IGNITING CHILDREN'S IMAGINATIONS: Around the globe, a new breed of teacher is transforming the definition of the classroom

About the Author

Riley Hopeman is a graduate student in IslandWood’s Education, Environment, and Community Program where he explore ways to provide students in traditional classrooms with ways to interact with and learn from the natural world. He has over seven years experience in outdoor and experiential education and is also a NOLS Instructor, a Wilderness EMT, a skier, a climber, a mountaineer, a cyclist, and a passionate student.

The silent solo sit is an activity I always incorporate into a teaching week. It provides each individual with the opportunity to connect with the natural world on their own. Sometimes I have students simply sit and observe and other times I take away their sense of sight so they interact with their surroundings in a different way. Last quarter, I had my students sit along the water of Blakely Harbor with a journal and a pencil and the simple instruction of “write about what you are feeling.”

Here’s what a fifth grade IslandWood student wrote: I feel relaxed because it is quiet and I am learning about what was the history of Bainbridge Island. I feel that I am having fun because it is bright and there are crabs everywhere. I feel happy …”

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I like to think that this experience sparked a curiosity for the world, both natural and beyond. Sure, turning over a rock and watching crabs scatter is a small event. But that event could be the catalyst for whats, whys, wheres, whos, and hows on a much higher level. The ripple effect of these small experiences with the natural world is unpredictable yet powerful.

I’m one of the graduate students in IslandWood’s Education for Environment and Community (EEC) Program. IslandWood is an environmental education center designed to provide students with exceptional learning experiences and to inspire lifelong stewardship. Through a partnership with the University of Washington, thirty of us are presently working towards a Master of Education, a Master In Teaching, or continuing to define the individual educational path we will pursue. The program serves a diverse population of elementary school students on our 255-acre wooded campus across Puget Sound from Seattle’s urban center and in schools and neighborhoods throughout the region.  IslandWood will soon offer programs that connect children and adults to the natural world in communities nationwide.

Each week, students arrive at our Welcome Center to participate in our School Overnight Program. This program consists of a four-day residential experience that engages students in experiential and project-based learning. Over the course of these four days we use the cultural and natural environment to challenge our students to fully immerse themselves in their experience through scientific exploration, team building, expression, inquiry, and the arts. For many of the students we serve, IslandWood is the first extended exposure to the outdoors. In a learning environment so foreign to most, nature can be a true challenge to a young mind. Yet, more often than not, I witness the new surroundings bring out the best in a child.

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Like the silent solo sit, the night hike is one of the key parts of every child’s experience.

Following dinner, each field group slips under the cloak of darkness to experience what it would be like to be a crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) or nocturnal (active at night) creature. The nighttime environment can be uncomfortable for any human, let alone a child who has never experienced true darkness. As we walk away from the lights of the Dining Hall the noise volume inevitably increases as nervousness takes over. Walking along the trails without a light, we travel together in a uniform pack as the natural world forces a bond we rarely experience. We are more dependent upon one another than ever before. Each person is focused, each person is present. Throughout the night hike our lack of nighttime adaptations unites us and as we approach the end of our journey the students have changed.

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This change isn’t something that was created, it was something that was experienced. It forces the ripples. Each week is different. We instruct children who come from different schools, different neighborhoods, different home lives, and different life experiences. Strategies we have used with prior groups can waver and have us back at the drawing board within minutes of meeting our students. Yet, in the midst of it all, one factor bonds us, nature. Really, it’s funny if you think about it. So often nature is labeled as “dynamic” but here it provides a solid foundation for our teaching.

Our program is unique, it’s quick, it’s lively. We are a mere blip on the radar in the educational path of these young minds and they provide us with so many valuable lessons that could never be taught. This program has forced me to step out of my comfort zone and to effectively employ strategies that have take months to master. It is often said that teachers teach the way that they were taught. I am on my way to becoming a teacher because I want to do better than the way I was taught. I want to teach with the students, not to the students. And, as I embark upon my own adventure into the teaching profession, I will always be able to reflect upon the experiences I had as an IslandWood instructor.

I lived those moments and I felt those feelings with real people, enduring real challenges, in a real environment. I was a student. I was an IslandWood student and I didn’t know it until I had written these words.


See what former IslandWooders are up to: IslandWood Alumni.

More reading and information

Join the Children & Nature Network’s Natural Teachers Network

Coming Home: How Nature Programs Offer Peace, Healing to Veterans and Families

Indoor Education for Outdoor Learning? What’s wring with this picture? 

Udeskole in Scandinavia: Teaching and Learning in Natural Places 

The Pull of Peter Pan: Let’s Create Green Havens that Reduce Toxic Stress for Children and Teachers

A Child in Nature: A Film by Miranda Andersen, 13, about Nature-Deficit Disorder

Will We Still Hear the Laughter of Play on Our School Grounds?

 Photos © Islandwood


  1. yippy! teachers and students alike will love this! So very apropot for lovely Asheville!

  2. Thanks for this, Riley. I draw hope and inspiration from your ideas & example. I write about reconnecting with Nature and reclaiming wonder — for everyone, not just kids.
    I’d like to influence more people instead of just preachin’ to the choir as I now seem to be doing. But, as sure as I am of my own experience and how to write about it, I’m far less certain as to how best to teach it. Any ideas for someone not committed to a teaching career but who would still like to help others know and love Nature?

  3. I am impressed. You are truly what will change this world for the better!

  4. Wow, what a well written article. I am so inspired! Thank you! ~ Marnie

  5. Riley

    I like your reflection and piece on your experience with children in Nature. I really the believe and live the statement in your piece —
    “This change isn’t something that was created, it was something that was experienced. It forces the ripples.” Sometime you really do not know have much you have affected your student…keep doing it.

    I will share this with some of naturalists and teachers we work with.

    Nicely done,

    Tom Howick
    Director of Education
    Chattahoochee Nature Center

  6. Riley, thank you for this beautiful article, and for the rich experiences you have given to so many children this year. The IslandWood experience does plant seeds of ideas for the future. Even though the experience is short, the children will always remember how they felt in nature, and the connections they made with each other through this natural setting.

    Keep writing! I’d love to hear more of your ideas and inspirations as you continue in education.



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