St. Johns Lutheran School students stand in the snow fort they built behind the playground. The fort is one of two, and this one has outer and interior foxhole barriers, steps and a tunnel, making it an excellent place to hide when the snowballs fly. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
St. Johns Lutheran School students stand in the snow fort they built behind the playground. The fort is one of two, and this one has outer and interior foxhole barriers, steps and a tunnel, making it an excellent place to hide when the snowballs fly. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
The St. Johns acronym for "snow fort" is "SMEAM."

That's right, students at St. Johns Lutheran School in Wykoff are learning SMEAM - science, math, engineering, art, and even some very basic medicine - through the construction of very elaborate snow forts in the schoolyard.

But don't tell them that.

"We built it to make it easier to throw a snowball," said one of St. Johns third through fifth grade teacher Joan Blackburn's students, as another added, "We wanted to have snowball wars. We have a lot of fun in the snow."

"I was amazed at it when I saw what they'd built," said Blackburn, marveling at the carefully-constructed multi-level monuments grown from precipitation. She pointed out that the students have been outside "working their heads off" on the structures in spite of persistent below-zero temperatures.

"They're out every day," she said. "They come in with cold, red faces, but as long as they're moving and having a good time, it's a great way to keep them busy and even keep warm while they're in recess. They're so bundled up that they don't notice the cold."

The first fort was begun by a faction of students who determined that a hearty snowball fight was in order, but that a snowball fight without barriers behind which to hide was simply too simple. They needed walls. Then they needed secondary walls.

Blackburn's students noted they've been engineering the forts for strategic movement. One of them elaborated, "We have a pit just inside the walls so we can be lower and be underneath."

And after walls and secondary walls, they chose to bring special shovels from home to install steps and a tunnel, and for the fort's preservation, spray bottles of water to freeze parts of it solid, thus incorporating science.

"They have a lot of specific engineers - they were making plans and using strategic thinking," the teacher cited.

A second fort was established by students in other grades who wanted to have some say as to how the fort was being expanded - instead of persisting in pursuit of the expansion plans, they picked up their mittens and moved a quarter of a quarter-acre away and dug in to start carving out their own ice castle, creating more works of art that surprise visitors who admire the forts' frozen features.

Then everyone was ready to lob the snowballs, which also meant that the "medicine" part of their SMEAM venture is snowball-based. They noted, "If we get hurt, we just put some snow on it, and it doesn't hurt so much."

The students called being able to start their construction careers from snow "really cool." They said they are going to add on a little bit, but they're happy with most of it, before moving on to discuss the tenets of their snowball wars. "We have a peace treaty. We like wrestling in the snow and having a place to hide."

And hopefully, if they're lucky, a tenacious Old Man Winter will let them continue their SMEAM studies. However, if the thermometer rises above 32 degrees, they have a plan: "We'll keep trying to put water on it now so it won't melt."