SNOWSHOE MAGAZINE FEATURED ARTICLE:

Hey You Kids, Get Outside!

Winterkids makes snow and fitness fun.

“We have so many letters from grateful parents!” says Carla Marcus, the director of Winterkids. “Kids bring their enthusiasm for snow sports home to their families and they get active too. The program isn’t just for the kids, it’s for kids, their siblings, and their parents… the whole family benefits.”

Carla has been running WinterKids, a program that advocates winter sports and fitness to grade schoolers, for eight years now. Although WinterKids was founded as an alpine ski program, they quickly decided that they needed to take a broader approach. They wanted to encourage kids to be active and healthy all winter long and knew that they needed to use more than skis to do that. Their program still offers alpine skiing, but it has grown to include cross-country skiing, ice skating, tobogganing, and snowshoeing.

WinterKids tackles the winter fitness issue with four programs. The first – and biggest – is the WinterKids fifth, sixth and seventh grade Passport, which provides discounted or free lessons, tickets, and rentals, to all of Maine’s fifth, sixth, and seventh graders. Participants also extend those benefits to the siblings and parents of Passport holders, making snow adventures affordable for the whole family.

Nationwide, WinterKids promotes their Outdoor Learning Curriculum. Teachers, parents, and youth group leaders can contact Winterkids to gain access to a broad range of lesson plans that engage kids of all ages in active outdoor learning. The Curriculum contains academic lessons, games, safety training exercises, and more – and all the plans are written to take place in the big outdoors. The program is extensive, well thought out, and even includes an adaptive component for disabled students. The Curriculum is aligned with National Education Standards and includes such topics as Winter Ecology – Animal Adapations, the History of Skiing and Outdoor Clothing, and plans for activities that make up the Snowshoe Olympics.

WinterKids doesn’t just hand over paper guidelines, though. They’re more than happy to share their expertise with other schools that want to implement the Outdoor Learning Curriculum. They’ll help schools find information on grant proposals, teach them what they know about fundraising, and point them towards sympathetic equipment suppliers.

The World Class Athlete Tour brings champion athletes to speak to schools about their experiences in the world of winter sports. Former Olympic skier Julie Parisien leads the program that brings people like figure skater Alexa Ainsworth and Kent Hulst, a former captain of the Portland Pirates hockey team, to psyche up Maine school children about staying active in the winter. These outstanding athletes inspire the kids to think about winter sports as more than just PE class.

Then there’s the Active Academics Workshop. The snowshoe workshop – just one of the workshops offered – is offered by WinterKids staff and brings a fleet of snowshoes and Outdoor Learning Curricula to Maine classrooms. WinterKids staff members use physics lessons drawn directly from the OLC to teach kids how snowshoes work. They learn about history when they discuss where snowshoes came from and how they’ve been used in the past. Their vocabulary grows to include terms like “glissade” and “crampons.” And, of course, they get exercise when they learn snowshoe techniques. This workshop gives teachers the opportunity to see the Outdoor Learning Curriculum working in their schoolyard, for their children.

It’s not surprising that kids turn out to love snowshoeing. Once their suited up and strapped in, they don’t want to come inside. “Snowshoeing was the most fun ever!” said Griffen, a fifth grader who participated in the Active Academics workshop. “When I was snowshoeing, I felt like my feet were HUGE!” said Carrie, another fifth grader. “I thought it was SOOOO much fun!”

Even in extreme weather, the kids are revved up and ready to go. One year, after much diplomacy, the principal agreed not to cancel the workshop – in spite of concerns from parents and teachers about the unusually drastic low temperatures. The kids behaved exactly as Winterkids expected – with great enthusiasm and howling for more. Maybe it’s that the youngsters were impervious to cold, but if you ask Carla Marcus she says it’s because they were dressed properly and having a good time. “They were having a blast.” It just goes to show you that cold weather is no reason to stay indoors – dress warm and get outside!

Carla is impassioned when speaking about the fitness challenges facing Americans today. “In Maine, winter is our longest season and when we tend to lie on the couch. If we are going to fight the health problems affecting our kids, we need to get them outdoors and active in the winter time. Once the kids are involved, their families participate by extension. The kids bring the lesson plan home, or they sign up for the Passport program, and soon the whole family is involved in making healthy lifestyle changes.”

A map in the Winterkids brochure shows over 40 locations that offer free recreation to fifth, sixth, and seventh graders and their families. Cross-country and alpine skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and snowshoeing – there’s something for everyone. And the program is expanding every year with more participants. There are 53,000 kids in Maine that are eligible for the Passport program, but there’s no telling how many people benefit from the program because for every kid that signs up, there’s a whole family that may now be shuffling around the snowshoe trails of Rangeley or gliding across the tracks of Carrabasset Valley.

As for the WinterKids who have grown up, Carla hears from their parents now and again. “Parents have written to tell me that their kid now works as a handicapped skiing instructor or on the ski patrol because of our program.” Winterkids is growing up too. This year they’ve expanded to include new ski and sport areas. The University of Maine’s Varsity athletes are joining the Active Academics tour, and Winterkids has a new endorsement from the National Association of Sport and Physical Education. Back at the program headquarters, they’re modest about their accomplishments. “We want people to know that you can be active in winter too – even if there’s no snow. It’s all about getting outside and having fun.”