A student catches a ball thrown by physical education teacher Amanda Knowlton after the Teens To Trails grant was announced Tuesday at Winthrop Middle School. Students won the $1,000 award to purchase outdoor equipment after logging in more than 187,000 minutes of outside time. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

WINTHROP — Middle school students assembled in the gymnasium this week for what they thought was for a dance and rock band performance. But as they saw their physical education teacher Amanda Knowlton open a bag of new dodgeballs, they had an idea why they were really brought to the gym.

The Winthrop Middle Schoolers raised 187,461 minutes outside and were in the top three schools across the state to do so as part of the Teens to Trail Life Happens Outside Challenge. Being in the top three earned them $1,000 to spend on anything outdoors.

When Knowlton opened the bag of new dodgeballs Tuesday afternoon and threw them to the students, they were so excited they could barely catch her throws. To them, it was a sign of their hard work sleeping outside in the cold and sports practice in the rain to earn minutes outside, paid off.

Knowlton sat on the secret of the news the students won for three weeks. She finally was able to tell the students in the surprise assembly Tuesday in which Teens to Trails Executive Director Alicia Heyburn presented them with the $1,000 check.

“They have no idea it’s coming,” Knowlton said of the news, adding that the students asked her “every day” if they won the challenge.

Knowlton heard of the Life Happens Outside Challenge — a challenge to get students outside in anyway possible — from a co-worker and thought it would be fun for her students to participate in, as she already tries to get them outdoors as much as she can in gym class. They could use the money for the new outdoor equipment.

“The kids have asked for new dodgeballs,” Knowlton said. “We also plan to get things for outside. I was thinking maybe disc golf or some stuff for winter.”

Winthrop High School student Elsa Goerel-Bain, left, Teens To Trails Executive Director Alicia Heyburn and teacher Amanda Knowlton react after the grant was announced Tuesday at Winthrop Middle School. Students won the $1,000 award to purchase outdoor equipment after logging in more than 187,000 minutes of outside time. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

When she told the students of the challenge, she said they took it seriously and did everything from going outside in the rain to using a yoga mat to sit outside and read.

Winthrop School Committee Chair Kelly Hooper was at the assembly and said her son, Will, took every opportunity to be outside and “walked on the rail trail and around the neighborhood.”

The Life Happens Outside Challenge is in its second year and aims to get students and school members outside for as much time per day as they can in a week. The week ran from Oct. 21 to Oct. 28 and 15 schools from across the state participated. The top three “winners” were awarded $1,000 to spend on outdoor activities for their schools.

The Winthrop Middle School students put in 187,461 minutes outside with the help from 221 middle schoolers and 19 teachers; however, the minutes earned by the teachers were not involved in the final count of minutes.

The other schools in the top three — Dedham School and Lamoine Consolidated School, put in 16,765 and 47,793 minutes, respectively, but did not have the power in numbers that Winthrop did. Dedham School had around 50 participants and Lemoine Consolidated School had around 29 participants.

The other schools across the state that participated in the Life Happens Outside Challenge were Central Middle School, Bath Middle School, Saco Middle School, Mt. Ararat Middle School, Grey-New Gloucester Middle School, Greely Middle School, Holbrook Middle School, Woolwich Central School, Athens Community School, Memorial Middle School, Brunswick Junior High School and Madison Junior High School.

Any time a student spent outside counted as minutes — examples given by Teens to Trails on activities to participate in were yard work, recess, building a fort, or hanging out with friends.

Teens to Trails Communication Director Jen Hazard said schools were creative with how they measured their numbers — some students took to sleeping on their porch and others cleaned up the areas around their outdoor classrooms.

“We heard from a lot of schools that it (the challenge) inspired them to do more outside,” Hazard said.

Students and staff celebrate after the Teens To Trails grant was announced Tuesday at Winthrop Middle School. Students won the $1,000 award to purchase outdoor equipment after logging in more than 187,000 minutes of outside time. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Students in Winthrop even got out in the cold and rain to make their minutes count — Knowlton said she would normally have cancelled cross-country practice due to the rain, but held one in the inclement weather during that week.

Hazard said getting outside, not only to exercise, but even for a couple of minutes a day to do something like sit and read, is important.

“There are big health problems now with anxiety that the pandemic brought and all of the studies done that show being outside is healthy and good for you and gives you that break that your brain needs,” Hazard said.

Superintendent Jim Hodgkin said he is proud of the work the students put in and especially for Knowlton who put in the time and effort to make sure the students had the best chance they could to get the grant.

“It was no surprise to me when she told me they got it,” he said.


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