoid: thin snow cover, large bumps, obstacles hidden beneath the snow, and large chunks of snow or ice. And, of course, no sled run should cross even a quiet street. (You can find areas for tubing and sledding, complete with lifts, at some ski areas.)
Gear Check: While inner tubes and plastic saucers are cheap and rugged, and will slide in almost any snow condition, you can’t steer them. Toboggans, wooden sleds with metal runners, and one-piece plastic luges can be steered and will slide faster, so they are best for an experienced or older sledder, or with a grown-up on board.
Safety Issues: Conditions can change drastically if the snow melts and refreezes. A medium-fast run one day can have glazed over into a dangerously fast run the next. So for your first slide of the day, start halfway up the hill and gradually move up your starting place. Get children out of the way quickly after their run to avoid traffic jams, pile-ups, and injuries.
Pro Tip: “Tell kids to start in a safe position — seated or lying on their stomach with arms and legs tucked in. Make sure they hold on, so they don’t go flying if they hit a bump,” says Marge McIntosh, activities director at Smugglers’ Notch Resort, in Vermont. Little kids should be securely in place before an adult gives them a push. Older kids can push themselves with their arms and legs, luge-style.
Allen St. John is the author of Skiing for Dummies and Bicycling for Dummies.
SKIINGBest Time to Start: Age 4 or older; some ski schools accept potty-trained 3-year-olds. Younger kids may have trouble holding their skis in a wedge formation, which is essential for making turns and controlling speed.
Where to Start: At a ski area with a children’s program; try an hour-long lesson, then build up. Wait until your child feels comfortable on skis before signing him up for an all-day session.
Gear Check: Make sure that boots are neither too big nor too small: Remove an inner liner from one of the plastic shells and have your child put his foot inside the liner to see if it fits. If possible, choose a ski area with a rental shop that stocks easier-to-turn shaped skis in kids’ sizes. Kids younger than 8 don’t need poles, which actually get in the way.
Take a Lesson? Definitely. Beginner lessons come as part of a typical learn-to-ski package (about $50 a day at many resorts) that also includes rental equipment and a lift ticket. Kids usually do best in group lessons with those their own age.
Learning Curve: Within the first few hours, most kids 5 and older can make a wedge turn; younger ones should be sliding confidently, if not turning, by that time. After the lesson, ask the instructor to show you some ways to practice with your child.
Safety Issues: Ideally, all kids should wear ski-specific helmets, but it’s essential for those who’ve graduated from the beginners’ hill because the hills will be steeper and the runs faster. Bike helmets don’t offer adequate protection for the back of the head.
Pro Tip: “At our area, the lessons are $25. If parents want to watch, they’re $50. And it’s $150 if they want to help,” jokes Grant Nakamura, a teacher in Buck Hill, MN, and a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America’s junior education team. The message: Keep your distance. Your presence will only distract your child and undermine the authority of the instructor.
SKATINGBest Time to Start: Age 3 or older — kids younger than that may not have the necessary ankle strength.
Where to Start: An indoor rink is usually easier than a frozen pond. “The ice is resurfaced periodically, so there are no ruts, and you don’t have to worry about thin ice,” says Jody Meacham, coauthor, with Kristi Yamaguchi, of Figure Skating for Dummies.
Gear Check: Rental equipment from the local rink is fine, but make sure the skates fit right: If they’re too loose, a child can’t control the skates; if they’re too tight, they’ll hurt.
She should be able to move her toes up and down, but shouldn’t be able to wiggle them side-to-side or lift her heel. Check that the blade edges feel sharp; also look for nicks and burrs that can catch on the ice. Some kids may lobby for hockey skates, but figure skates — which are more stable because of their longer blades — are better for beginners.
Take a Lesson? If you can skate and have a good coaching rapport with your child, you might try the do-it-yourself approach. If not, many rinks offer lessons for about $60 for six half-hour sessions, with equipment rental.
Learning Curve: After a couple of hours most kids can stand and glide, and they’ll master basic turns within the first couple of days.
Safety Issues: A budding Tara Lipinski should learn jumps and spins from a coach. If your child is skating outdoors, teach her to heed thin-ice warnings, and be sure she has constant supervision. If she wants to try hockey, she’ll need the required helmet and protective pads.
Pro Tip: How do I, whoa, stop? “Most kids learn the T-stop first,” says Meacham. While gliding on one skate, extend the other behind you, perpendicular to the front skate, and lower the blade so that it scrapes the ice. Just be careful not to step on the gliding blade with the back skate, he adds.