BAINBRIDGE ISLAND is only a half-hour’s ferry ride from downtown Seattle—yet for children growing up in urban King County, its forests of fir, hemlock, and alder are a world away.
There’s a place here just for them. It’s an environmental educational facility, where, this week in October, a hundred sixth-graders from Evergreen Elementary in Silverdale have come for a four-day program.
But a few days after their arrival, no voices greet visitors to the compound, only a fresh bloom of oyster mushrooms on a fallen log. Over at the dining hall a stray raincoat in the entry is the only sign of life. The honey-colored, salvaged-wood tables are cleared. A winding path through the trees leads to a wood-and-glass classroom building. Here too, the seats are empty, the place deserted.
The children who arrived in yellow school buses at the beginning of the week have all vanished into the 255-acre sanctuary called IslandWood. They are wading at the edge of Mac’s Pond as they hunt for macro-invertebrates with small nets, or taking the spine trail through the trees down to the estuary. A few, after touching a banana slug, have stopped midway across a swaying metal suspension bridge to gaze down into a ravine. And another batch has wandered into the organic garden for their first taste of raw cranberries.
They’ve been outside all day despite the rain. But they’ll be back at the compound for dinner.
At the main center, a slender woman of about 50 in a black fleece jacket and blue jeans, her hair pulled back and caught with a clip, slips gracefully through the door. Two employees don’t spot her coming in. She’s not one to demand attention.
This is Debbi Brainerd, philanthropist and founder of IslandWood, and until recently chairwoman of the nonprofit’s foundation board.
The idea for IslandWood crystallized in 1997, when Brainerd ’79 and her husband, Paul, founder of the Aldus Corporation and head of his own nonprofit organization, were newly married. They chose to build their home on Bainbridge and had found nine acres on the south side of the island. Still, when the realtor called to say 1,100 acres of forest nearby would soon be divided into 20-acre parcels and sold off, the couple had to look.
“We were just curious,” says Brainerd, recalling the Sunday when she and Paul visited the site. “We parked our car at the entrance and walked up an old logging road.” A five-point buck stepped out of the brush just in front of them. “It just sort of grabs you for a moment when this buck walks out and stands there staring at you,” says Brainerd.
WHEN DEBBI BRAINERD was a little girl, her family spent weekends in the woods. They had a small cabin on Whidbey Island, where Brainerd and her younger sister and brother had their share of outdoor adventures. In the fall and winter, her folks would sleep on a fold-out couch, while the children would spread their sleeping bags under the kitchen table. In the summer, the children slept outside.
“We went there as often as we could,” says Brainerd. “My deepest memories are connected with that tiny one-room cabin.”
A few weeks after she visited the Bainbridge Island property, an idea coalesced in Brainerd’s mind: At least a portion of the land could be preserved and turned over to children, so they could capture the same kinds of magical experiences Brainerd found in the woods when she was a child.
She started thinking about children growing up in urban communities, often with no connection to the natural world. “I thought we could build a school in the woods where kids could come and learn about the natural and cultural history of Puget Sound,” she says.
But that would need a good plan, community support, and money
The Brainerds are no strangers to big projects, education, or the environment. Two years before, Paul, who grew up in the forests of southern Oregon, had started the Brainerd Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission of safeguarding the environment and building public support for conservation.
After graduating from Washington State University with a degree in clothing and textiles, Debbi landed a job with Nordstrom, where for 12 years she worked in community relations and special events. The job gave her strong ties within the Seattle community. But an itch to learn more about the natural world sent her back to school, this time at the University of Washington, where she earned a degree in molecular and cell biology.
Tying together her interests in science, education, and the environment, the thought of turning the Bainbridge Island site into a nature-based educational facility became a full-time preoccupation for Brainerd. She started researching the feasibility of the project, and worked with the Washington State Department of Education to decide if what she imagined was what Washington school children needed. She found that no one was serving children from schools in low-income neighborhoods.
The Brainerds bought the property for about $5 million and set about raising five times that amount to bring IslandWood to life.
