The conveniences of modern life make it easy for your kids to withdraw during winter when the snow flies and the temperatures chill your bones.
Why bother getting out of bed when all you’re facing is a frigid blanket of white?
We have two words for you: Winter Sports.
And not just through competition.
The thrills of skiing, skating, sledding -- and, yes, even ice fishing -- expose kids to aspects of the outdoors they won’t get froma a television or computer screen.
And at the same time, winter sports help kids stay active, develop their growing bodies, learn discipline, have fun, and much more.
Indeed, winter sports may be the best possible antidote to the winter of a family's discontent. So let's leave the blankets behind and go get some fresh air.
Winter Sports 101
Before we venture out to the rink or the slope, a little background is in order. Most winter sports fall into three main categories of activity:
Each of these has evolved variations over time that open new challenges and new experiences for youth and their families alike.
For example, downhill skiing led to the more free-flowing (and daredevil-like) sport of freestyle skiing, which emerged in the 1960s and then became an official Olympic sport in the early 1990s.
Ice skaters can focus on artistry as they carve the ice with figures, or on speed as they race around the oval.
Sledding expanded to include snowboarding.
And with every new activity, someone is looking to push the envelope further.
Within families, though, you won’t be sending your kids off the ski jump anytime soon. Or maybe ever, and that’s okay. You don’t necessarily have to be a competitive spirit to have fun participating in winter sports. Skiing, skating, sledding are all viral recreational activities, easily done at the hill behind the school or at the little rink down the block.
The Snowsports Industry Association estimates that as many as 100 million Americans are active in various activities in the winter time.
Those numbers are spread out across multiple forms of skiing (downhill, freestyle, alpine, and cross country) along with snowboarding, snowshoeing, and sledding. (Skating was not part of SIA's survey.)
Here's the takeaway:
While the numbers for winter sports don't quite compare to participation in soccer and baseball, you’re still in quite good company.
Snow sports, as you’ll see, will bring not only positive social interactions but other benefits for you and your children as well.
Benefits of Winter Sports for Kids (and You)
As with anything in life, it’s always the first step that’s the hardest. For winter sports and kids, that first step is fundamental:
Getting dressed and getting out the door.
Once you’re out there and getting warm, you’ll find an environment that’s very different from any other time of year.
The white blanket of snow, the crisp cold air, the jagged pattern of icicles: they all combine to create a time of wonder.
And in getting active, you’re doing something a good percentage of the population isn’t. But besides the intangibles, there are specific benefits in store for you and your kids.
Have a look:
All of us, no matter the age, can use more physical activity. We're a sedentary society, attracted as we are now by our computer, phone, and large TV screens.
Just about all the winter sports (save, maybe, for ice fishing) offer the chance to get your heart pumping and your lungs expanding.
You’ll be burning calories, get some sunshine in the darker parts of the year and more. If you choose to make winter sports a family activity, then these benefits will expand to the whole family.
Fast fact: The number of calories you burn while skiing depends on how vigorous you are. Experts say that light effort will burn 250 to 300 calories per hour; moderate effort, 340 to 400 calories per hour; and aggressive skiing, 475 to 600 calories an hour.
Build Confidence and Leadership Skills
Go the competitive route with your kids for winter sports, and you’re opening them up to new possibilities for personal development.
Being part of a team requires discipline, preparation, and teamwork.
Even the individual sports such as skiing call for a level of commitment you just don't get sitting at home.
It's not only the courage it takes to speed down a hill with skis on your feet. Learning appropriate technique and challenging yourself against the clock are all worthwhile ways of building self-esteem.
One of the main upsides to winter sports is it forces you to go outside.
And when you do, depending on the sport and how adventurous you are, you might find yourself experiencing aspects of nature you wouldn’t otherwise experience.
The best ski and sledding hills tend to offer gorgeous scenes as you head off the road less populated. Many resorts are built around the attraction of winter sports and market those attractions to get visitors.
But let’s be serious:
When is the last time you played soccer with this as a backdrop?
