Instructing Kids to Ski: The Psychology, Training, and Curriculum behind Every Lesson

Imagine your dream job. I started mine in 9th grade, as a children’s ski instructor. It is hard to beat spending your day with kids, outside, on skis. What comes with instructing kids though, are lots of unexpected challenges from trying to improve their skiing to keeping them happy and content. Luckily, the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (known as the PSIA-AASI) have successfully set a standard curriculum across the United States regarding instruction of all snowsports. After getting my PSIA-AASI Level 1 certification, my confidence in my teaching skills grew and I knew how to properly conduct each ski lesson. So, I became increasingly curious about how their children’s teaching program came about. 

2021 was a big year for the PSIA. Founded in 1961, the organization was proud to celebrate 60 years of facilitating a standard across the United States of ski and snowboard instruction. For this anniversary, the PSIA released a new digital handbook along with a podcast discussing 6 important breakthroughs in their history that made the organization what it is today. I will be focusing on one of those breakthroughs: The Junior Education Team (known as the JETs). The JETs are responsible for the children’s instruction program within the PSIA. They made many developments in the process and techniques of teaching children from the organization’s founding to today. I will look at how these developments have mirrored what was going on in the United States in terms of child psychology, including a push for physical education from the 1950s onwards.

James Wilson Getting Ready for His Ski Lesson. Photo by Vanessa Wilson. Taken at Big Sky Resort, December 2020.
History of the PSIA Curriculum

In 1958, Bill Lash wrote about the psychology of skiing in the first ski-teaching manual, An Outline of Ski Teaching Methods. Lash was one of the founding members of the PSIA and served as its first president. In the source there is a lot of insight on how to be the best instructor possible based on what children will find most enjoyable. For example, lessons should begin with introducing yourself as a friend and acting naturally. Then, when introducing a new skill, the instructor should describe it, demonstrate it, break it down. Then the students should practice it together with little pressure on them. In terms of terrain, instructors should only take their students on runs that are easily accessible and aren’t too congested or stressful. It is important to give the students rest when tired, while instilling class unity or spirit, and being aware of the students’ goals and motivations. 

These original ideas about how to have a successful ski lesson from Lash are still followed today. Not surprisingly, they match other sources about ski instruction at the time. In April 1966, Bill Briggs wrote a summary of a clinic for instructors at Alta Ski Area. Briggs has the title of the first ever to ski down the Grand Teton in Wyoming and he ran the Great American Ski School. In the clinic summary, many of the concepts from Lash were prevalent. According to Briggs, the student must do what they are learning, rather than just thinking about what they need to do. Therefore the lesson should be more activity-based and less lecture-based. So, it is the instructor’s job to encourage a student’s will power to want to practice. Instructors should do this with safety in mind first, then fun, and finally progress. For safety, students should not be in situations that are beyond their capability, because that will hinder their development. Instead, they should want to learn more and should not be constantly criticized. Briggs writes that a lesson should mainly consist of supervised skiing with short drills here and there. Progress is crucia,l because as you could have progressed quickly at first, you must be patient and go through a lot of practice in order to really develop your skiing. 

Ski instruction in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States was not much different from how it is today because of the PSIA. The United States Demonstration Team arrived in 1975 and brought with them “The American Technique.” This focuses on rotary movement, edging, and pressure control. Eventually this technique merged into what PSIA calls the Skills Concept, which focuses on the same three aspects of skiing. The Skills Concept was another one of PSIA’s breakthroughs and an important part of their teaching program. 

However, what is most important to instruction in the past and today is how the lesson is conducted and less focused on the specific techniques taught. The JETs were a big part of setting this standard in the PSIA, as they focused on how best to teach children. Their goal and main question is “What makes a great children’s instructor?” Considering this, the JETs used many educational theories to help instructors have a set of tools they can use for a child that is misbehaving or not into it. In the PSIA breakthrough podcast regarding the JETs, Grant Nakamura and Maria Russel-Shaw discussed children’s instruction and its importance to the PSIA. Nakamura described how he began instruction in the early 80s and at that time kids were very important to their program. Russel-Shaw, who started teaching in the 70s, said there was a huge emphasis on the skills concept and teaching technique to adults. Teaching kids was seen as a first-year new instructor job that was an embarrassing job title compared to the Level 3 professionally-trained instructors who successfully taught adults.

