For children, find a ski program that is fun, safe

Last week, we talked about the arrival of ''terrain gardens,'' which have come out of some creative children's learn-to-ski programs. Here are a few things to look for in a good program for pre-schoolers and very young children.

Kim Clark, director of the Skiwee program at Northstar-at-Tahoe, emphasizes safety. ''The children's beginning lesson area should be out of the main flow of skiers; the ski school should require the use of safety straps or ski brakes; children should be instructed on the safe way to get on and off a lift; they should be told about the ski area's basic rules and have basic skier courtesy explained to them. Small children should be paired to avoid wandering.''

The key to a good children's ski program is that the kids see it as fun. Just as in a good ski nursery, a certain spontaneous joy is indispensable to a good children's ski program. I don't think it's critical whether young children's ''ski instruction'' comes under the control of the ski school or of the nursery, so long as there's plenty of snow play, as opposed to lessons, and the kids aren't coerced to ski before they're ready. Making snow cones and snowmen, fanny races, looking at snowflakes, along with wise use of a well-built terrain garden to help youngsters gain control of their skis - all are part of a fun and effective young children's ski program.

Kids can start to ski around three years or even younger, but for most of them it's really snow play until they are about four or five. At this point children's lessons will usually become more goal oriented. The ski area's overall program should be sufficiently integrated so that the child can naturally move into the program he or she is ready for.

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