You may want to pursue winter sports in a non-competitive way. And that’s totally OK. Doing so makes it easier for the whole family to participate and reap the benefits.
Go skiing, skating or sledding together, as they offer the perfect choice for family outings. It doesn’t necessarily have to cost money.
A Word of Caution
Sounds great, right? But, you might be thinking:
Sliding across the ice with sharp blades on my feet? Or down a big hill on skis?
Or sitting on a frozen pond around a hole in the ice, waiting for fish to bite?
Every sport, including those in the winter, has its risks. No game can give you a foolproof guarantee that nothing bad will happen.
And later, we'll talk a little about some of the protections you can take specifically to each activity.
But teach and follow some necessary precautions, and your children will be able to navigate their chosen activities without a hiccup.
How We Chose the Sports
Our first step in studying the possibilities for winter sports for kids was to define our terms.
We decided that we were looking for sports you could do for fun or for competition. Not everyone wants to be the next great downhill skier.
With those categories in mind, we poured through lots of lists from parent magazines, lifestyle magazines, and sport association publications.
We also studied a little of our Winter Olympic history.
Fantastic Winter Sports for Kids
In choosing our list of the best winter sports for kids, we stayed very close to a traditional set of activities. Winter sports, unsurprisingly, mostly seem to revolve around a certain muscular motion:
Sliding across ice.
And sliding down hills.
And sliding over snow-covered landscapes.
Just to be different, we added one activity to the list that can be done sitting still -- although ice fishing sure requires plenty of prep time. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll come home with dinner!
Did you know? Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, several Kings of England and famed German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were among the earliest skating fanatics after the sport was invented.
“My mother introduced me to many different things, and figure skating was one of them. I just thought that it was magical having to glide across the ice.”
- Olympic figure skater Debi Thomas, the first African-American to win a medal in the sport.
You don’t have to be a champion figure skater to feel the thrill of gliding across the ice. You just need a pair of skates and a an ice rink.
And a good sense of humor, for when you start skating, you will fall:
More than once.
Nevertheless, skating at any level can give children and their families a grand sense of joy and accomplishment. Interestingly, the act of skating didn’t initially begin as a sport.
According to the International Olympic Committee, figure skating developed as a more graceful way of allowing people to get from point to point.
The IOC points to the Dutch as the “earliest pioneers” and notes that interest in the sport quickly grew and reached England, where kings became participants.
Getting started in skating doesn’t require much, says the U.S. Figure Skating Association. Specifically, you need “a little determination, a lot of practice and no fear of falling down!”
Don’t think you need to learn the artistry of a Dorothy Hammil, Brian Boitano, or Peggy Fleming to be a skater.
An alternative to figure skating is speed skating, which offers more of a one-on-one competition format.
In speed skating, you race against the clock and other competitors to cover a specific distance in the shortest period.
Interest in skating in general hovers at around 10 million people in the United States. But figure skating seems to be in a growth mode.
The U.S. Figure Skating Association had about 200,000 members in 2018, up from 165,000 just five years ago.
- What ages can play: Can start at age 4
- Attributes required: Attention span, balance, and coordination, strong legs
- Equipment needed: Properly-fitted skates, warm clothes including hat and gloves, safety helmet
- Where do you play: Neighborhood rink, public ice arena; schools
- Time commitment: Learn-to-skate classes run 30-45 minutes; and up to an hour or two for serious skaters.
- Things you'll have to buy: Anywhere from $5 to $15 for classes, skate rental or skate purchase, travel costs, related safety equipment, and warm clothes
Why it’s fantastic
It’s all about the beauty and the artistry -- even if you just do it for fun.
Figure skates are intricate dances on the edge of the skate blade, which is why the sport has attracted such international attention.
If you’re at the recreational level, it’s still quite a feat to make your way around the rink and stop when and where you need.
Glide on, as Debi Thomas advises!
As someone who was scoring 1,000 goals by the time he was 13, Gretzky would undoubtedly know. And who better to describe the nature and importance of hockey than Gretzky himself?
