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Surf, Skate, Climb: Cool Kid-Friendly Sports

Kids always want something to bring home from vacation. But instead of picking up yet another stuffed animal or sweatshirt, get the kids a cool new experience—perhaps even a new hobby—instead. California is packed with opportunities to learn sports that offer both bragging rights and possible dividends for years to come.

Take skateboarding, a classic SoCal sport, which kids can pick up pretty quickly. At Orange County’s Etnies Skatepark, “kids get to experience a world-class skate park with an amazing family-friendly atmosphere,” says Nick Gates, the park’s senior recreation supervisor. “In the first lesson or two for those new to skateboarding, we cover safety and etiquette in the park, basics such as how to push, dropping in on ramps, and making sure everyone is having a good time. And there is always the chance of seeing your favorite professional skateboarder.” 

Here are eight cool activities that your child can learn on your next trip to the Golden State. 

Fly-fishing, Lake Tahoe

Plenty of ponds near the Truckee River are stocked with rainbow trout—a fun way for kids to learn to fish. Get hooked up with an outfitter like Matt Heron Fly Fishing, which does a Creek Creatures class on these ponds, where kids get three hours of fly-fishing or spin fishing instruction, tips on fly tying and, as a crowd-pleasing bonus, an exploration of the aquatic bugs that thrive in this area.

Mountain biking, Mammoth Lakes

During summer, Mammoth Mountain sheds its ski persona and becomes a mountain-biking hotbed: Mammoth Bike Park covers 3,500 acres, with 80 miles of single track. Kids can take a group class where they’ll learn the finer points of balance, bike control, body positioning, and braking technique; if Mom or Dad wants to try too, they can book a parent-child package that includes bikes, helmets, a park pass, and an optional 2.5-hour lesson. Already have some skills? Then boost your game with a group lesson that includes technical trails, jumping, and cornering skills.

SCUBA diving, Monterey Bay Aquarium

It’s one thing to visit an aquarium and look at the marine creatures through the glass. But at the Underwater Explorers program, held during summers at the legendary aquarium, kids ages eight through 13 can get a first-time introduction to SCUBA in the aquarium’s Great Tide Pool, neighboring Monterey Bay. In a class of no more than 12, kids get use of a dry suit, regulator, air tank, and mask, as well as an introduction to basic SCUBA practices as they explore. Keep an eye out for the sea otters that frequent this part of the aquarium.

Stand-up paddleboarding, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara’s curving coastline offers a buffer against the northerly winds, making it a mellow place to learn the balancing-act sport of stand-up paddleboarding. Rent boards and paddles at Santa Barbara Harbor, or sign up for a lesson from a company like Channel Islands Outfitters, which offers two levels of no-experience-necessary lessons: one on extra-calm enclosed waters, and another on exposed waters with a chance of small swells—but no breaking waves.

Snowboarding, Bear Mountain

This resort in the San Bernardino Mountains is a great place for kids to learn snowboarding. In addition to the three age ranges for lessons (3-4, 5-7, and 8-12), the terrain parks run parallel to groomers, so that family members of different skill levels can stay together all day. During lessons, the first level focuses on the basics, while helping kids make turns and control their speed.

Rock climbing, Joshua Tree

For a kid who never saw a rock that she didn’t want to scramble over, Joshua Tree National Park is like a dream, with more than 400 climbing formations and 8,000 climbing routes. And a few outfitters offer lessons right in the park. In its one-day, small-group lesson, Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School covers knot tying, rope management, rappelling, and “belaying” (getting back down safely). From October through May, tour operator Cliffhanger Guides, based in the park, also does a family-friendly, five-hour group lesson that includes a picnic lunch.

Skateboarding, Orange County

Located in Orange County’s Lake Forest, Etnies Skate Park is the largest public skate park in California, and is known to be a favorite of pint-size skateboarding dynamo Bella Kenworthy. No suprise, it offers very kid-friendly classes: Just bring your own board, pads, and helmet, and you can learn how to balance, turn, and even do an ollie (a pop-up jump). 

Surfing, San Diego

With its wide beach and easy access, La Jolla Shores makes a welcoming place for kids to try surfing. Surf school Surf Diva first launched here to offer surf lessons geared toward women, but has broadened to offer instruction for the whole family, welcoming kids as young as five and offering weeklong, sleepaway surf camps for teen girls. But private lessons, lasting one to three hours (and including use of both a board and wetsuit), are great for boys, girls, and all kinds of beginners who want to learn to stand up on the board, catch a wave or two, and gain some new confidence.