Friday, January 7, 2011

The NYT has it right! Ski school should feel like play.

Big Boss Monster & Captain Baby Butterfly
One of the most emailed articles from the New York Times today is "Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum"

I'm directing my clients, my fellow ski instructors and all parents I know to read it. I'm a huge believer in the author's view that play is extremely important to children's development.

Here's one excerpt which might prompt you to click on the link above:

"For several years, studies and statistics have been mounting that suggest the culture of play in the United States is vanishing. Children spend far too much time in front of a screen, educators and parents lament — 7 hours 38 minutes a day on average, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year. And only one in five children live within walking distance (a half-mile) of a park or playground, according to a 2010 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control, making them even less inclined to frolic outdoors."

The author also touches on how changes in parental behavior and the fears parents harbor are contributory to the reduction in the amount of time children are allowed to truly play, and play outdoors.

Here's a combination of quoting and paraphrasing which really hammers home to me how important play is:

"scientists, psychologists, educators.. say that most of the social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life are first developed through childhood play. Children learn to solve problems, negotiate, think creatively and work as a team when they dig together in a sandbox or build a fort with sofa cushions. The experts define play as a game or activity initiated and directed by children. So video games don’t count."

How does this relate to teaching your children how to ski?  The PSIA trains instructors with a battle cry of Safety, Fun and Learning!  We all can understand that children need to feel safe and comfortable in order to concentrate, but without fun, no learning can take place.  So does this mean you need to seek out an instructor who moonlights as a comedian or a rent-a-clown at birthday parties?  Not at all. With children of a certain age, allowing them to use their vivid imaginations to shape the fun can be enormously successful.

Just last week, I taught five year old fraternal twins who insisted I call them Butterfly and Monster, rather than their actual names.  My role in creating our games and adventures was primarily to kick-start their imaginations and then get out of the way.

I suggested we be ski-pirates, learning to say "Aargh" as we turned our way down the hill.  Monster quickly educated me that vikings were much stronger and better than pirates, and while we would still scream "Arrgh" and "Avast, this pizza be slowing me down," we would be "Viking-Pirate-Knights" hunting polar bears with light sabers, guns and canons.

As the instructor, I never give up my leadership/safety officer role, but it was perfectly fine for Monster to proclaim himself the "Big Boss" in charge of what we were searching for and who we were fighting as we explored the green and easier blue runs.  Butterfly changed her name several times and by the end of the day, had become Baby Butterfly, the captain-princess of the ship.

Throughout the lesson, we focused on making our sword/sabers straight after each turn to be ready to repel boarders (and yes, maybe I was tongue in cheek referring to those scurvy snowboarders).  We also took breaks from the game to play impromptu versions of monkey-see-monkey-do, have spontaneous snowball fights and grab a quick hot cocoa and cookies inside the children's center. (I'm not sure what Monster and Butterfly were thinking in the photo, but it may have been "Avast! There be just two cookies left here on the galley table!") 

What's the take away here?  I've seen parents taking the do-it-yourself route on the bunny hill, exhorting their children to stop and go with shouts of "Make a Pizza" and "Come on, show me your French Fries!" I've also seen them alternating between cajoling and commanding a crying child to get up and "ski like Daddy!"

And at the bottom of the hill, I've heard parents watching their kids' lessons and wondering if ski school is simply daycare rather than education.  "What's with the snow angels?" "Why are they taking off their skis?"

My response is that it is neither day care nor traditional education.  A ski lesson is a playful adventure which takes place on the slopes, primarily on skis, and leaves children excited to come back for more.

If they've had an adventure, I'll bet my day's wages that they've also honed their balancing movements, turn shape, stopping skills and learned some mountain safety tips as well.

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