By Caitlin Miller
Caitlin Miller is a ski instructor with Altitude Ski and Snowboard School in Verbier. She has worked in both Canada and Switzerland for five seasons and is qualified in BASI and CSIA which are the British and Canadian Ski Instructing systems.
In her second season at Lake Louise she was awarded the ‘Kids Ski Instructor of the Year’.
I have always thought that the experience I have gained over the past 6 years and the skills I have learnt through childcare, has been fundamental in enhancing my teaching style in ski lessons. For as long as I can remember I have always had a strong passion for child care and development. I have experience with children of all ages in many different environments, through my work in a nursery, a playgroup, as a nanny in a summer camp and most importantly, a ski instructor.
This summer I worked in a nursery in my home town of Edinburgh, Scotland. For me to see the same group of kids every day meant that I quickly became a mother figure to these tiny humans! Although this is a different dynamic, this experience with very young children only adds to my skill set, which will help me improve my lessons even more.
Teaching children is entirely different to how you would teach adults, most say it’s harder! I have to create a fun, learning environment for children and adapt to the specific age group, which can change each lesson. When I’m planning my lessons and throughout I always make sure I am considering each of these points.
Making sure they’re safe, warm and comfortable
Safety is a top priority in any skiing lesson, but it’s especially important when teaching children. For the younger kids, when we are playing games we mark out a safe area with ski poles that we must stay within. I think it is helpful to assign each kid a buddy who they will watch out for and if possible stay with for going up chair lifts, as this creates a team environment where the kids support each other. Kids who are cold and tired will not learn, so I always make sure they’re properly dressed and keep an eye on the weather. I mostly always take a hot chocolate break half way through a lesson to warm everyone up and maintain energy levels. When skiing I check behind me after every turn to make sure no one is being left behind. I Anticipate when someone is about to fall and quickly pick them up, so the lesson carries on smoothly. I Teach them how to carry their own equipment to encourage independence, but also help out when needed.
Get down with the kids!
You have to be able to relate to kids at their own age and level. I always Kneel down next to them, talk in a positive, upbeat, higher pitched voice than usual. Learning to ski can be daunting – if I’m not enthusiastic they won’t be. I try not to look or talk down to them otherwise I won’t get a good response. I get to know each child’s personality and I individualise my approach, connecting with the things they like.
I have to be patient as younger children will need more time to pick things up – this will probably mean going up the magic carpet multiple times! I don’t spend too much of the lesson explaining or using technical language; rather learn through doing and use language they can relate to (we’re all familiar with the idea of pizza slice or French fry!) I find that some kids are better in groups and others need more individual attention. I sometimes have to discuss this with the parents as I always make sure I am doing this in a positive manner.
Make it fun and learn through games
This is probably the most important point in terms of building confidence and ability. Skiing can be intimidating to learn, some kids may have previous bad experiences, or simply be missing their family or having an off day. I need to have some routines that I can draw upon to entertain and maintain the attention of each child. The purpose of games is not just to have fun, which helps create enthusiasm for learning, but also to develop specific skills and techniques.
One of the easiest way to engage young children in my lessons is to use themes/characters from their favourite Disney films or other shows. I mean it helps me naturally when one of my favourite films is Moana, but It helps nervous or shy children naturally relate to you if they know you are interested in the same things as them. When I teach young kids (3-6 years old), one of the first things I’ll ask them is who their favourite Princess is. I then use this to ask, for example, how Cinderella puts on her high heels – toe first, then heel. This works the exact same for how we place our ski boots into our bindings. This is Simple but fun for them and already something they can relate to.
At the start of a lesson I may play ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf,’ or create a short obstacle course to warm the kids up – they won’t do stretches like adults! This also helps them to get used to the extra weight and awkwardness when trying to move with ski boots that come up to their knees. When skiing we may play games such as ‘Simon Says’ using different movements, or skiing like a giraffe or a mouse (skiing tall or small) to help with balance and posture. Skiing on one ski, skiing backwards, doing ‘airplane turns’, and skiing with balloons between our ankles to learn parallel skiing, are just some of the routines. So the basic idea is to turn everything into a game that helps the children to consolidate skills and progress to the next level.
Engage the parents
In addition to relating to the children, I also need to engage and relate to the parents. After all, they are paying for the lesson and trusting me, to look after their son or daughter. If the kids are having fun then the parents can enjoy their holiday too! I always introduce myself and try to immediately connect with their child, for example, by holding the child’s hand if appropriate and introducing them to the others in the group. I give the mum or dad my mobile number and tell them where we are going, and when we’ll be having breaks, so they can see me or come and watch if they want. With the parent’s permission, I always take videos each day and give them the full run down of what we did in the lesson, and what we will do in the next one. With longer term clients I’ll edit these into a short video, which can be a great way of capturing the fun that the kids have had and the progress they’ve made. At Altitude after a week’s lessons we also do a fun ceremony to recognize what has been achieved, and to socialize with the parents, who can often become ongoing clients and friends.
To be a kids’ ski instructor you have to love working with kids. You can’t fake it – children are smart, they will quickly see through this and become disengaged. You have to recognize that being an awesome skier is not enough; you need to be great with kids too. You have to learn how to translate what you have learnt about the technicalities of ski instructing into an approach that will work with children of different ages. You have to be prepared to empathise and cope with tantrums, unexpected toilet breaks (and accidents when they don’t get there in time), short attention spans and sore tummies. And, most importantly, recognize that this is all part of the package of teaching kids how to ski. For me, my biggest satisfaction comes from seeing the smiles of the children and the smiles of the parents at the end of holiday, knowing that they have developed progressed and had a great time in sharing my passion for skiing. There can be no greater reward than that.