Bring Buildings To Life


By John Haskin

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 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 dismissed as a useless swamp. Ask a group of campers in a Nature Detectives Camp to explain why the trees growing out of the bog are so much shorter than the trees in the forest, and they follow the clues to the answer—the bog lacks the nutrients to support normal growth (another secret lesson: healthy eating counts). The campers are here to learn from the tree house, not about it.

Similar experiences await campers at the Learning Tree House, built to ADA specifications to provide all campers with opportunities to gain new perspective, face new challenges, and use their imaginations while being immersed in nature. No matter which tree house the instructor chooses, the goal is to make the visit intentional. If the moment has a purpose, the structure will work its magic on the campers.

Please Don’t All Stand Up At Once
Mac’s Pond was created at the turn of the century as a fresh-water source for the Port Blakely Mill, at the time one of the largest timber mills in the world. Whether the millworkers who built the dam ever imagined that one day campers would travel to the middle of the pond on a hand-cranked raft is lost to history. What is certain is that the millworkers did not dam the stream just for the sake of it.

Although it is not an immobile structure, the Floating Classroom is just as purposeful as the dam. The four cranks compel campers to work together to propel the raft—another field lesson in teamwork disguised as fun. Once the raft is safely underway, campers soak up 360-degree views of the forest and watch herons fish for lunch; dip nets through a trap door and peer at the macro-invertebrates they find; or quietly write stories from the perspective of a water drop traveling from the pond downstream to the saltwater estuary at Blakely Harbor.

Campers absorb the adventure of the raft like modern-day Huck Finns, seeing the world from a different point of view, bonding with unlikely companions, and discovering there is life hiding in plain sight all around them.

Enduring Memories
No camping experience is complete without a visit to the Garden Classroom. In this sun-soaked spot, campers sample hand-picked kale, mint, and peas as they learn about how the soil—and life—is replenished for others. In this way, memories are also replenished by the land for hundreds of campers every year. For IslandWood, the secret is not having a floating classroom, a tree house, or a canopy tower, but it is using what is there with purpose and imagination. Instructors are given the freedom to go off script to make the most of moments when and where they happen. Campers are given the opportunities the land and buildings provide to create enduring memories.

Look around your camp. Is there a building or a structure that might have a new purpose, or find new life as a teacher?

John Haskin is the Senior Vice President for Education at Islandwood. Reach him at (206) 855-4300.