By Haley Grinder
Special to the Pioneer

Grades three to seven students at Windermere Elementary School are beginning the day with a 15-20 minute walk in and around their local community. The walk has helped form friendships, get students active, and improve overall mental health— which is especially important during a pandemic.

Paulina Stankovski teaches the split Grade 5, 6, and 7 class, while Tara Whittick teaches the split Grade 3 and 4 class. They both start every morning by taking their students on a walk outside: rain or shine.

“I really like the idea of students starting their day with a little bit of exercise and a little bit of fresh air,” says Stankovski. “It helps to get their bodies and their minds ready for the school day and for learning.” She believes in forming these healthy habits early on.

Stankovski has been taking her students outside in the schoolyard every morning for just over the past four years. Although the route is not always the same, the students average around 2500 steps a day. By the end of the school year, each student will have walked over 200 kilometers.

Whittick says “[We] wanted to show the students and staff that it is easy to fit 15 minutes of daily physical activity into your daily routine.” The kids have even started asking their parents to go on their own “walk’n’talks.’”

“It doesn’t have to mean you’re doing a 10 km run, that’s not what health has to look like,” says Stankovski. “Everybody can do it equally. It’s a very inclusive activity. Regardless of socioeconomic status or whatever else, everyone can walk and build those lifelong healthy habits.”

Due to COVID-19, team sports and organized field trips are non-existent this year. The walks give the students something to look forward to.

Danica and Luke, Grade 6, have been in Stankovski’s class for the past three years and love that they can catch up with their friends in the morning. “When you go inside, you can’t really talk to your friends, because you have to do school,” says Luke. “But when you go on the walk, you can tell them everything that happened to you, and they can tell you everything that happened to them over the weekend.”

Stankovski says she has seen numerous friendships emerge. “They need that time to build that connection.”

After the walk, Stankovski’s class will come in and start reading as part of their routine.

Math is her first class of the day, and students say they are much more focused and “ready to learn.” There are also fewer interruptions during class time, as the kids have already gotten to talk to their friends.

The time spent outside each morning has helped combat negative feelings of isolation, as well as mental health struggles among the kids.

B.C. Children’s Hospital says two-thirds of youth are experiencing mental health issues since the emergence of COVID-19. However, Mental Health Research Canada says, “going outside, walking, and hiking continues to be the most positive thing you can do to support your mental health.”

Aware of this, the teachers are both big advocates for outdoor education and challenge themselves daily to “take our learning outdoors and on the road as much as possible,” says Whittick. The class engages in both social walks and learning walks, where the focus is on developing core skills like communication, science, math, art and general knowledge in a casual setting. However, sometimes they engage in specific “theme walks”— such as, rainbow walks, shape walks, lovely and unlovely walks, flaneur walks, high and low walks, good hiding place walks, estimation walks, and multiplication walks.

Even prior to the pandemic, the pair regularly practiced “taking [their] students out into nature or into the community to experience the richness of this place, and to make connections to the land, the animals, the water and our fellow neighbours.”

Whittick and Stankovski say that the walks are actually improving focus and productivity. The activity helps the kids’ ability to retain information much more than if they had simply started first thing in the morning.

“It’s not a frivolous activity, it’s a necessity, I think we need to be doing this,” says Stankovski, who hopes more teachers will join the movement. “It doesn’t feel like that big of a deal in our day, but can have such an impact.”