The FWSU Story: Winter Wellness Program Helps Keep Fletcher Students Healthy

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An age-old tradition that heats up in the dead of winter is promoting good health and new skills for students in Fletcher. The school’s Winter Wellness Program, which includes outdoor 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 February, and has been in existence for more than 20 years. Some former Fletcher Elementary students have now returned as part of the 18-parent cadre of mountain chaperones that are making this year’s skiing and boarding component of the program a slope-side success. In addition, all school staff participate in the program by chaperoning at Smuggs or during outdoor activities at school.

But, the familiar faces on the Mountain didn’t end with the parents and staff members that hit the slopes with students. The program has served as inspiration for several adult 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, 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 former 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.”

Smuggs staff credit 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 the ski and snowboard opportunities at the mountain, about half of Fletcher’s students remain at school and participate in outside activities. In addition, for the past two years, the school has offered off-campus snowshoeing. 

“The goal of Winter Wellness is to teach and encourage students to embrace and enjoy their physical environment and the outdoors even during some of the coldest, darkest months of the year” school counselor Lisa Coale said. “Research shows that enjoying time outside has significant health benefits including improving focus, combatting depression, anxiety and stress, eliminating fatigue and even improving short term memory. By providing space and time for our students to enjoy the outdoors, engage in physical activities and connect with their school community we are also simultaneously supporting their social-emotional wellbeing.”

During the past several years Fletcher’s Winter Wellness program has expanded from only allowing participation by students in grade three and beyond, to now including students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

“Just because the students are young doesn’t mean they can’t do it,” Tinker said. “The earlier the better when it comes to promoting healthy habits and a love of being outside in our beautiful state.”

“During Winter Wellness students participate in a variety of activities with groups of adults and students they don’t normally get to interact with on a daily basis at school,” Coale said. “This change to their normal routine requires students to practice flexibility, promotes new and different social engagement, and above all else, creates new opportunities for learning as they participate in activities some students have never tried before.”

“Being at the mountain is great,” cross country skier and fourth grader Harrison Frennier said. “It’s a change of pace to be outside and moving around. It’s a good way to be healthy and enjoy nature at the same time.”

“It’s fantastic,” fourth grader Koda Chipman said of his experience skiing during the program. “I want to be outside all the time and especially during school. This is very good for your body and your mind.”

Christopher Dodge is the Principal of Fletcher Elementary School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him on Twitter @FletcherFalcon