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“A Magical Place for Kids”

Seattle Post-Intelligencer – April 16, 2007
By Jessica Blanchard

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND -- They're politely impressed by the luxurious lodge-style dormitories of the Bainbridge Island retreat, the recycled glass tile in the bathrooms, the fresh, "sustainable" meals chefs prepare each day.

But for many of the visiting fifth-graders from Seattle's Catharine Blaine K-8, the highlight has been seeing -- up close -- the tiny tree frog perched on their team leader's hand.

Ten young members of "Team Bog" cluster around for a closer look, standing on tiptoes for a better view. They pepper their team leader, graduate student Crysta Swarts, with questions: "Can I touch it?" "Is it a baby?" "Can I kiss him?"

"No, you can't kiss the frog!" Swarts says, laughing. Even the few kids with wrinkled noses can't resist checking out the miniature amphibian -- you know, because it's gross, but at the same time, so cool.

As educators nationwide strive to make their lessons more relevant to students and offer hands-on experiences to get them excited about learning, the staff at IslandWood, a non-profit environmental education center, already has discovered a simple way: Move the classroom outside.

Here, at the "school in the woods," children can learn the difference between marshes and bogs from atop a treehouse, see a family of deer while hiking through the woods or explore gravestones in a historic cemetery.

Founded by Debbi Brainerd, wife of former Aldus Corp. founder Paul Brainerd, the $52 million, meticulously designed center opened five years ago with the goal of creating a fun campus in a natural setting, particularly for low-income, disadvantaged children from urban areas.

Since then, thousands of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders from King and Kitsap counties have participated in the School Overnight Program, with about a hundred students visiting each week. The tuition is about $200 per child, though the center provides scholarships to some schools with higher numbers of students from poor families.

It's often the first time students have harvested vegetables for their dinner, told stories around a campfire or ridden a ferry across Puget Sound.

"For some kids, this is the most wild wilderness experience they've ever had," said Kristin Poppo, IslandWood's head of graduate and professional studies. "They're changing their worldview."

It would take at least two weeks for students to explore the 255-acre forested preserve, so visiting schools break into small groups and are assigned to study either watersheds or ecosystems. Though there are some shared experiences -- all students will have the chance to trek to Blakely Harbor or take a trip across the suspension bridge, for example -- lessons vary for each group.

Each day, the pond or the garden or the forest becomes the classroom, and students are urged to use all their senses. They focus on the sounds of the forest during a nighttime walk through the woods; they roll cloves of garlic in their palms during a cooking lesson to discover the savory aroma.

The hands-on nature of the lessons keeps kids entertained -- and out of trouble.

"When you're filling out a worksheet, it's easy to get distracted," Poppo said. "When you're digging through the mud to find macroinvertebrates to see if the stream is healthy or not, and then drawing them in your journal, kids get really excited."

It's easy to see why. Instead of a dry discussion about reducing waste, kids at IslandWood see and smell a huge worm-filled compost bin, as the worms chow down on table scraps from yesterday's lunch. And a scavenger hunt through the garden is more fun than simply reading about different herbs -- especially when taste-testing is encouraged, and the oregano harvested will be used in pizza sauce for dinner.

Team-building exercises are also sprinkled through the trip, to help classmates get to know each other better, boost their confidence and hone their communication skills.

When students head home after the four-day retreat, "a lot of what's most inspiring is the change of their attitudes about learning and their sense of empowerment," said Denise Dumouchel, head of school programs.

The experiential learning model also helps children make connections between subjects such as art and math, or science and music, executive director Ben Klasky said. "The real world is integrated, yet the American education system sends you to science class and math class," he said. "We're modeling what the real world is like for kids."

Environmental education has been required in the state since 1990, and educators have long recognized the power of hands-on lessons to boost students' academic achievement.

But in an era of standardized testing and tightening budgets, the subjects the IslandWood curriculum emphasizes -- science, social studies, art, music, gym, technology -- are slowly being eroded in many schools, Klasky said.

"The irony is, those are the things that are most hands-on and experiential and engage kids," he said.

The graduate students who lead the teams recognize that sometimes spontaneous moments, such as pausing to listen to a bird song or to check out an "exotic" animal or bug along the trail, can offer some of the most powerful educational experiences.

The tree frog's appearance, for example, was unplanned but made quite an impression on the students. The creature eventually was returned to the edge of the forest, but not before jumping on 10-year-old Josh Vredevoogd's head.

While some classmates shrieked and others looked on enviously, Josh stayed calm -- but it was difficult for him to contain his enthusiasm for long. After all, he'd never seen a tree frog before -- much less had one perch on his head. It was definitely going to make a great story when he got home, he decided.

Still, when asked if it was the coolest part of his trip, he thought for a moment, then shook his head.

"I can't pick a favorite thing," he said, before scampering down the trail after his friends, off toward their next adventure.

ON THE WEB

To learn more about the IslandWood program, visit islandwood.org.

P-I reporter Jessica Blanchard can be reached at 206-448-8322 or jessicablanchard@seattlepi.com.

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