Only a handful of Blue Earth citizens are brave enough to get their exercise outdoors during the harsh Minnesota winter months, but four Blue Earth Area students and their teacher have challenged themselves to walk to school every day including days with snow, wind and negative temperatures.
Dave Kittleson, a fifth grade teacher at Blue Earth Elementary School, has offered his students a classroom challenge for seven years. The goal of the challenge is for the students to get to school "under their own power." Whether that means walking, biking or rollerblading, the kids are responsible to get to school in some way other than taking a bus or getting a ride.
Kittleson himself began walking to school nine years ago when he decided that the price of gas was too high. Two years later he began to challenge his students to do the same. Some students have come close to Kittleson's record, but it wasn't until 2013 that one student successfully tied with his teacher.
Last year Caelan Sanders became the first student to tie with his teacher for the most days walked to school. Sanders is now in sixth grade and no longer competing with Kittleson but he has continued to walk to school daily.
As an athlete, Sanders finds that there are several benefits to walking. He can stay in shape between football, basketball and baseball seasons as well as keep his mind focused on school.
"It gives me time to clear my head and think about school work," Sanders said.
With two older brothers, Sanders has always had a role model to look up to and now he gets to be a role model for students younger than him.
"I'm the youngest boy in the family and I've always looked up to my older brothers so it feels really good to inspire younger kids," Sanders said.
Sanders can easily list all of the positive aspects that walking has done for his mind and physical health, but it hasn't always been easy.
"I actually broke my toe," Sanders said. "So that was one of the worst parts in walking."
This year, three students took on the challenge offered by their fifth grade teacher. McKenna Dutton, Austin Thielfoldt and Jacob Olson have walked, run, biked or rollerbladed since the first day of school.
"When they were fourth graders, they saw that Caelan was the first one to tie my record," Kittleson said. "So they came in the first day wanting to try the challenge."
Despite the severe winter weather, all three students agree that walking to school produced more good results than bad ones.
"In the morning when you don't feel like going to school, the walk always helps," Olson said.
The daily trek to school helps to wake the students up and refresh them for a full day of class, and as time goes on, the walk becomes easier. Aside from those perks, the students have also come to appreciate the changing temperatures.
"Every time it's 40 degrees outside other kids are complaining about how cold it is, but I just think it's warm," Dutton said.
According to Kittleson, it's commonplace to discuss weather, safety and temptation with the students who walk on a daily basis. The students have run into some difficulties, whether parents are jokingly tempting them with rides or polar vortexes are threatening their walk, but they've made it a point to get to school by their own means and in that lies pride.
"They were committed and they're so proud of themselves," Kittleson said.
May is "National Bike Month," so Dar Holmseth, the Community Education Director at Blue Earth Area Schools, put together a "Walk and Bike to School Day" which was held Wednesday. Holmseth is looking for ways to encourage kids to walk to school as well as educate students and parents about safe routes to get to school.
Kittleson hopes that his students can act as role models for other students in the area. Encouraging students to walk or bike is just one step in turning the city of Blue Earth into an environmentally friendly, active and healthy community.