One of the best ways they solved this stigma around teaching children was by hiring junior instructors (from highschooler’s to college students like myself) to teach the kids. Younger instructors cared less about becoming the best instructor and simply enjoyed the opportunity to be able to teach and earn a little money. This put a new emphasis on training all kinds of instructors and focusing more on the CAP mode ratherl than simply the skills concept. The CAP model standing for “Cognitive, Affective, Physical” entails 3 different aspects that are important to consider for teaching all ages and abilities of people. “Cognitive” concerns giving directions and advice on new skills. “Affective” means the feelings and social boundaries of people, which should be kept in mind, especially for keeping students motivated and making sure they have a good experience. “Physical” concerns body movement and the coordination and motor skills that are important to learning new movements. Following what Briggs and Lash wrote about ski instructing kids, what makes a great instructor is helping them set goals and making sure they are motivated to ski and get better. If this isn’t possible, just making sure that young students get rest and have fun is perfectly acceptable, as it will set them up for a better day tomorrow.

PSIA Children’s Instruction Today

Today, PSIA releases many videos and hosts clinics in order to teach instructors and parents the best approaches to ski instruction. David Oliver from the PSIA Alpine team spoke in a video, which included a quick tip on keeping kids in balance. This video is a great example of how to give a student advice on their skiing while keeping the lesson fun and simple. Essentially, the video outlines how to help a child have better balance, as it is crucial to their control and positioning on their skis. A great way to fix it is to make it a game: If the word “Popcorn” is said, everyone in the lesson has to jump with both skis coming off the snow completely. The jumping is correcting their balance, but to them it is a fun activity that they are excited to do. 

Chrisine Baker, Vice President of Mountain Sports at Big Sky Resort, and I were able to discuss the importance of PSIA within ski resorts. As an instructor from 1998-2006 and a manager from 2007 on, she has had a lot of experience with the PSIA, specifically training instructors for their certification. Her experience with training employees is extensive. She leads regional education clinics and exams, as well as Level 1 clinics. According to Baker, the PSIA is a great resource for Big Sky’s teaching program, as it provides guidance on teaching skills, people skills, and technical skills. When asked what the biggest difference between teaching kids and teaching adults is, Baker explained that with smaller children, there is a point of uncertainty. What is most important is gaining their trust and their parents’ trust. The best instructors build a relationship with their clients right at the beginning and are able to anticipate the kids’ needs more than they would need to for an adult. She emphasized that kids learn through play, so an instructor should create an environment where that type of learning is constantly happening. 

Vanessa Wilson, who started instructing at Big Sky resort in 1994, got her Level 1 in 1995 and worked there for more than 15 years. Her specialization was instructing 4- and 5-year-old children, while also having experience with adults and older kids. In an interview with her about instructing, she shared that with 4- and 5-year olds, you have a pretty high chance that they are not going to be into it. They probably have never seen snow before and are in a completely different atmosphere. If a kid is upset (which occasionally, they will be) you should try to shift gears. Make it seem like they aren’t really there to ski, ask them about their favorite show, and have them act as that show’s character. All of a sudden they are playing a game rather than being forced to ski. Wilson was clear that most of the time it really isn’t that easy to get kids motivated. It takes a lot of patience to get them to stop crying and distract their attention.

Photo by Author. Taken February 2023.

The Psychology Behind Children’s Physical Education

Turning ski activities into games fits directly into what is known about child psychology. Essentially there are different types of play that fit into Karl Groos’ theory that children’s play has functional value. Social play can be a child acting out something like a future profession. Play within exercise is important at the sensorimotor level and entails the idea of repeating something over and over again to solidify mastery of the task. 

This idea of focusing on a child’s attitude rather than getting bogged down on their skills was seen in the world of physical education in elementary schools. In the post war 1950s, there was much focus on understanding children and their health. There was an emphasis on child psychology with many different opinions on the best way to raise a child to be healthy both mentally and physically. 

