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The Island of Outdoor Enlightenment

On Bainbridge Island, Washington, kids are becoming stewards of the future.


by Tracy Ross | photographs Randy Allbritton

On a foggy day on Bainbridge Island, Washington, a group of fourth and fifth graders take turns spinning hand cranks to power a wooden dock across a duck-filled pond. I’m here in this magical place called IslandWood to observe the outdoor learning. At the halfway point, the kids employ a contraption to collect samples from different depths. As they jot down their findings, instructor Katie Aspen Gavenus asks, “What do you see?” They shout their answers. “The water temperature is COLDER on the BOTTOM because the SUN hits THE TOP!”

It’s a simple science lesson, but one these kids likely have never experienced. Only about one third of U.S. public schools currently offer science-based outdoor education, says Kevin Coyle, vice president for education at the National Wildlife Federation. It’s part of the reason, says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, that kids have become so disconnected from nature. The organization Louv co-founded, The Children & Nature Network, reports that American kids spend 50 hours a week on devices and 90 percent of their time indoors. The disconnect, scientists believe, is tied to vast increases in ADHD, a soaring rate of childhood diabetes, and to still one more disturbing fact: Today’s preschoolers make up the fastest growing market for antidepressants.

It’s these indoor children who will grow up to face the biggest environmental crisis in the brief history of humanity. As Cecilia Reyes, chief risk officer of the Swiss insurance company Zurich Insurance Group told attendees at the 2016 World Economic Forum annual meeting, “Climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, and weaker societal cohesion.” Recall that Climate Change came of age with a vocal, passionate, sometimes even militant environmental movement. What, you might ask yourself, would the world look like if environmental revolutionaries like David Brower or Rachel Carson had grown up inside like today’s kids?


IslandWood—just a 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle—is a 225-acre nature preserve complete with a bog, wetland, lake, pond, and harbor. The $50 million campus is crisscrossed by six miles of trails, and includes a tree house, a bird blind, a 190-foot-long suspension bridge, and a 125-foot-high forest canopy tower. Fourth and fifth graders come for three nights and four days, from schools around Seattle. They explore the Living Machine (a plant-based water treatment facility), the edible garden (where kids forage for herbs and lettuces), the art studio (this week’s artist-in-residence: a Native American drum maker), and sleep in giant, LEED certified lodges. They study subjects like water ecology and the human connection to the environment. IslandWood exists, says senior Vice President for Education John Haskin, to help raise kids who love nature, are curious about it, and want to care for it.

IslandWood also partners with the University of Washington in environmental education masters programs. It infiltrates inner city Seattle schools to teach underserved kids environmental science. It brings veterans and their families out to reconnect after months apart, through game play on the same stations the school kids use. And last year, IslandWood helped lead the charge in getting No Child Left Inside legislation passed in the state of Washington. The bill allocates $1 million in grants to outdoor education non-profits. IslandWood is also the lead organizer of a program that will pair eight Compton, California, youth with eight Arctic Village, Alaska, youth. They’ll spend a week at IslandWood and another week in each other’s communities. Ultimately, they’ll earn outdoor industry apprenticeships.


IslandWood isn’t a groundbreaking idea. On the West Coast, school affiliated outdoor education programs have welcomed kids since the 1940s. And then, on April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million people participated in Earth Day, which ignited a sense of urgency to deal with environmental problems. The sentiment trickled into public schools, which received federal funding to help send kids to outdoor learning centers. But the funding was eventually reduced or cut altogether. Some states still send kids to private outdoor ed programs, often held at aging former summer camps. Some are better than others, but: “The challenge is that the facilities don’t model the ideas they’re trying to teach,” says Haskin. “You learn about recycling while eating off Styrofoam.”

Most private nature camps for school kids are run as nonprofits that rely on volunteers and donations to survive. They do good work but can’t reach enough kids from different backgrounds. IslandWood founder Debbi Brainerd had bigger dreams when she first stumbled upon the Bainbridge Island property back in 1999. When Brainerd saw the place, she told her husband that she wanted to create a retreat for kids “to explore the natural world, experience the joy of learning outdoors, and discover their own capacity to change the world around them.” She spent the next year fundraising from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and raised $50 million.

Brainerd hired an architectural firm, but it was the school kids who dreamed up the tree house, suspension bridge, and floating classroom. In the fall of 2002, IslandWood took its first overnight students. Today’s participants study basic environmental concepts in a gorgeous natural setting, using all five senses to make and question observations. They build drums, work on team building, crank the floating classroom, and head out for guided night hikes. And they aren’t just privileged summer campers. Today, 50 percent of IslandWooders are considered low income, based on free and reduced lunch statistics.

The challenging part, for many of those children, is that they’ll return to places devoid of nature. Kids come once—sometimes twice—and never again. Other communities around the country have no funding to create a $50 million facility. Nonetheless, many desperately want more outdoor education. On both a state and national level, policymakers are again working to grow programming. In December 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, replacing No Child Left Behind legislation. The National Wildlife Federation’s Coyle says that language in the new act directly addresses environmental education. He adds that 16 states so far have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which prioritize applied learning such as nature education. “Programs like these will help ensure not only that environmental ed is funded, but that there’s equitable access to outdoor learning facilities and experiences,” says Karena Ruggiero, director of education for the Earth Day Network. And Louv pushes a “New Nature Movement,” which includes programs like Islandwood, but also “convenes educators, landscape architects, urban designers, and physicians…to plan the best approaches to re-nature cities and communities.”


Meanwhile, games like “Each One, Teach One” at IslandWood help kids integrate what they’ve learned into their communities. In it, each kid teaches another a basic concept. A fourth grader I met on my visit particularly loved sharing wisdom about the edible plant miner’s lettuce. “When you have to teach something, you have to experience it,” she said. “We did this by eating.”

IslandWood leaders are also making a concerted effort to take the programming to the inner city. One such attempt is called the “Land & Water Field Studies” program, which puts students in direct contact with their unique ecosystems. In 2014–15, 70 classrooms and 1,713 students participated.

After helping to champion the No Child Left Inside legislation, which passed in 2015, IslandWood and its partners followed with the Every Kid in a Park Program. That legislation grants every American fourth grader and his or her family free access to public lands.

More recently, IslandWood became a lead organizer of Fresh Tracks, which will bring those kids from Compton and Arctic Village together. When I told Coyle, of the National Wildlife Federation, about it, he reminded me that by 2050, minorities will outnumber whites. If the conservation movement doesn’t reach out now, we could lose an entire generation of would-be stewards. And the only way to do that is by immersing them in nature. Adds Louv, “Past research has shown that adults who identify themselves as conservationists almost always had some transcendent experience in the natural world.” It’s up to us to continue creating those experiences.

From our Early Summer 2016 issue.

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