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Getting The Kids Outside

When she isn’t treating children at Mount Ascutney Hospital, pediatrician Mary Bender gets to feel like a kid again.

A Norwich resident and mother of two Marion Cross Elementary School students, Bender often joins her sons, sixth-grader Billy and third-grader Danny, on outdoor adventures as part of the Upper Valley Trails Alliance’s Passport to Winter Fun program.

She didn’t have to go far for the family’s most recent outing, utilizing their backyard for sledding.

“I love to sled as much as anyone,” Bender said. “But it feels kind of silly doing it without children.”

While Bender may be motivated to join as a way to release her inner child, Billy and Danny have more tangible incentives at work. For every hour of physical activity they exercise, another square gets filled in their Passport to Winter Fun.

For every 10 hours completed, the brothers — along with thousands of other elementary school students across the Upper Valley — earn prizes such as lift tickets to ski areas or day passes to indoor fun and fitness centers. Students who fill in all 30 boxes in the passport are automatically entered into a raffle for grand prizes such as a new pair of snowshoes, a digital music player or a half-dozen ski passes.

Parents such as Bender are hardly a third wheel, because every time a family member is included, students get to fill in the “family star” portion of the passport box. Register 20 stars and family prizes are awarded, which include three-month memberships to either the Upper Valley Aquatic Center or Vermont Tech’s fitness center and pool.

Now in its seventh year, the Passport to Winter Fun encourages elementary school students to stay active during the winter months. It’s working, with 29 elementary schools now enrolled and about 4,000 individual passports — 18-page pamphlets with pictures, descriptions and stamp boxes — issued this year by UVTA.

A study surveying last year’s results found that 72 percent of participating students said they were more active after the program than before completing it, with the average student increasing their time engaged in physical activity by 46 minutes per week. U.S. federal guidelines recommend that children aged 6-17 participate in physical activity for at least one hour per day.

“We’ve found that (the Passport to Winter Fun) is a great way to get schools motivated and students energized about being more active in the winter,” UVTA programs director John Taylor said. “When kids see their friends and their classmates working toward the program and the incentive prizes, we think it helps them be more active and get outside.”

Any and all physical activities fit the bill for the Passport to Winter Fun, from skiing and snowshoeing to ones requiring little or no equipment like building snowmen or forts. Once an hour is completed, children write the name or draw a picture of what they did in the boxes provided.

Some physical education teachers have incorporated the Passport to Winter Fun into their class curricula or other school-day activities. State Street School gym teacher Donna Ewald has issued it to the 24 students enrolled in the Windsor elementary school’s “Bridge the Gap” after school program.

On Jan. 21, the group spent part of the Martin Luther King holiday hiking and sledding to in order to fill in their Passport boxes. The group was joined by Andree Koop and Chris Beeler, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth students who facilitated the outing and offered nutritional pointers as part of their Schweitzer Fellowship project. Koop and Beeler are working with students in both Windsor and South Royalton to help promote healthy lifestyles.

According to an introductory presentation about the Passport to Winter Fun, children living in rural areas may be of higher risk of exercise deficiency compared with those in urban areas, particularly during the wintertime.

“A lot of kids just don’t think of winter as a time to be outside and be active,” said Koop, a Florida native and second-year Geisel student. “They might not have enough clothes for it or they might not know where to go. … (The Passport for Winter Fun) is a great platform because it gives the kids ideas and goals for things to work toward for prizes.”

While originally intended to promote outdoor activities, the Passport program has evolved to include indoor exercise. State Street recess periods were held inside during last week’s bitter cold, yet students were able to work toward filling in passport boxes by exercising on the mezzanine of the gymnasium at the high school.

Former Ray School P.E. teacher Janice O’Donnell introduced the program to her students for several winters before retiring last year. She signed the Hanover elementary school up after the program began recognizing indoor activities.

“If a kid does gymnastics or plays around inside a lot, that’s good for them, too and they should get credit,” O’Donnell said.

“That way, every day in P.E. class, that could count toward the minutes.”

Not that O’Donnell doesn’t think students should enjoy the outdoors in winter.

“The best part about it is that it gets kids to do stuff they’ve never tried before,” she said. “They want those prizes, so they might go rent a pair cross country skis for the afternoon for the first time.”

Bender thinks the best part is that it urges her sons to pursue the outdoors even in less-than-stellar winter conditions. This week’s rainy weather, for example, is no deterrent.

“If it’s snowing out, they’re probably going to want to go out and play in it anyway, passport or no passport,” she said. “With the passport, even when it’s dreary and damp outside, they’re still going to be motivated to find something to do.”

By Jared Pendak Valley News Staff Writer. Thursday, January 31, 2013 Jared Pendak can be reached at or 603-727-3306.

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