The Nature of Play in an Entry-Level Alpine Youth Ski Program Spells FUN

by Dr. Tish Doyle-Baker, Faculty of Kinesiology and Environmental Design, University of Calgary, Alberta, as published in the winter 2014 Fitness Informer

How many opportunities in your childhood did you have to play in the “Grufflow Woods,” taste a snowflake, work up a sweat and take your coat off only to be yelled at to put it back on? Did you imagine snow snakes, see a moose up close, or were you proficient enough to ski through trees where your parents couldn’t catch you?


In these childhood opportunities, the underlying theme is outdoor play that takes advantage of the natural environment, wildland recreation, and constructed playscapes such as ski hills (Verbeek and de Waal 2002). These outdoor experiences emphasize the overall importance of outdoor play on children’s physical activity levels, motor function, environmental awareness, and total health.

Outdoor Play

We can loosely describe play as a form of “re-creation” that often involves more than one individual. Outdoor play adds a greater quantity of energy expenditure and also results in more vigorous activity than indoor play (Henninger 1980; Titman 1994). Children who play outdoors can easily recollect qualities associated with different tree types, leaf colours, elevation changes, places for climbing and building things, and animal habitats. The opportunity to participate in these complex, challenging, and exciting outdoor play environments often results in enjoyable and memorable experiences. In my opinion, one environment that provides a fantastic experience at all levels is alpine ski racing, particularly at the entry level.

Alpine Ski Racing

Admittedly I am slightly biased as I coach 4- and 5-year-olds every weekend at Mt. Norquay for the Banff Alpine Race (BAR) club. Over the last two years, however, I have come to appreciate the numerous advantages that this type of program offers participants. For example, a child enrolled in an entry-level alpine ski racing program will spend an average three to five hours outdoors each ski day, depending on her or his age. This duration of activity meets the Health Canada (2013) guidelines for 3- to 17-year-olds. This is very positive when we consider that the Canadian Health Measures Survey suggests that there is still a need to increase physical activity participation to reduce the upward trend in overweight and obese children (Roberts et al. 2012).

Physical Activity

An entry-level alpine ski program is actually focused more on time spent on snow than the level of intensity associated with ski racing at older ages. As such this level fits the common definition of physical activity described as physical movement that results from skeletal muscle contraction (Goran 1998). In this program the basic movements are always followed by a combination of movement patterns. These patterns involve constant motion of the upper body over or ahead of the feet while skiing and result in the large muscles of the body, specifically the legs and core, being taxed. Add in a variety of terrain, a few fresh centimetres of new snow, and a really cold day, and the result is a large expenditure of energy.

Repetition is the key to movement execution. To keep young children engaged, however, requires both structured and unstructured drills. Variety is very important and allows them to develop basic skills while having fun. For example, getting kids to participate in a friendly competition of tug of war against coaches is a great way to engage other muscles and have some fun.

Fun Environment

The ski program as described not only promotes skill development, but also indirectly establishes physical activity participation habits early on (Findlay et al. 2010; Loprinzi et al. 2012).
To help children initiate ski turns, we often play follow the leader with everyone pretending to be their favourite animal. When turning, the coach might roar like a tiger and the children follow by announcing each turn with their own animal noise. As the group zigzags down the slope, everyone on the chairlift can hear them! Yet this drill is not just about being silly because—when children pretend—they’re doing science from a cognitive development perspective (Gopnik 2012).

The bottom line, of course, is to make each drill interesting and relevant to the children since they will be more inclined to continue to participate when having fun. Equally important is providing the children with the ability to become proficient in building on these basic movement skills and this means addressing elements that will foster motor proficiency.

Fundamental Movement Skill

Fundamental movement skills (FMS) are essential to acquiring more complex movement skills, particularly when learning to ski. FMS are divided into three distinct categories: locomotor, non-locomotor, and object manipulative skills (Barnett et al. 2008, 2009; Okely et al. 2004).

