Last winter, when my daughter Lena was in first grade, several of her friends began ice-skating with their family. I wasn't sure how to get her started on the rink, but I wanted her to try. Winter sports, I figured, would give her a chance to exercise during a time of year when she's otherwise cooped up inside. They're also a great way for a family to spend some outdoor time together. Getting her on skates, with a little coaching from my husband, turned out to be easier than I had expected: By this age kids possess enough coordination to balance on a slippery surface, making them good candidates for activities like skiing, ice hockey, ice-skating, and even snowboarding. "Your role as a parent is to be enthusiastic, supportive, and encouraging," says Chris Howarth, a British Olympic skater who runs the figure-skating program at The Glacier Ice Arena, in Vernon Hills, Illinois. Follow these tips before she hits the ice rink or bunny slope:
1. Explore Your Options
If your child isn't familiar with winter sports, try watching a ski competition on TV, taking him to a hockey game, or visiting your local ice rink to gauge his interest. Keep in mind that winter sports may involve a greater financial and time commitment than many warm-weather sports. It's likely that the entire family will need to get involved. "With skiing and snowboarding, you're usually traveling and possibly lodging as a family, so keep that in mind," notes James Schwabach, a sports-psychology consultant in Charlotte, North Carolina.
2. Put Safety First
"Winter sports involve high rates of speed, and with that comes the potential for more significant collisions and head injuries," says John Kemppainen, M.D., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Help prevent injuries by investing in the proper safety equipment. Pay special attention to the size of your child's helmet (experts say head protection is essential for skiers, ice-hockey players, and beginning skaters). Be cautious about using hand-me-downs from siblings. "If a helmet is too small or too big and your child falls, the helmet might fall off her head and can't protect her," Dr. Kemppainen says.
3. Start Slowly
Learning to stay upright on skates or while strapped to a snowboard takes time. So even if you're excited to get your child onto the ice or down the mountain, don't rush the process. "Let him go at his own pace," says Howarth. "Make sure he has good balance on skates off the ice and on skis off the snow first." If you don't know your bunnies from your diamonds, consider getting an instructor for the family or enrolling your child in a group lesson for beginners. He'll get a chance to practice his skills while having fun with kids his own age.
4. Expect Tumbles
Even if you ease your child onto the ice or snow, be prepared for some slipping and sliding. "Falling down is a part of winter sports, and your child has to learn to pick herself up and try again," says Joe Dellanno, an ice-hockey coach with CoachUp, a national network of sports coaches. When she's skating, have your kid practice falling on the ice like Superman—leaning forward with her arms stretched out as if she's flying—and then getting back up on her skates. "Snow is relatively forgiving, and young children are lightweight, low to the ground, and flexible, so the likelihood of getting hurt skiing or snowboarding at a young age is minimal as long as you take safety precautions," says Gary Miller, a former coach for the U.S. Ski Team who also works with CoachUp. "Usually, it's only your child's ego that gets bruised."
5. Focus on Fun
Whether your child shows aptitude for the sport right away or not, remember that it's not about competition at this age. Instead, it's about fun. "Take the idea of winning or losing out of the game," Schwabach says. Winter sports can help your child gain self-esteem and learn perseverance. But don't push him too hard. If your child doesn't take to one winter activity— say skating—let him try skiing or snowboarding next time.