Kids can ski as early as preschool, but the learning process is often easier at age 5 or 6, when children have more control over body movement, a longer attention span to follow directions, and more tolerance of the cold. When it comes to skis versus a snowboard, it's your kid's call: They're about the same level of difficulty for a newbie.
You don't have to be an expert skier -- or even a skier at all -- to get your child out on skis. Many programs have certified ski instructors; that's the best way to introduce children to the sport. And kids' instructors are usually the most highly trained members of a mountain's staff -- look for certification from the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI). Your child's teacher will slowly introduce different techniques to get the kids comfortable (first step: learning to walk in the boots!) and give them the confidence they need to tackle a slope, perhaps by talking to them about other sports and games they play and relating that to their skiing or snowboarding. A full or half-day group lesson is ideal, but even a few hours will make a difference. "It's amazing how much progress a 4-year-old can make in just one day," says Harley Johnson, ski school director at Smugglers' Notch Resort, in Smugglers' Notch, Vermont.
Even if you're a great skier, it's best to leave the instruction up to the pros; they know the safest and most effective ways to teach kids. But if your child has separation anxiety, look for a mom- (or dad-) and-me program, where the instructor will give your child a lesson while also teaching you how to coach him, so that you can take the tips and use them later when the lesson is over.