Why is Gracie Kilba heading into school early?
"Because I can't wait!" the eight-year-old hollers, skis in hand, as she steps onto the magic-carpet lift that carries students up the snowy slopes of Sun Peaks Resort, an hour's drive north of Kamloops, B.C.
There's no time for elaboration as Gracie trundles out of earshot. But the reasons for her enthusiasm on this crisp, January morning are revealed soon enough.
Public education is offered in a few of North America's resort communities. Whistler, for example, is home to one secondary and two elementary institutions. But Sun Peaks, British Columbia's second-largest snow-sports hub, is home to what may well be the only ski-in, ski-out school on Earth. It's also an example of what academia has underscored for years: Physically active children perform better in school, and time spent outdoors boosts learning further still.
The unique procession begins in earnest a few minutes later. Dozens of elementary pupils clad in matching jackets congregate at the bottom of the lift with their parents, most of whom live and work in and around the Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality (population: 500 or so). By 8:30 a.m., most of the 69 students are in class; the exterior walls of the school's four buildings – a former ski instructors' outpost and three portables – are studded with colourful planks and poles.
Most students spend lunch hour on the slopes. The elementary schussers are limited to the beginner runs below the school, where parents and a teacher's assistant keep watchful eyes. The unattended high-schoolers, meanwhile, have the run of the Sundance chairlift closest to the school – as long as they're back in time for calculus.
Veteran kindergarten teacher Lynn Maartman shakes her head in wonder as she helps her charges unbuckle their boots after lunch. "If you would have told me 25 years ago that I'd be riding a magic carpet to work," she says, "I wouldn't have believed it."
Like the other teachers at the four-year-old centre, Maartman strives to incorporate the alpine setting into the district curriculum. Creative writing and art classes, she says, take advantage of the surrounding scenery. Spinning ski jumps are used to teach geometry, while alpine trails and topography illustrate mapping.
Lacking a playground for recess and lunch, "the younger kids use alpine creeks in spring to make dams, bridges and mud pies," Maartman continues. "In fall they use rocks and sticks to make forts or for goal posts. Because all this natural material is movable, they learn to work together, share and solve problems. All schools should have some natural materials on hand – not just concrete."
But most important, "the children are more focused. They need very little encouragement to get active. And they don't seem to have the behaviour problems I've experienced when teaching in a more urban setting."
Because of its small size, overall academic performance at the school is lumped in with others in the area. But there have been notable individual successes. For instance, one high-school student diagnosed with ADHD "was just scraping by" in an urban setting before coming to Sun Peaks in 2013, says classroom facilitator Thomas Lowe. Now, "he's getting straight As and being tested for giftedness."
All of which brings a smile to Nancy Greene's face. The Olympic gold medalist, Canadian senator and director of skiing at Sun Peaks cites the school as a model of how an active learning environment helps kids perform better. "Schools have a role to play in getting kids active and getting them to understand that if you're active all your life, you live a better life."
Greene's stance has plenty of academic support. Dozens of recent studies have established a link between fitness and learning, memory and behaviour, including a 2013 University of Illinois paper that revealed a strong correlation between aerobic fitness levels and recalling names and locations on a fictitious map. The results were consistent with research showing that exercise stimulates the hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms new memories.
Then there's Australia's continuing Lifestyle of Our Kids study, which kicked off in 29 Canberra primary schools in 2005. It suggests that specialized phys-ed instruction, combined with a focus on lasting activity patterns rather than immediate fitness benefits, yields health and academic gains that emerge after several years.
Combine all this with extensive research showing that outdoor activities boost learning, attention and imagination – all of which can improve test scores – and the Sun Peaks school starts to look like a nexus of next-generation education.
But it wasn't established to enhance the academic experience. Rather, it was born of necessity: Many local families were outraged in 2009 when school-district downsizing in nearby towns raised the spectre of two-hour bus commutes. By May of 2010, a group of parents had formed the Sun Peaks Education Society with the goal of establishing a school.
Four months and more than $90,000 in fundraising later, a classroom of 21 K-to-5 students opened in the ski-school building, with lessons delivered through the Kamloops-Thompson School District's @Kool distance-learning program. Elementary classes came under school-district jurisdiction in 2012, causing a split: Sun Peaks Elementary receives public funding and employs three district teachers, while the Discovery Centre continues to use @Kool and is funded mainly by SPES and the municipality.
Principal Deanna Brady, who oversees two other elementary schools in the district, is impressed with the results. "I really like how they're incorporating the environment around them. The educational component is consistent across the board, but the way they're utilizing the surrounding area to achieve learning outcomes is unique.
"Plus," she adds, "there's nothing like going to a staff meeting where everyone's wearing ski boots."