Many years later, in 1986, the President’s Council on Physical Fitness announced that kids needed to have better fitness. Written by Leon Greene and Matthew Adeyanju, “Exercise and Fitness Guidelines” gives advice on how kids learn best physically. Some of the ideas that are presented are that their training should be gradual, that their opinions should be considered, that they should be monitored for early signs of burnout, and that the idea to participate should be theirs. In the Spectrum of Teaching Styles in Physical Education written by Brendan SueSee, Mitch Hewitt, and Shane Pill, there are 11 different methods of instruction for all sports that are outlined. Two styles that are most relevant to ski instruction are “Practice” style and “Inclusion” style. “Practice” style means allowing a student to learn consistency within their motor capabilities and responses. An emphasis on repetition and light feedback is the best way to achieve this. In the “Inclusion” style, coaches and or instructors target what they are teaching directly to the interests and readiness of their students. Again, what is central to teaching kids skiing and physical fitness in general is that their opinions, health, and willingness to participate are most important to their success.

Terrain Based Learning

While the PSIA sets the standard for snowsport’s education in the United States, there are other methods that are used for children’s instruction. Terrain Based Learning is exactly what it sounds like: creating a trail for students to learn while their speed and ability to stop is kept in check by hills and berms. Kids start on the flats where they simply learn to balance on the skis and don’t have to worry about losing control over their speed. Then they move to the mini-pipe where they get more experience with speed, but are stopped by a hill. Next they advance to rollers–gaining and losing speed as they move throughout the run staying in control. While Terrain Based Learning is different from the traditional approach of teaching kids to stop, it prioritizes making kids feel safe, while making sure they have fun and are not too challenged.


From looking at the psychology of children and physical education standards, it is clear that the PSIA was spot on with their curriculum and advice for teaching children from its founding. Even with other companies like Terrain Based Learning challenging their ideas on instructing, the PSIA and its JETs team has managed to create a curriculum consistent across the United States which has encouraged people to make the effort to learn how to ski. It is important that the ski community celebrate all the PSIA has done in their 60 years of operating.


Baker, Christine. “Importance of PSIA-AASI at Big Sky Resort.” By Carly Wilson. April 25th, 2023. 

Blankenship, Bonnie Tjeerdsma. “The Importance of Psychology to the Physical Educator.” Introduction. In The Psychology of Teaching Physical Education: From Theory to Practice. London: Routledge, 2017. 

Briggs, Bill. “Methodology.” Salt Lake City: J. Willard Marriott Digital Library University of Utah, April 1966.

DeCorby, Kara, Joannie Halas, Sheryle Dixon, Lainie Wintrup, and Henry Janzen. “Classroom Teachers and the Challenges of Delivering Quality Physical Education.” The Journal of Educational Research 98, no. 4 (2005): 208–20.

Greene, Leon, and Matthew Adeyanju. “Exercise and Fitness Guidelines for Elementary and Middle School Children.” The Elementary School Journal 91, no. 5 (1991): 437–44.

Lash, Bill. “An Outline of Ski Teaching Methods.” Salt Lake City: J. Willard Marriott Digital Library University of Utah, 1958. 

Mountain Learning Center. “Teaching Guidelines for Children.” Alaska: Alyeska Resort, n.d. 

PSIA-AASI Editors. “Celebrate PSIA-AASI’s 60th Anniversary.” PSIA-AASI. ASEA and ASEA-EF, August 26, 2022. 

PSIA-AASI Go With A Pro: Helping Kids Find Balance. YouTube. YouTube, 2011. 

PSIA-AASI 60th Anniversary: Introduction to the Top 6 Breakthroughs. SoundCloud, 2022. 

PSIA-AASI 60th Anniversary Part 3: The Junior Education Team. SoundCloud, 2022. 

Piaget, Jean, et al. “The Semiotic or Symbolic Function.” The Psychology of the Child, Basic Books, New York, 2000. 

Samuel, Lawrence R. “The Blossoming of Child Psychology in Postwar America.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, July 20, 2022. 

SueSee, Brendan, Mitch Hewitt, and Shane Pill. Introduction. In The Spectrum of Teaching Styles in Physical Education. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2021.

Welcome to Terrain Based Learning™ – SNOW Operating. Vimeo. SNOW Operating, 2019. 

Wilson, Vanessa. “Experience Instructing 4-5 year olds” By Carly Wilson. April 22nd, 2023.


Thank you to Vanessa Wilson for allowing me to use her photograph as well as interview her on her experiences instructing. I would also like to thank Christine Baker for taking the time to speak with me about the importance of the PSIA at Big Sky Resort. Thanks to Chella Vaidyanathan who helped me find and cite sources through the Emory Library. Finally, I would like to thank Judith Miller for her time and dedication to making my blog post possible!

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