An outpost for education

Students from Seattle and Portland-area schools traverse one of the education center’s numerous trails. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Students from Seattle and Portland-area schools traverse one of the education center’s numerous trails.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

In the Bog Treehouse, a fairy-tale turret secured to one of the largest Douglas Fir trees on the campus, elementary school students from Portland sat in a circle writing snippets of poetry inspired by their four-day visit.

“This place reminds me of nature, and what things should be like, not what they are like,” said one.

“You can’t count how much green is there,” another offered.

“This place reminds me of a sanctuary,” a third said.

The IslandWood outdoor education center, nestled on the south end of Bainbridge off Blakely Avenue, does indeed constitute a sanctuary: 255 acres of woods, trails and water punctuated by miniature “classrooms” like the Bog Treehouse; the Learning Tree, suspended over a culvert; and the bird blind, which abuts a pristine, otter-frequented marsh.

Straight out of a child’s dream, these spaces embody IslandWood’s gestalt, a mission to deliver hands-on outdoor education both to children and adults, placing primary emphasis on learning in natural settings with the hope of inspiring lifelong environmental stewardship.

Toward that end, the center has since 2001 built its roster of educational offerings to include not just overnight programs for youngsters, but also a residency program for 25 graduate students in education and environmental studies; leadership development opportunities for community groups; professional programs for teachers; and a core overnight meeting space for the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

As inviting and enriching as the outdoor spaces are, though, visitors – who now include kids from 65 participating schools and 25 graduate residents – can’t sleep there. That’s why IslandWood’s “core campus” exists, a cluster of meeting spaces, three lodges, a classroom, a library and graduate housing.

Now, the cluster needs to grow.

“The bottom line is that we’re full,” IslandWood Executive Director Ben Klasky said. “And we’re sold out when it comes to our kid programs.”

In July 2006, IslandWood launched the silent phase of an $8 million capital campaign to raise funds for the construction of a fourth lodge, a larger classroom, a dedicated graduate classroom and housing for six additional graduate students, all with the goal of serving 1,000 more students per year.

A significant portion of funding thus far has come from foundations, including $500,000 each from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a $1 million grant from the State of Washington and various private gifts.

This weekend, with just over $6.1 million in hand, IslandWood will open the campaign up to the community with an afternoon of information, exploration and yes, education.

Because despite its rich offerings and large number of visitors, IslandWood maintains an air of mystery in the community, one that spokesperson David Hunting thinks may arise from that same sanctuary-esque state that makes the place special.

“That (feeling) is probably part of the reason for islanders wondering, ‘What’s really going on? What exactly are they doing in there?’” Hunting said.

Klasky acknowledges that while IslandWood is fulfilling its educational goals for visiting students, there’s still potential for growth in community outreach.

“The feedback is that the programs needed to change to better meet the needs of the community,” he said. “We’ve learned some things along the way. When you think of the larger Puget Sound community, everyone has been pleased that we’ve saved this huge chunk of land, and that we’re also (educating) some of tomorrow’s leaders. But over the last three years, a few things have evolved.”

Klasky is referring to the growth of year-round free programs open to the community such as the Fall Family Weekend, the Mochi Festival and Howl-oween, along with the summer Parenting in Nature series, film showings, and talks by scientists and naturalists.

“We realized that there are a lot of families in the community, and it’s okay to have larger public events,” Klasky said. “Also, we’ve learned the role we can play in helping steward and educate about environmental issues.”

Local kids are also getting the benefit of IslandWood visits; the center has established day programs with Blakely Elementary School, Sakai Intermediate School, Carden Country School and The Island School as well as an overnight program with Wilkes fourth graders.

Capital campaign manager Allyson Brown noted that Saturday afternoon’s event is not a fund-raiser per se, but rather, an opportunity for residents to explore the school, which in turn will foster a growing community presence.

“By creating awareness of what we’re doing, we absolutely invite the community to participate in the continuation of this legacy,” Brown said. “We want to receive gifts from people who are moved....but the important piece is the long-term engagement.”


Your IslandWood

IslandWood will host an informational afternoon from 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 2. Community members are invited to get an overview of the expanded campus from Mithun architects; take a walking tour; take part in Art Studio activities and enjoy treats from the sustainable kitchen. RSVP: or 855-7031.

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