Nature deficit disorder
AT THE TIME Debbi Brainerd was imagining how this property might serve children, teachers and naturalists in the Northwest were noting how disconnected children have become from the places where they live.
A century ago most children had parks, yards, and vacant lots to explore, and an intimate connection with the outdoors, says David Gruenewald, a professor of education at WSU and editor of the book, Place-Based Education in the Global Age.
Now schools are islands in their own communities, where security guards watch the doors, and children are cut off from the world outside.
“Schooling as an institution has developed a set of rules and routines that pretty much exclude meaningful community involvement,” says Gruenwald. “You go into any school, and what are kids doing? They’re in classrooms doing worksheets.”
In 1998 the Pew Charitable Trusts funded a study called “Closing the Achievement Gap.” The study showed that children who were taken outside the classroom and had hands-on experiences in place of reading and lectures improved their academic performance.
It is a state mandate in Washington that students at all grade levels receive instruction in conservation, natural resources, and the environment, but there isn’t funding for it. And when the environment does become an area of study, it’s often a far-off notion, like saving the rainforest, says Gruenewald.
Children today are also kept from nature by scheduled supervised play, television, and video games. For this generation, parks and woods are scary places. They don’t play outside, and have very little opportunity for independent exploration.
In the introduction to his book Gruenewald talks about how our society is losing its roots by the mere fact that our youngest members aren’t encouraged to connect with their communities and environments. When individuals are not tied to their communities, things start to suffer—the wildlife, the ecology, even public issues and politics, says Gruenewald.
Using terms like “extinction of experience” and “nature deficit disorder,” the experts describe a situation in which children’s lives are largely out of balance. They have no independence, and the activities they do take part in don’t allow them to use all of their senses at the same time. “. . .what we desperately need, if the society is to persist in the face of climate change and every other challenge to survival, is a strong sense of our more-than-human neighborhood,” writes Robert Michael Pyle in his essay “No Child Left Inside.”
The way Brainerd saw it, many of the children she encountered in King County never really had the opportunity to see or develop an understanding beyond a 12-block radius. “They don’t have a perspective of how the world or the greater environment is really responsible for supporting their every day in terms of the food on the table or th
e water they drink,” she says.
IT’S ABOUT 9 A.M. at IslandWood, and the members of the Pond group have eaten their breakfast and donned their rain gear. Out on the trail they gather around their leader, a graduate student named Katie Frickland. She’s armed with a backpack loaded with a first aid kit and water bottles, and has a walkie-talkie hanging on her belt.
“Let’s do our cheer,” she says, hoping to warm them up. “P. O. N. D. Light to the bottom so we can see,” they shout together. With a pond, you can see to the bottom, Frickland tells us later.
She has the kids shut their eyes and asks them about the hike in the woods they took the night before. “Did anyone see the moon?” They all raise their hands. “Did anyone hear the wind?” More hands. “Did anyone feel scared?” One girl lifts her hand high above her head. Frickland takes note. The instructors at IslandWood strive to make the outdoors less frightening. A brief solo hike in their first days here gives the children a chance to be alone in the forest, if only for a few minutes.
“Each week kids get on a ferry, some of them for the first time in their life. They take this boat on this adventure. Half an hour later they’re no longer in the urban center where they live,” says Ben Klasky, IslandWood’s executive director. “They’re here, and they’re scared, because they think a bear is going to get them.”
For many of these kids it’s the first time away from home for more than one night, the first time they’ve heard a frog croak. “It’s way beyond camping,” says Windy Tuttle, a parent chaperone from Silverdale who is visiting IslandWood for the second time. “I’ve been watching these kids come out of their shells. And they take something home about where they live and their environment and how to take care of it when they leave.”
There are no bells, no swapping off from one classroom to another. Every morning the children step outdoors and find meadows to explore, a bird blind to inhabit, a tree house to climb, a bog, a lake, and trails galore. And at night they sleep in cozy bunks, each with a private window that looks out to the trees.
