The school day had started in Utqiaġvik, and the thermometer read minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It had been in the negative degrees during the entire school week, but that’s typical in December in the northernmost Alaska — and U.S. — community with about 4,500 residents. The day stayed dark and then dim from morning until night. The sun doesn’t rise midwinter this far north of the Arctic Circle.
And yet, the youngest kids in Utqiaġvik could still play every day. That’s because they attend a school that has done something unique. Inside its heated school building, Fred Ipalook Elementary has an entire school playground that most of us are used to seeing outdoors instead. The playground includes jungle gyms, slides, ladders, basketball hoops and open space. The elementary students in Utqiaġvik love to use the indoor playground, said Monica Lugo, physical education teacher at Fred Ipalook Elementary. It’s open to them every day of the school year during normal recess time, extra recess sessions and as a reward for demonstrating good behavior at school.
“There really is no excuse for them to get no activity,” Lugo said.
Having playgrounds that make it possible to play in any weather helps Alaska children meet the national Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published updated guidelines in November 2018, but the recommendation for school-age children remained the same: For the best health, these children should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. Kids can get that activity through recess, physical education class, and activities before and after school.
Lugo said Fred Ipalook Elementary does have outdoor playgrounds to support physical activity, but they aren’t used as much as the indoor playground during cold, snowy months. Sometimes the snow is piled so high that the slide can’t be used. Other times, students don’t bring the right clothing to play in below zero temperatures.
“Not all the kids bring the gear that’s heavy enough, or they forget gloves or hats,” Lugo said.
Other Alaska communities face different types of weather challenges when it comes to playing outside. Petersburg in Southeast Alaska is one example. The community of about 3,000 residents has many rainy days. The rain doesn't stop Stedman Elementary students from playing outside, however, because the outside playground has a roof that covers basketball hoops, four square games and other areas for play.
"We don't hold kids in for rain," said Ginger Evens, wellness team member and teacher for the Petersburg School District.
"Anybody can play, anywhere.”
Strategies like these may work in other schools. Talk about these ideas with your school districts, PTAs, principals and wellness committees to see if they could work in your communities and schools. Read more online about other strategies schools across Alaska are using to make healthy foods, drinks and physical activity available to more children.