An age-old tradition that heats up in the dead of winter is promoting new skills for students in Fletcher. The school’s Winter Wellness Program, which includes school-based activities as well as skiing and snowboarding at Smuggler’s Notch, aims to promote an enjoyment and appreciation of outdoor recreation, healthy exercise habits and positive social skills.
Weather permitting, the program runs for five consecutive Friday afternoons beginning in January, and has been in existence for more than 20 years. Some former Fletcher Elementary students have now returned as part of the 21-parent cadre of mountain chaperones that made this year’s skiing and boarding component of the program a slope-side success.
But, the familiar faces on the Mountain didn’t end with parents and the 11 school staff members that hit the slopes with students. The program has served as inspiration for several former Fletcher Elementary students who have gone on to become instructors at Smuggler’s Notch and now facilitate lessons and serve as inspiration for their younger Fletcher counterparts.
According to Aimee Tinker, a parent volunteer who coordinates the skiing and snowboarding component of the program for the school, the benefits of the program go well beyond learning the technicalities of the sports.
“There is also an important social piece where students are in a new setting with their peers, teachers, parents and new adults,” Tinker said, stating that students practice flexibility, adaptability and respect in addition to receiving ski or snowboarding instruction and having fun.
Tinker is convinced of the educational value of the program. “They learn so much,” she said of the students’ experience at the mountain. “This is not a waste of a Friday afternoon. It is an educational field trip with instructors and skills, social and otherwise.”
Drew Tolbert agrees. He is the sales and promotions coordinator for the mountain and a former snowboard coach who has worked with many Fletcher Elementary School groups. “The students are being athletic and healthy,” Tolbert said. “Beyond that it’s all about the mountain experience. It’s less about being involved in a really traditionally strict class and more about developing an appreciation of the mountain environment and working as a team and build camaraderie as we go through challenges together. Students really learn how to look out for each other. It really becomes a team effort”
One in five children in the U.S. are overweight or obese, putting them at increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Obese children are also more prone to stress, sadness and low self-esteem.
“Fletcher’s Winter Wellness Program does a great job of getting kids out and moving,” School Nurse Tara McMahon said. “It is so hard in the winter months to get in the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise. Learning to downhill ski, snowboard, cross-country ski, skate and snowshoe helps our students develop a lifelong love of the winter outdoors and to stay physically fit.”
For students that may struggle in a traditional school setting, Tinker says the program provides an opportunity for them to shine outside of the classroom. “They get up on that mountain and they are often a totally different kid,” Tinker said. “They are all smiles and the folks at the mountain always say that Fletcher has the best behaved kids. They really do model what they learn in school.”
Tolbert credits much of the students’ positive behavior to the program’s emphasis on choice and leadership opportunities for kids, citing that many instructors get to know students over time and develop positive, trusting relationships that allow students to act as role models for others.
“We’re moving to a way of teaching that gives them ownership,” Tolbert said, stating that it is important for children to have the flexibility to explore their own learning styles during lessons. “There is no shortage of teachable moments, both socially and otherwise, framed around a fun, exciting sport. It is fantastic to see it unfold.”
Smuggler’s Notch offers students in the program substantially reduced ticket, equipment rental and lesson prices. The same items are free for adult chaperones. The resulting five-week reduced cost per student is $180, compared to a traditional cost of $715. Similarly, the savings is $985 per chaperone. Smugglers’ Notch also offers SNAP, the Smuggler’s Notch Adaptive Program, which provides individual lessons and instructors for students with disabilities.
In addition to the physical activity offered by the program, Tinker believes that it strengthens relationships between teachers and students.
“Students are surprised to see their teachers out of the classroom element,” Tinker said. “They get to see them in a non-instructional, non-authoritative setting. They just get to be with them.”
In addition to opportunities at the mountain, about half of the 140 Fletcher students remain at school and participate in outside activities like snowshoeing, ice skating and hiking. The school’s parent group, Friends of Fletcher Elementary, has supported the creation of an ice rink for several years. Some teachers and staff remain at school and facilitate these outside activities, as well as some active inside games.
“This program provides the opportunity for student and staff to enjoy healthy activities in a more relaxed atmosphere working to build relationships,” School Counselor Sandi Simmons, who is also an ice skating coach outside of school, said. Simmons has supervised the ice rink at the school.
During the past several years Fletcher’s Winter Wellness program has expanded from only allowing students in grade three and beyond, to now including students in kindergarten and beyond.
“Just because the students are young doesn’t mean they can’t do it,” Tinker said.
“Winter wellness is a great way for kids to explore new things and find out what they are capable of,” sixth grader Adam Degree said.
“This program is really fun,” sixth grader Jarrett Sweet said. “If we didn’t have this program I feel like I never would have learned to ski.”
“It’s really fun and you get a lot of exercise,” sixth grader Delaney Sweet-Werneke said. “You learn that the outdoors is a great place to be in winter.
“The program is a chance for students to learn respect for each other and other guests, as well as the skills of skiing or snowboarding. It gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment all the way around,” Tolbert said.