SWAN’S ISLAND — Over the last month, in the heart of the dark, cold days of winter off the coast of Maine, students here not only sought out time on the snow and ice, but earned points for doing so.
Swan’s Island Elementary School was one of 32 elementary schools in the state participating in a month-long motivational program to be active and eat more nutritious foods. The program is called Winter Kids Winter Games.
“It’s all based on participation, the goal is to get them super excited,” said Principal Crystal DaGraca. “We’ve had to be creative in keeping with the program and keeping kids engaged.”
Winter Kids is a nonprofit organization started in 1997 as part of the Ski Maine Association. For the winter games school challenge, two schools are chosen from every county in the state to participate through an application process. According to the organization’s website, the program is reaching 770 teachers and more than 7,800 kids.
Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School and Swan’s Island Elementary School were the two schools chosen in Hancock County to participate.
For two of the four weeks, the Swan’s Island school was in fourth place among participants. The school dropped to 12th place during the last week. Overall for the program, the Swan’s Island school is in sixth place with more points up for grabs.
Final winners were set to be announced on Friday and whichever school comes the closest to earning 160 points will win $5,000.
But the kids were not the only ones who got excited about the program. Teachers and parents were interested as well.
“The teachers are engaging with each other to come up with creative ideas,” said DaGraca during the final week of the challenge. “Some of the ideas came from the kids. That’s when learning really soars.”
Weather on Swan’s Island has not been especially cooperative.
“Most of the time it’s been below the nine degree temperature where we have to keep kids in,” said DaGraca. “Next year, hopefully we’ll have more snow. We’ve had a lot of ice to contend with.”
One way to enjoy the ice is to don skates, which DaGraca says she has seen more kids and parents doing around the island. Mainland schools, especially those further inland, had more snow with which students could build snowmen and snow forts. They could also go sledding to meet challenge requirements.
Week one of the winter games was focused on physical activities that were meant to take place outside. Because the temperatures were so low on Swan’s Island, the students did a lot of the activities in the gymnasium, including relay races. They also created games using swim noodles and hula hoops.
“We tried to make sure in every contact area we tried to get outside at least one day a week,” said DaGraca.
In the second week of the challenge, the focus was on nutrition. Thanks to a donation from Bar Harbor’s Hannaford Supermarket, students tasted new fresh foods like avocado and mango.
“They provided us with more food than we could eat in a week,” said DaGraca, adding that kids got involved making snacks. “They learned how to cut the fruit. That got the kitchen staff involved.”
For the third week, family participation was how students earned points.
“It was a sweet thing to see that the parents were getting as excited as the kids,” said DaGraca. “I’m not sure that they had a choice because every day the kids were asking if they were going to do winter kids.”
Schools in the program could earn bonus points by exceeding the minimum activity requirements and/or having guest speakers. Swan’s Island’s school did the latter by inviting Christal Applin to speak about fun outdoor activities and how to be safe doing them.
Week four of the competition was about celebrating winter with a Winter Carnival theme. Points from the percentage of student participation, along with other qualifying criteria were tallied at the end of the four weeks to determine a winner. Because of the student enthusiasm for the program, DaGraca was already celebrating.
“Of course we want to win,” she said about the competition. “But I feel like we’ve already won… It’s an immediate result. You can see the difference in the kids.”