Hockey is a fast-moving game played on skates on an oval-shaped rink of ice.
Each team gets six players: One goalie, with the rest divided up between offense and defense.
Recent research suggests that hockey traces its origins back to the early 1800s and Nova Scotia. The game was played by the Mi’kmaq Indians.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the first organized hockey game took place in Montreal around 1875 -- spurred on through the adoption of various rules from field hockey.
It even seems to be able to be played on a Lego rink!
Ice hockey teams chase a flat, rounded piece of rubber (called a puck) around the rink and try to score on the opponent’s goal. Every one of them is wearing skates as the game is played on the ice.
As with general skating, kids can go two routes: competitive, or recreational.
Organized hockey takes a much larger commitment than just a recreational game with friends.
As rinks are not as plentiful as soccer fields, and participation rates are different as well, signing up for hockey probably means travel.
It involves travel if you want to test yourself against some of the best.
Whether recreational or organized hockey, you’re also signing up for an investment in protective gear. You’ll need helmets and safety goggles.
Getting hit by the puck is no joke.
Hockey is plenty popular and growing at the organized level. USA Hockey estimates that it has more than 560,000 registered members, up about 10 percent from 5 years ago.
Fast facts: Truly getting involved in youth hockey can be enormously expensive. This writer for ESPN added it up to an amount that comes close to $50,000. (This doesn't have to be your experience.)
Why it’s fantastic
Fast-moving and fluid, hockey is a great game to both play and watch. The players are almost part of a ballet or choreographed dance.
You also have to love hockey for the sportsmanship. Even at the end of professional games, teams line up and shake hands to congratulate each other.
And then there is the history. How can you not love a game that gave us the greatest sporting moment -- ever?
Remember The Miracle on Ice?
"Curling has been in my family for many generations, starting with my great-grandpa and continuing on with my grandparents and my parents. As a child, I would tag along with my parents to watch them curl, and it wasn't until I was 6 years old that I tried it for myself.”
- Cassie Potter, Olympian and U.S. national champion in curling
To the uninitiated, curling looks like a strange game.
Players slide and then follow a giant round stone down a long rectangular piece of ice, seemingly clearing a path in front of the stone with a broom.
The players who love the game, though, are unequivocal:
You must try it!
Curling is most often compared to a game of shuffleboard, played on ice. Players try to score points by sliding stones, so they stop nearest to a bullseye painted on the ice.
(Just a note though, so you don’t accidentally identify yourself as a newbie: The bullseye is referred to as “the center of the house” in curling.)
Other curling terms you might want to brush up on:
- Blank end
- Burning a rock
We were going to challenge you to look up each of those terms, but that’s probably not playing fair. Check out their definitions here at Curling for Dummies.
The closest stone to the house scores the point. It's possible throughout a round for a team to score multiple points if they place all their stones closest to the house with no opponents any closer.
More so than in almost any sport, technique is crucial in curling. And one skill within the sport probably catches your attention more than any other.
What’s with the players and those brooms?
It’s all about simple physics, according to the World Curling Federation. Let them explain in their own words:
“Sweeping with a brush, also known as a broom, reduces the friction between the ice and the stone’s surface, ensuring it curls less. It also creates a thin layer of water that helps the stone glide across the surface, allowing the stone to continue momentum in its intended direction.”
One of the main reasons for kids to participate in curling: It’s more about finesse than it is about capability.
You don’t have to be faster or stronger or taller. You just have to read the ice the best and work with your teammates closely on strategy.
And you can get all the same benefits from winter sports that you would otherwise on the rink or the slopes.
Why it’s fantastic
Any sport with its own language ranks high with us.
Seriously, it has to be one of the more unique games, as witnessed by the attention it gets during the Olympics.
And you must love a sport where just about anyone can participate.
“It's hard to give tips to skiers if I don't know how they ski, but I think the most important thing in skiing is you have to be having fun. If you're having fun, then everything else will come easy to you.” -
Olympian Lindsey Vonn
If you don’t like gliding, then how about some sliding?
