Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Outdoor learning in Seattle: IslandWood's School Overnight Program

[UPDATE 4/16/13] An Islandwood educator, Maddi Sullivan, offered a few corrections to some inaccuracies in this post. I'll note them as updates below. Thanks, Maddi!

I had the opportunity to go to Seattle a few weeks ago, and while there I grabbed the chance to visit four exciting elementary-school programs that get kids doing science outside. Three of these are sibling non-profits and the fourth is based in a Seattle public K–8 school. This post is dedicated entirely to IslandWood's flagship School Overnight Program for fourth- through sixth-graders. I'll address the other programs in subsequent posts.

IslandWood is a 255-acre outdoor learning center located on Bainbridge Island, a half-hour ferry ride from Seattle. The site is old logging land formerly owned by Port Blakely Tree Farms; the ground near the mill is still springy from mounds of sawdust beneath the dirt, and on the mill pond where men used to float logs for transport, a floating classroom now carries kids collecting water samples.

[UPDATE] The Mill Pond is technically down at the harbor, rather than where the Floating Classroom floats.  Its sectioned off from the rest of the harbor and is how the big logs were transported from ships etc into the mill. During the waning tide the logs would get dumped and they'd enter the mill pond and the gate would be shut to keep them from exiting as the tide rose. The pond with the Floating Classroom was created during the time of the great mills but it was simply a small stream that was dammed for drinking water etc in the dry months. There would have been no way to get the logs from that pond up at higher elevation and a couple miles away, down to the mill via water.

The center is the compassionate, careful, and thoroughly researched implementation of its founder’s vision. Seattle-area resident Debbi Brainerd bought the land with her husband Paul in 1998 for the express purpose of creating a "magical place" where Puget Sound area children could learn about the region's natural and cultural history.

Forest...one of IslandWood's five distinct ecosystems
The mill pond, another ecosystem
The cattail marsh, a third ecosystem and the location of a bird blind.

Today, about 4000 students from over 70 Puget Sound schools, including about 50% of Seattle's public school students, participate in IslandWood's four-day School Overnight Program annually. Rain or shine, fourth- through sixth-graders are outdoors for most of their waking hours, using the plants, water, wind, and sun to do academic work that other kids are using textbooks for.

The center was developed by the design firm Mithun, known for environmentally sustainable architecture, and is gold LEED certified.

Buildings are located and positioned for minimal impact on ecosystems and watersheds. Windows are placed and angled to capture sunlight in the winter and maintain shade in the summer; dirty water is filtered through shale-and-plant cycles with the goal of reuse; rainwater is collected in cisterns and organic waste is composted. Buildings have solar panels, skylights, and sound panels to capitalize on natural energy and physics.

Countertops are made of recycled yogurt containers (you can still see the foil) and bathroom stalls of plastic milk bottles. Panels, floors, beams, and doors are constructed from reclaimed or sustainable wood and building insulation from old newspaper. Artwork and ornamentation are made by local artists from locally sourced and/ or recycled material.

Yogurt-container countertop in a classroom
A Muir quote etched in a Mobius circling an old milled beam

Student-made sidewalk mosaics
Glass-bottle bathroom tiles

Each of these elements is made explicit to kids as they come into contact with them. Everything at IslandWood, in fact, is optimized for teaching moments. And everything is kid friendly. The place was made for kids--not (only) for adults who want kids to pay attention and learn things. Hundreds of chlidren were consulted for the center's creation.

 That is why at each bunk there is both a forest-facing window and a little nightlight.

That is why the benches of the "Friendship Circle," the outdoor amphitheater, subtly demarcate individual seats (children of a certain age need their space, even in friendship circles).

It goes without saying that kids requested a treehouse.

People, there's a treehouse!!

It is constructed by the local Seattle outfit Treehouse Workshop with meticulous attention to the health of the tree.