Each child receives a field journal, a workbook for recording animals they discovered, plants they’ve identified, and the changes in the weather. They learn animal tracks, how to identify scat, and whether the organisms they find in the soil and the water are tolerant of pollution. They learn how to tell a sword fern from a maidenhair.
They also learn greater ecological lessons. The Pond group heads to a meadow to meet up with two other groups for a game of “owls, mice, and seeds.” The children take turns being owls, mice, or seeds to see what happens when one population outgrows its food supply. Besides an opportunity to run and scream, the game gives them a view of population ecology.
They learn to rely on each other. After lunch, the children of the Pond group stop on the trail for a game called “car wash,” which encourages them to step forward and be described by their classmates. As a boy steps into the center of the circle, a girl says to him, “Even though you’re quiet, most of the time you have great ideas.” He beams.
As the Pond group disappears into the trees, the Ravine group comes out of the woods into a sunlight-filled Port Blakeley cemetery, a public site tucked into the southeast side of IslandWood’s acreage. The children have notebooks, and paper and charcoal to take rubbings of the gravestones. The exercise is designed to give them a sense of the history and cultural make-up of the community over the past century. Judy Batschi, another parent chaperone, watches in awe. “Do you see that boy over there,” she says, pointing to a small guy named Jacob who is earnestly taking notes from a headstone. “He has his teacher astounded. He doesn’t talk in class, but out here, he really participates.”
After the exercise, the children gather around their group leader at the edge of the cemetery and sit among the graves. Jacob waves his hand to tell the group that he discovered some tombstones written in Japanese. That spectacle of children opening up at IslandWood is a weekly event, according to Brainerd, who has witnessed it a few times herself.
“A LOT OF PEOPLE learn better in a less restrictive environment,” says Gruenewald. “It serves everyone to have deep experiences in a natural environment where there is room to explore and discover.”
That need for experiences in a natural environment was a focus for Brainerd and her team, as they worked on the educational component for the school. They reviewed the 1998 Pew study and noted how hands-on learning and an understanding of environment, community, and natural surroundings could improve learning. Attendance improved and discipline problems diminished, when children took classes that utilized the outdoors. “The study helped shape IslandWood’s educational philosophy,” says Brainerd. “Our mission is really being a model for the way effective learning should be happening,” she says. “If we could create a model of the way learning happens and the teachers . . . could see their kids have this transforming experience . . . we knew we could become more than an environmental education center.”
Brainerd and her team decided to open IslandWood at the lowest possible cost to participating schools, so that children from low-income communities could attend. On average, schools pay $25 per student for the four-day experience. The rest is covered through scholarships and donations. Donors, like REI, also contribute supplies, including water bottles and rain gear, since many of the students arrive without them.
After meeting with local focus groups, historians, teachers, and children, asking what they thought about the project and what it would need, Brainerd traveled around the country to look at other examples of outdoor school experiences, taking the best ideas and learning from their mistakes.
Then, returning to the Northwest, she took on the hard task of leading hundreds of potential donors on two- to three-hour tours through the IslandWood site. “Debbi has a rare and amazing combination of skills,” says director Klasky. “People tend to be all heart or all logic and strategy. She’s got both.”
For IslandWood, it was a winning combination. According to the conventional wisdom, most donors like to give to an established program, something with a history. “We started with an idea, a dream,” says Brainerd. “We had no history.”
Many bought into her vision anyway. In fact, the list of donors, including the current board of directors, reads like a who’s-who of the Puget Sound region, including corporate names like Starbucks, Amgen, and Boeing. Among the earliest supporters and influences were well-known philanthropists Jeannie Nordstrom and Nancy Nordhoff.
Brainerd considers Nordhoff a mentor, since the older woman had set up her own nonprofit writer’s retreat for women on Whidbey Island a decade earlier. “That process of being open to the spirit of the land and what you hear and feel, I had had,” says Nordhoff. “It was very easy for me to do the same thing with Debbi at IslandWood.”
It was a wet day when Brainerd took Nordhoff to the site. “There were very few trails then,” says Nordhoff. “We jumped logs and had to bend underneath branches.”