Locomotor skills refer to travelling skills, which provide individuals with the opportunity to move freely and deliberately within space. The ability to move efficiently within a designated space, with or without equipment, is a basic skill and is necessary for small or large group activities, such as soccer or basketball. Some examples of these skills include the ability to hop, skip, jump, and dodge (Foweather et al. 2008; Higgs et al. 2008). For example, in skiing children do the over–under drill where they hop over a pole on the ground, followed by ducking under a triangle created by crossed ski poles stuck into the snow.

Non-locomotor skills are sometimes referred to as stability skills (Barnett et al. 2008, 2009; Foweather et al. 2008). These skills include bodily movement in a stationary position such as twisting, turning, and stretching. In the ski program we have the children work with Hula Hoops while standing in their ski boots.
The final category of FMS is object manipulation, which involves receiving and holding equipment (Barnett et al. 2008, 2009; Foweather et al. 2008). These skills are the most difficult for children to acquire as they involve the manipulation of equipment while travelling. Activities such as basketball, soccer, and floor hockey represent object manipulation skills.

In skiing, we have the children hold their poles in a horizontal position parallel to the ground while skiing—kind of like driving a bus. Other times we have them try boot skiing with and without their poles. Or when they do their first fun race, we put candy in their hands and they have to hold on to it with both hands clasped together in front of them and ski the course—hopefully without dropping the candy.
Combining these three categories of FMS results in a strong foundation of movement, which helps children develop physical literacy skills.

Physical Literacy

Physical literacy is an important element to physical activity as it relates to an individual’s level of engagement, motor competency, and the development of one’s feelings of competence and confidence in physical activity (Higgs et al. 2008). In my opinion, an entry-level ski program provides all of the above and a little bit more.
In addition to the physical and sensory aspects of skiing down the mountain, the ski experience also includes navigating the chairlift after each ski run. This added opportunity adds to the children’s learning ability since it requires them to read what is going on around them and react appropriately to the situation(s). According to the Canadian Sport Centre (2008), read and react skills are as important as the physical ones.

Read and React—Added Opportunity

The chairlift ride can be a nerve-racking experience for both the coach and the entry-level skier because of the very nature of reading and reacting to a lift lineup. Many things can happen in a lift lineup and oftentimes this anticipatory skill is not developed enough in a child because of lack of experience or opportunity. Mounting and dismounting from the chairlift requires motor planning, sequencing, and timing to coordinate getting each individual safely on and off the lift. The stop and start of a moving ski chairlift requires vestibular input. Also most children love to swing, but may not understand the danger of swinging in a chairlift.

Typically, a child rides the lift with one or more other skiers and coach. This affords several minutes for social interaction and talking about goals. When the weather is cold, diversions are often needed. This can include singing songs, listing rhyming words, or even practising addition tables! My favourite is the “I-Spy” game, because it makes the time on the chairlift go faster, the kids love to play it, and they lose track of their personal anxieties because of the added benefit of engagement.

Engagement Benefit

Engagement on the chairlift offers an excellent backdrop to expanding children’s understanding of themselves and their peers, their knowledge of the outdoor environment, and their ability to communicate with coaches and peers. Of course there are literally thousands upon thousands of things you can talk about on a chairlift. The more you get to know the kids and invest in their lives, the deeper and more meaningful your conversations will become. The time can be spent asking the kids what other sports or activities they do or would like to participate in. Coaches can explain that the strong foundation that skiing provides will help them succeed in many other activities and sports.

Alberta FUN!

By engaging our children in outdoor activities such as an entry-level alpine ski program, we are assisting in the development of their physical literacy, their self-confidence, and the FUN-damentals of skiing. Outdoor play—as the examples in this article illustrate—can make significant contributions to energy expenditure and overall health and well-being.

The overall result can be a meshing of children’s FMS with a commitment to lifelong physical activity participation. In conclusion we are fortunate in Alberta to have incredible opportunities for winter outdoor play and thus we should embrace our geographic location and environmental conditions.

References available on request

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