Every student gets a science journal for sketches and notes--some prompted, some open--about plants, animals, water, air, and earth.  Kids climb a canopy tower to compare tree features, weather, and humidity at the different heights.

They do scientific investigations of water quality and soil type; they study ecosystems, animal tracks and scat, and orienteering. They observe plants and animals from a bird blind in the marsh, a boat on the pond, and a suspension bridge over a ravine, among other places.

Bird blind

Suspension bridge
There's a place to check out boots and coats, so no one needs to worry about staying warm and dry.  [UPDATE] Actually, IslandWood doesn't have rain boots for kids to borrow, but just about everything else: rain jackets and pants, warm fleece jackets, hats, gloves etc.

There's a garden and a beehive; kids learn to make a snack from fresh-picked food from the garden.

Classrooms are multi-level, because children love going into their own corners, and because the architects wanted to break up the literal and metaphorical flatness of the classroom. The multi-level design also aids in the functioning of barrel-and-tube models of watersheds, as gravity is an important component.

Education at IslandWood is predicated on gentle experienced insights into the interconnectedness of resources and actions. This is as effective a social principle as a scientific and ecological one: in the dining hall, where kids serve themselves buffet style, there's a leftover-food weigh-in station.
[UPDATE] The kids actually eat family style, not buffet. So one kid brings platters of food to each table and everyone serves themselves from them.

At the end of the meal, students weigh what's left on their plates and compete by table for the least amount of food wasted; numbers are significantly lower by the end of the week. (I would love to see this used for math-lesson teaching moments as well as a resource- and waste-awareness ones.)

IslandWood curriculum is mostly science, but integrates other important areas of learning as well--specifically those areas that teachers report get lost in the standards and accountability churn. Artists-in-residence provide curriculum in the arts, while mill structures and a cemetery are fodder for social studies.

These subjects are combined in the lessons of instructors from the area's Native American communities, who work with students on songs, crafts, and other traditions.

 (All photos taken by H. Lukic or me, but this video is from IslandWood's YouTube channel.)

IslandWood encompasses so many elements of my dream school. Just getting out into green spaces is important for physical and emotional health, but that's only the beginning. Students on the School Overnight Program get to experience nature to an extent and in a manner that will likely engender stewardship of natural resources. There is sustained interaction--four days at the center, with two thirds of the day spent outdoors. And--so important and fulfilling in my mind--kids also learn important academic skills and concepts through experience and exploration, guided by mentors and coaches. Children who aren't focused or interested in classrooms often respond strongly and positively to experiential learning, especially outdoors.

The chimney in this lodge conveys the region's geologic history
Art, science, and learning are everywhere

In my dream world, IslandWood is a year-round school.

A slightly (...slightly) less wildly unrealistic dream is of a school system that allows for full, authentic integration of IslandWood-like programs. Imagine a school set-up that facilitates as part of its regular everyday curriculum repeated visits to a wilderness area, for example throughout different seasons, or at various times of day. Imagine lessons in math, writing, literature, and P.E. that take place outdoors or respond to outdoor experiences. Imagine curriculum standards, societal expectations, and budgets allowing for thorough in-class followups to wilderness experiences (IslandWood staff are available to visit classrooms after their IslandWood stays, but it is left to individual teachers to make time in their overpacked schedules for this visit--or to connect the residency to class studies in any other way).

Not everywhere has the natural beauty that the Puget Sound area has, but there is nature everywhere, even in cities. Cultivating health, activity, and environmental awareness and stewardship, as well as opportunities for experiential learning, is important--and possible--everywhere. For example, in my beloved Chicago.

The Chicago River at Wilson Bridge

Beautiful Lake Michigan

North Pond in Lincoln Park
IslandWood was born of the significant wealth of a caring and visionary private citizen and is sustained through grants, donations, and conference and event rentals. The very existence of this amazing place, and the dream of propagating such a model, begs deflating questions about money and public and political will. I'll address those questions in the final post in this Seattle series.

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