Skiing introduces the thrill of the wind in your face as you’re going downhill, or the satisfaction of effort if you prefer the cross-country version of skiing.
Skiing is perhaps the oldest of the winter sports, according to the International Skiing History Association.
Evidence points to the use of skis to get around as far back as 5,000 years ago. Today, it's a sport for all ages!
In more modern times, it gets complicated and things move quickly as far as the development of ski technology that enables some of today's athletic accomplishments.
Check out this extensive timeline of ski history.
The era of modern competitive skiing may have been launched on a worldwide basis in 1924, with the first Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France.
Downhill or Nordic skiing will take an investment of time and money.
Skiing down the hill at your local school will only get you so far, and then there's the issue of getting back up to the top.
So hopefully you live near a ski resort if this is your chosen sport for your children. If not, you may have to make skiing a special family outing.
There is always the option of cross-country skiing, which can take place almost anywhere: on a golf course, the grounds of a school, even down an empty sidewalk.
Cross-country gives you an excellent workout but may not get the same level of excitement from kids as cruising down a hill at a high rate of speed.
Still, it’s an option.
Besides being one of the oldest winter sports, it’s also the most popular.
The Snowsports Industry Association estimates that more than 12 million people ski each year, while another 5 million made treks cross country.
In contrast to some of the other sports, you're most likely to want to tackle skiing as a recreational activity.
More schools are likely to have ski clubs rather than ski teams, just because of the proximity of appropriate ski facilities.
Why it’s fantastic
This one’s easy. Let’s go back to the imagery.
Need we say more?
Recognizing that some people just don’t feel like sliding or gliding their way through a winter day, we sought out at least one activity that requires a bit less in terms of energy output.
Some might say it’s not even a sport.
But then they’d be missing the point.
The sport? It’s ice-fishing.
Ice fishing involves making your way out onto frozen pond with a sled packed with gear. Once you find your spot, you set up and go to work.
You’ll drill a hole in the ice. Then you’ll take a chisel and widen it, cast your line, and let the games begin.
The most critical point to remember is that ice-fishing comes with some detailed safety rules. You're not going to want to send the young ones by themselves.
And you have to take special care to test the ice thickness.
Another critical point to make with kids on ice fishing outings: Be careful where you walk. You don't want to trip on or into your fishing hole.
Dress warm, of course: ski pants, warm coats, hats, and line gloves are all in order.
You can also consider going ice fishing with a shed or hut, where you can take shelter from the cold air.
For any activity, you should stay off the ice when the thickness is 2-inches or less. Some say that you need the ice to be 8-12 inches thick to support a car or pickup.
If a lake or pond has a lot of fish when the weather is warm, it will be an active fishing spot even in the winter time. So you can ice fish almost anywhere.
If you need tips, though, spend some time on iceshanty.com, a community of ice fishermen. Or check with your state Department of Environmental Conservation, such as this one in New York.
It may initially strike you that ice fishing for most kids may not hold the same excitement than a downhill ski run.
That’s a fair point.
But this activity appeals to a different type of youth: someone who loves the outdoors and the companionship of a day well spent.
This author in Popular Mechanics does a great job at explaining the allure.
Or, as another tried-and-true fisherman writes:
“The first thing you need to internalize is kids will be kids. And don’t be scared to be a kid yourself. Sometimes us old-timers have to remember that catching fish is not the be all, end all.”
Why it’s fantastic
Any sport in which you head home with dinner -- or, better yet, that gets you an instant lunch -- is one worth considering.
Then there’s the satisfaction of the outing and the bonding time with your family. And that’s what this writer for Vice found out.
Wrapping Up the Winter
So: What’s the best?
Only you and your children will be able to answer that, based on their maturity level and interests.
And despite the effort that many of these activities require, being active and embracing the outdoors is definitely a way of getting through what can seem like a long, cold, unfriendly winter.
Featured Image via Pixabay