Heading Back to SnowSchool

This winter, thousands of fourth and fifth graders from across the country will be strapping on snowshoes and hitting the trail.

These students will be part of a growing program – SnowSchool – that is designed to give children access to outdoor winter education. While many children spend the winter inside, away from nature and its delights, SnowSchool participants gain a new appreciation for the colder months of the year through outdoor games and learning.

There are 27 sites offering SnowSchool activities in 11 different states including Colorado, Washington, New Hampshire and New York. The local sites vary from national parks and forests to university campuses, community parks and nature centers. Grassroots non-profit groups with government partners, like the Colorado Division of Wildlife, run the sites, while national support – in the form of advertising, logistics, and curriculum – is provided by Winter Wildlands Alliance. The Atlas Snow-Shoe Co. supplies the snowshoes free of cost to low income sites and at “deep discounts” to all other sites.

Winter Wildlands Alliance and Atlas are committed to providing SnowSchool to underprivileged children. This is fortunate since all communities are subject to environmental problems and all students need to be educated to be ecologically aware. Low-income communities are already a part of SnowSchool, and other similar communities are actively sought-out. In addition to free snowshoes to low-income sites, SnowSchool makes an effort to help out in other ways, such as providing winter clothing to those who don’t have access to it on their own. They recently received a “large shipment of children’s down coats and gloves” from Marmot and are working hard to get the gear out to sites that are in need.

SnowSchool sites contact local elementary schools to organize fieldtrips. Before the fieldtrip, students prepare for SnowSchool by discussing the science of snow as well as wildlife they might encounter during their day outside. On the day of the fieldtrip, the children journey to the site knowing that they are in for a treat because this is no normal fieldtrip. The children realize, as they ride the bus to a national park or local nature center, that on this day they will get to play games, run around outside, and explore new lands while they learn. It’s not just another day in a stale old museum.

The students are lead by park rangers, scientists, and educational specialists during their day with SnowSchool. These professionals teach lessons in winter ecology meant to educate the students as well as excite them about science. As you can learn from SnowSchool.com, the students learn how to identify wildlife tracks, measure snow depth and analyze water content. Science that has been taught in the classroom is reinforced through hands-on education. Once the Snow-day is over, the students return to the classroom where they continue to discuss what they’ve learned outside.

The program that is now called SnowSchool began as a lender snowshoe program to local schools, in 1996. Jim Watson, of Little Bear Snowshoes, was the founder and director of the program in its early development. Little Bear simply provided snowshoes to local groups that were willing to share their educational programs with others. Without an advertising budget, the program spread by word of mouth. And spread it did. By 2001, the lender-program had turned into a major educational opportunity for children at 20 different sites across the country. At that point, the program had become so big that Little Bear began to search for a partner. The obvious choice was Winter Wildlands Alliance.

Winter Wildlands Alliance, a non-profit group based in Boise, Idaho, is “the only national organization for human-powered snow sport enthusiasts and winter wildland conservationists.” The Alliance is the result of an actual alliance between grassroots environmental groups in California, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. Sally Grimes, of the Alliance, says that the group became necessary because “non-motorized users are run off the lands, due to the fumes, noise, and safety issues caused by snowmobiles.” Since its creation, the Alliance has become the national voice that “ensures that skiers and snowshoers have safe, peaceful places to enjoy their sports.”

When Little Bear snowshoes went out of business, Winter Wildlands Alliance approached the Atlas to ask for their support so SnowSchool could continue and grow. Karen Righthand, the marketing director for Atlas, says that they were already looking for a group whose “mission aligned with our business.” So when the people at Winter Wildlands Alliance called, she was more than excited. For Righthand, whose job is to get more people interested in snowshoeing, Atlas’ support for the program was the perfect blend of business and activism. As Righthand says, “if it’s a good experience (for the students), they’re going to take that with them” and possibly become active snowshoers and ecologically concerned citizens.

SnowSchool continues to grow and become a better program. Winter Wildlands Alliance is currently looking for a SnowSchool Program Coordinator. The Coordinator will be responsible for “streamlining the program” to make it more effective at using its funds and resources. For the time being, Grimes says, SnowSchool will continue to focus on fourth and fifth grade students in order to perfect “the programs that are already in place before expanding significantly.” But in the future, they would like to enlarge the program to include other age groups.

One of the main concerns for all of those involved in the program is to make children excited about being active. “The great thing about SnowSchool,” Righthand explains, “is that it incorporates a science curriculum and a physical curriculum.” The physical nature of SnowSchool is no small matter, especially when one considers the current trend of alarmingly high rates of childhood obesity and related diseases. Mixing physical instruction and play with education is a much needed way to expose children to the fun awaiting them when they step away from the television and out the door into a snow-filled winter expanse.

For those of us who love snowshoeing, SnowSchool represents an important contribution of the future of the sport. It gets young people excited about being outside in the winter, about the sport of snowshoeing, and about the ecology of the natural world.

Sally Grimes, of the Alliance, says, “The core goal of the program is to expose children to the fun and wonder of their winter environment.” And that’s something all snowshoers can support.

About the author

Kyle Boelte