A vessel-full of kids come down the hill at Payson Park in Portland on Jan. 20, 2018, in a whitewater raft during the WinterKids Welcome to Winter Festival. WinterKids puts on the annual event dedicated to getting children active outdoors during the cold months. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

Too many Maine kids spend the winters in a kind of human hibernation mode: holed up inside on the couch, watching television or playing video games, according to WinterKids, a statewide organization that is working to change that.

This month, officials at the nonprofit agency are hoping to capitalize on the buildup to the 2018 Winter Olympics to inspire Maine kids to get outside more and do winter activities such as sledding, ice skating and snowshoeing. So far students at 16 elementary schools across the state are taking part in the four-week outdoor physical activity and nutrition challenge that wraps up the end of this month.

“The engagement has been amazing,” said Marion Doyle, the program director at WinterKids. “They’re having a lot of fun. They’re getting physically active, and it’s trickling out into the communities and families. Each one of the schools is taking it to a new level. It’s very exciting.”

This year marks the pilot program for WinterKids Winter Games, which has 4,200 kids and 229 teachers participating statewide. Over the course of the competition, schools have the chance to rack up points for participating in different types of challenges, with the winner taking home a $5,000 gold medal prize. There are also cash prizes for the silver and bronze medalists, as well as honorable mention prizes for three schools. Within each school, the bigger percentage of the school population that participates, the more points it can get.

“It’s competition, but it’s healthy competition and friendly competition,” Doyle said.

Christina Ellis, the principal at the Miles Lane School Elementary School in Bucksport, said that even though the last few weeks have posed some weather challenges, thanks to bitter cold, ice, snow storms, snowdays and torrential rainfall, her students have been having a great time getting into the spirit of the games.

“We did some snowshoeing. We have beautiful trails behind the school, and we have a town skating rink just down the street from us. We went sledding, and looked for signs of wildlife,” she said. “It’s been wonderful.”

A lot of her students don’t get outside much in the winter, and the Winter Games is helping to change that, she said. According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 18 percent of Maine adolescents were physically active for at least 60 minutes a day on each of the seven days before they took a health survey.

Ellis said parents reported that their children were sleeping better during the week of the physical activity challenge. This week, the hosted school-wide winter carnival, which incorporated sled races, a hockey slapshot contest and a winter snow obstacle course, among other activities.

Kids who didn’t know how much fun winter can be have gotten a taste of it, according to the principal.

“All it took was just a little push of encouragement,” Ellis said.

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