IslandWood’s Green Lessons

A suspension bridge sways 52 feet above a forested ravine. Students sprawl face down on its metal grating, fear changing to awe as they observe the verdant scene below. At a new environmental learning center called IslandWood near Seattle, Washington, kids are being immersed in nature, then challenged to be stewards of their surroundings.

"IslandWood’s focus is on taking care of the environment," says Barbara Nielsen, principal of Kimball Elementary in Seattle. "Clearly there is an attempt to make this a very special experience."

These children are engaged by environmental education lessons at Seattle"s new IslandWood center.©Robin Percell

At the center on suburban Bainbridge Island, five ecosystems provide adventure-based learning for fourth and fifth graders, who spend four days and three nights at its sustainably designed facilities. Some of them come on partial scholarships, and some return to neighborhoods of asphalt and apartments.

IslandWood is one of the country’s field schools—like Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center outside Cleveland and Wolf Ridge in northern Minnesota—where nature is the classroom.

On IslandWood’s 255-acre campus, students spend two-thirds of their time outdoors. Indoors, they weigh and recycle leftover food and shower in lodges with solar-heated water. They learn of composting toilets and the center’s "Living Machine" that recycles wastewater through plants in a greenhouse. "Studying nature in the woods provides city kids with a context to understand what they learn in a classroom," says science coordinator Karen Matsumoto.

They begin to realize the importance of limited resources, says teacher Diane Eileen. Her Green Lake Elementary fourth graders "made constant references to drought-tolerant plants" after their IslandWood stay.

Students have reintroduced native plants, removed invasive ivy, started a worm bin and monitored stream health. IslandWood graduate student educator Joe Petrick was helping kids reclaim a garden at a Seattle elementary school when "all of a sudden a huge bald eagle flies over the school, and all the kids look up. That’s something they think they could only see at IslandWood, but it kind of tied it all together that all the stuff in nature is right here in your backyard."

Matsumoto recalls one student’s discovery of a stream just blocks from her family’s apartment. "She was doing a bird’s eye view map while sitting on a tree branch, and she said, "I never climbed a tree before, and I never knew the stream was here. Now I want to come here every day after school.""