Ames Elementary School students packed the gymnasium Friday afternoon for an assembly, waving flags and cheering as Principal Lori Smail announced the school had been selected to participate in the WinterKids Winter Games challenge during the month of January.

At Searsport Elementary School, students began preparing even before Christmas break for their second year of WinterKids participation, which they also kicked off on Friday with an outdoor event at the school with "Chompers" (a shark) as their mascot.

WinterKids, a nonprofit organization with a mission to develop healthy, lifelong habits through fun outdoor winter activity, selected two elementary schools in each of Maine's 16 counties to compete in the four-week outdoor physical activity and nutrition challenge.

Each week is devoted to one of four different activities that make up the challenge. Schools can earn up to a total of 100 points (25 points for each weekly activity) for the successful completion of the weekly challenges, which include physical activity, nutrition, family engagement and participation in a winter carnival.

Top prizes include $5,000 for the gold medal, $2,500 for silver, and $1,500 for bronze.

A total of 8,000 students and 750 teachers will be participating in the second annual WinterKids Winter Games this year. Competing schools receive a toolkit of resources and incentives to help students earn points, including the award-winning WinterKids Guide to Outdoor Active Learning — an easy-to-use resource to help kids move, learn, and explore outdoors while meeting education standards.

Ames Principal Lori Smail sees this as "a great opportunity."

"It's a pretty big deal and it also promotes healthy living and has a curriculum component," she said. "We will go on story walks outside, sensory hikes where the students feel, touch and write about their experiences."

For the nutrition part of the challenge, Smail has enlisted the help of Bahner Farm, a local organic farm, for student taste-testing. Also planned are family engagement outings such as sledding and snowball target practice, and it will all wrap up with a winter carnival field day.

"We're really excited for the opportunity for students and staff to take part in this event. WinterKids is a great organization to put this all together," Smail said. "It's a wonderful gift Ames School has been presented."

Searsport Elementary School earned sixth place in the first WinterKids Winter Games held last year.

Amy Hafford, third-grade teacher and program coordinator at Searsport Elementary, announced the school's participation again after they received their toolkit in December. “We are so excited to be selected to participate in the WinterKids Winter Games," she said in a news release. "Our school appreciates the opportunity provided by Winterkids Winter Games to teach our students and families in Waldo County about living healthy in such a unique and fun way!"

Chompers appeared at Searsport Elementary's opening ceremonies Friday, and kids pledged "To chomp and play all day." A series of activities is planned this month at the school and in the community, involving partnerships with Belfast Watershed Coalition, Camp Kieve, and Searsport and Belfast Parks and Recreation, as students "go for the gold," Hafford said.

Two community events will close the competition for Searsport Elementary. On Jan. 30, from 3:30 to 5 p.m., "Keeping the Lights on Healthy Kids Afterschool Event" will take place at at the school with many fun activities for kids.

On Feb. 1, from 4 to 6 p.m., the Waterfall Arts Center in Belfast will host sledding races, family ice skating, Winterkids Winter Games, a healthy ice cube egg hunt and more.

#ChompandplayWaldo