Bring Buildings To Life

Buildings and structures, like the canopy tower, tree houses, and floating classroom at Islandwood that appear to be the camp equivalent of Magic Mountain, have a secret identity as learning tools that challenge students, spark imaginations, and change perspectives. Just don’t tell the kids.

Located on Bainbridge Island in Washington state, IslandWood has offered outdoor learning experiences since 2001, when pilot programs began on a 255-acre, forested campus located across Puget Sound from downtown Seattle.

Covered with lush cedar and alder, and cut by a stream connecting a marsh, bog, and pond to the harbor site of an early 20th-century mill, the island’s natural and cultural history make an idyllic outdoor classroom for the 4,000 elementary-school students who visit each year for the four-day, three-night School Overnight Program. The buildings and structures silently present lessons without suspicion. Learning studios with photovoltaic panels teach students about capturing light for power. The canopy tower lends new perspective on the ecosystem far below. Likewise, the hand-cranked floating classroom is a lesson in the power of teamwork.

Though participants frequently proclaim their week on the island to be the best week ever, it is still school time. The curriculum intentionally links trailside and lab activities to district and state science units; inspiring a love for learning is serious business.

Summer camps also enable IslandWood to offer experiences that emphasize fun while still sneaking in some learning, where nature is often the teacher.

The summer camps—predating the organization’s school programs

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by more than a year—have grown to serve approximately 800 children ages 4 to 12 each year, offering the immersive feel of a sleep-away experience just miles from home.

Although there are camps with specific themes—Sprouting Scientists, Nature Chefs, and Earth Art—most campers take advantage of the entire campus.

The Canopy Tower—A Higher Purpose

The 150-foot Forest Canopy Tower—formerly a fire tower in the North Cascades—was rebuilt on the edge of the site’s ravine in 2009, and is visited by most of the children who come to the island. Instructors are trained to use the ascent for a higher purpose. For many campers, the canopy tower is a thrill. For others, each step is another one outside his or her comfort zone. The challenge then is for everyone in the group to support each other until every camper reaches the top.

Along the way, wide-eyed and gasping explorers are able to see the surrounding forest change from the floor to the canopy. Even if the instructors don’t prompt them, the campers instinctively behave like scientists in a vertical laboratory, questioning, observing, and discovering. Why is the temperature changing? Is there more sunlight in certain spots? Is it my imagination or are the trees balancing themselves with their branches? It’s a non-textbook example of the way structures are not just fun or even the object of study, but the path to physical and emotional resiliency for campers who can’t believe how awesome the world looks above the trees.

Don’t Worry, This One’s In The Bog

Less than a mile up the spine trail from the canopy tower is the Bog Tree House. Built around a Douglas fir tree anchored to the ground by ancient roots, the tree house is a scenic, multi-purpose room where young artists come to sketch landscape drawings and for hungry groups to take refuge from the rain for lunch or a snack. Legend even has it that a fairy was once caught napping by 5-year-old campers during a Forest Fairy Tales camp.

With a window that opens over the bog, the tree house offers a unique perspective on the topography of an ecosystem that is easily

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