Playing in the Snow

Children learning how to ski or snowboard require one thing, above all, to make their day a success: fun.

"Teaching 4-year-olds means taking breaks and just playing in the snow and making snowballs or snow angels," said Gary Townsend, snowsports school supervisor now in his 10th season at Dodge Ridge. "We have three goals for our first-timers: safety, fun and learning."

All three carry major importance, of course, but it's hard to underestimate "fun" to a 4-year-old. By definition, the first day on skis or snowboards could become a nightmare: a long and potentially difficult car trip, equipment-fitting issues, bad weather, a tough time catching on to the basics, etc.

The ski industry, painfully aware of the need to provide a good experience for first-timers, is trying hard to make that first impression a good one.

"The kids deserve a safe environment. Their parents have entrusted us with their children for the day. All children wear helmets and we make sure to put them on the right terrain for their level," Townsend said. "And our instructors are trained it make it fun."

The "magic carpet," the people-mover designed primarily to get ski beginners up and down the instruction area, must be the greatest addition to ski resorts in recent years. Another plus are the children's playrooms, reserved only for the kids and the instructors, at many lodges (including Dodge's new Family Lodge).

Another goal by Dodge Ridge's 140-person instructional staff this season was the reduction of class size. Smaller classes translates into more interaction.

"We have our classes down to four kids for the 4-year-olds and six for the older groups," Townsend said. "The first-time experience is so important. If it isn't positive, we've lost these people. That's key for the whole industry."

Ski-instruction students reportedly have increased at Dodge this season as officials constantly streamline the process. Here are some tips to break in your children the right way:

If possible, choose a sunny bluebird day.

Make sure your child is properly clothed to guard against the inevitable snow-down-the-back discomfort.

Find out-of-the-way resorts, like Dodge Ridge or Bear Valley or Tahoe-Donner, for smaller crowds and less stress.

When the kids finally advance to the bunny hill, they present a small break for parents. It's called the interchangeable parent lift ticket. This is a relatively new idea where one partner trades off his or her ticket to squeeze in a few runs while the other partner takes over with the children.

"We hope we have the kids able to turn both ways and stop. That's a successful first day," Townsend said. "The second day we hope to go up the mountain and teach them how to get on and off the chair."

And if they don't catch on the first day, worry not. There's always sledding, tubing and all kinds of enjoyment.

The skis and the snowboards always will be there.

NOTES — Introductory full-day ski and snowboard classes at Dodge Ridge are available for $109 for children ages 4 through 12, and $79 for 13 and older. ...Winter storms that hit Sierra resorts in time for the holidays resulted in a snowpack that is between 70 percent to 85 percent of normal for this time of year. "It's early," Dan Greenlee, a hydrologist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conversation Service, told The Associated Press. "We're sitting OK. ... It's good snow for skiing. Not so good for drinking." Greenlee referred to the region's substandard water content in the snow which could result in the fourth straight drier-than-normal year. ... Bear Valley offers rates for groups of 20 or more, and there are no blackout dates for this program. Call 753-2301, ext. 119, or visit www.bearvalley.com.

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.