“It’s a beautiful piece of property,” she says. “You can’t help but know the strength of the land would have an affect on the humans who visited it.” And she trusted Brainerd’s ability to realize the dream. “I’m sure she had no idea what she was in for with the amount of details and decisions and all the stuff that goes into building,” says Nordhoff. “But she has a good sense of judgment and could pick a team right away that produced something beyond what even she imagined.”
The architects from the Seattle-based Mithun firm camped on the property to get a sense of what the children would see. They also asked children what they wanted. The results include a tree house, a raft for th
e pond, and windows for every bunk.
They wanted to create structures that taught environmental lessons. Many of the building materials are sustainable, salvaged, or recycled. The buildings are designed to capture natural light, yet offer shelter from summer sun. One of the buildings has a composting toilet. The floors in the three sleeping lodges are covered with rugs made of recycled material, and 50 percent of the hot water in the showers is heated through a solar water system.
Today the education program serves more than 3,000 children and their teachers and trains 20 graduate students year. On weekends private organizations and families can use the facilities.
“At the start of all this, I hadn’t imagined it would be so big,” says Brainerd.
When the school opened in 2002 “there was some nervousness,” she says. “Would it be exciting enough for the kids? The educational experience—would the teachers feel they really benefited?”
Debriefing the teachers after the first few sessions, the IslandWood team learned the outdoor program was doing more for the children than any other experience away from their home school. “They told us there was nothing that compared,” says Brainerd. “There was nothing that was of the caliber of what we were doing.”
The first year went well. By the second year, the school was full. By the third, IslandWood had a waiting list. Now demand is so great IslandWood has to turn schools away. An expansion project to accommodate 40 more children each session is in the works.
Graduate students enrolled in a 10-month residency make up the teaching staff. They live in dorm-like lodges in a corner of the property and tap into the expertise of the permanent faculty, many of whom have doctorates in education and environmental studies. On alternate weeks, each graduate student is assigned a group of no more than 10 children.
On the weeks they’re not leading a class, the students spend their time studying and taking courses to prepare them to be schoolteachers or to work in some other area of environmental education. The week before our visit, Katie Frickland studied ways of relating the needs of individual students with the needs of the group. “This week I can put what I learned into practice,” she says. “I can see immediately if what I’m trying works.”
To prepare the children for their week, an IslandWood liaison meets with the visiting classes at the beginning of the year to help the local teachers align their curricula with what they will encounter on the island. When the children go home, IslandWood helps the classes develop community projects using what they’ve learned at the school in the woods. Some children start recycling programs. And others are replacing invasive weeds in their neighborhoods with native plant species.
IT’S NOT JUST the children who will apply what they learned at IslandWood. Now that the school is successful and has two new board chairs, Brainerd is stepping away.
She’ll be taking what she learned about planning, creating, and fundraising to the Bloedel Reserve, a wildlife sanctuary on Bainbridge, just a few miles away. She was invited to chair a community board there to find ways to make the reserve more self-sufficient.
But her heart will stay with IslandWood, where she found a way to populate the wilderness with minimal disturbance to the environment. “There’s something magical about being in the woods,” she says. “We have all these built, contained, man-made natural worlds like aquariums and zoos. But that’s not enough. The kids that are here have their eyes opened in a way that they’ll never be opened in a built world.”
Toward the end of their third day in the woods, the Pond group comes across a charred tree trunk alongside the trail. They swarm around it, reaching inside it to blacken their fingers. Their leader, Kaitie, uses her fingertip to draw a black line on each of her cheeks. The children follow suit. Some paint on moustaches, goatees, and thick black eyebrows. A few just smear the soot on their faces.
A mere three days ago these children were new to these woods. A few of them were afraid to try new things, including walking in the woods at night and eating pie made from a real pumpkin, not out of a can. They had never touched a slug or pulled apart a wild mushroom. Now, after walking nearly every acre of IslandWood, they’re as much a part this place as the wildlife.