By: Samuel S. Schimelpfenig, MD, FAAP
With winter sports growing in popularity, more children are eager to learn skiing and snowboarding. Before your child hits the slopes, though, make sure he or she is ready.
How soon can my child learn to ski or snowboard?
Children's age, strength, and ability to cooperate are a few factors to consider before signing them up for skiing or snowboarding lessons. Qualified instructors can often help parents know if their child is ready for these sports. Most resorts begin ski school at age 4. Although there are snowboards made for children under age 5, some resorts will not teach snowboarding to children until they are at least 7 years old.
Safety on the Slopes:
Anyone participating in skiing and snowboarding should follow these important safety rules to reduce injury risk on the slopes:
Technique and skills. A key to safe skiing and snowboarding is control. To have good control, a child must learn proper skills, be aware of others on the slopes, and know when to adjust to changing snow conditions. It's also important to learn how to fall safely. Qualified instructors and age-specific classes can help kids develop these skills.
Gear up. Practicing with the right equipment and safety gear inside the home and in the backyard can make the transition to the slopes easier. Safety gear should fit properly and be well maintained.
Skis and snowboards. Bindings should be properly adjusted. Rental or sales professionals can help choose equipment that is the right size and fit.
Helmets. Use only helmets that are specifically made for skiing or snowboarding. They should be professionally fitted to your child.
Protective eyewear. Eye protection is important to reduce glare from the reflection off the snow. Goggles should fit with the helmet being used and be made of polycarbonate or a similar material that conforms to the standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).
Wrist guards and knee pads. Wearing wrist guards and knee pads are a good way to help prevent bruises and fractures while snowboarding.
Lay on the layers. Stay warm and dry by wearing several thin layers: synthetic inner layers for keeping moisture away from the skin, insulating middle layers, and a waterproof/windproof outer layer, or shell. Being able to add or remove layers with changing weather conditions helps avoid overheating or hypothermia.
Sun protection (sunscreen, lip balm with sunblock), is not just for summer. Glare from the snow and being at a higher altitude can make sun damage more likely. Sunscreen and lip balm with sunblock can help avoid sunburn.
Fit and fueled. Skiing and snowboarding are a lot of fun--and work. Being physically fit and well-hydrated helps avoid fatigue and dehydration, which can lead to poor control and injury. Plan snack and water breaks during a day on the slopes. Specific exercises to build muscle, strength, and endurance also can help.
Steep learning curve. Anyone learning to ski or snowboard should stick with hills that are best for their skill level. If they find themselves on a slope that is too difficult, make sure they know to take off their equipment and side-step down the slope.
Snow buddies. Children should never ski or snowboard alone. Younger kids need adult supervision, and teens or young adults should have a buddy with them.
Know the Code:
The National Ski Areas Association also has a responsibility code, or "rules of the slope" to help keep skiers and snowboarders safe, that usually is posted at resorts. It's good to read and talk about with your child:
Always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.
People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
You must not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above.
Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.
Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride, and unload safely.
Especially since downhill skiing and snowboarding involve high speeds, injuries can happen. Sprains and broken bones are the most common ones and can happen from falls or from running into objects on the slopes. Although rare, life-threatening injuries are also possible in both sports.
Upper extremity injuries
Falling on an outstretched hand or shoulder is a common injury for snowboarders. For mild injuries, treatment should include rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE). Severe pain that makes it difficult to move or continue skiing or riding may signal a broken bone or dislocated joint. Call the ski patrol for help.
Lower extremity injuries
Leg injuries can happen with a fall, collision or crash. Make sure boot bindings are adjusted properly so they release as they should during a fall. Twisting injuries to the knee can result from skiing out-of-control or falling off the lift.
Minor sprains can be treated with RICE. Serious injuries, such as a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament, usually will need the ski patrol's help to get to a medical center. Skiers or snowboarders who have a lot of swelling, pain that doesn't go away, and difficulty walking and moving the knee should see a doctor as soon as possible.
High-speed crashes and collisions can result in serious head and neck injuries. Helmets make the sport safer but don't prevent all injuries. Remember, helmets need to be the right size and worn correctly to work properly.
A concussion is any injury to the brain. Signs and symptoms of concussion, such as headache, nausea, dizziness, confusion and vision problems, usually are noticeable right away but can be delayed. With most concussions, the child is not knocked out or unconscious. Returning to an activity too soon after a concussion can lead to another, more serious concussion, or even death if another head injury happens.
All concussions are serious, and anyone with a suspected concussion should not return to play (in this case, to the slopes) until they see a doctor.
When your child learns a new sport, hopefully it is an enjoyable experience they will want to repeat. Avoiding injuries by following safety rules and using proper equipment will help make that a reality. Ski or snowboard within your limits, know the rules of the slope, be aware of your surroundings, and watch out for each other. If possible, try to build some time to ski or snowboard with your children. They will love ski school, but they will really love spending time with you showing what they have learned!
Additional Information from HealthyChildren.org:
About Dr. Schimelpfenig:
Samuel S. Schimelpfenig, MD, FAAP is a pediatrician specializing in pediatric and adolescent sports medicine. He practices in Sioux Falls, SD. Within the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Dr. Schimelpfenig is a member of the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.