Happy campers


Staff writer

Here at Camp Thunderbird, Federal Way school district fifth grade students transform into seekers of facts, experimenters, observers and hypothesizers by day. At night, under a black night illuminated with bright stars and planets, they sing around a campfire and know that, even so far from their own homes, they have found family.

For four days, the students trample through the mud, study wilderness survival skills, identify animals by their tracks, study soil and water, and observe the differences between animal pelts.

They learn with the reverent spirit of essayist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, and scribble observations into notebooks like young, crusading Rachel Carsons.

They are watched over by their homeroom teachers, who come with them. And they are taught by student leaders, who come from district high schools.

The younger students come to camp sometimes anxious and unsure. They leave with newfound friends from other schools, a memory scrapbook of photos and insights, and a small taste of independence.

And for students raised among brick and concrete buildings, knowing nothing but the urban life, a four-day visit to Camp Thunderbird with classmates allows a solitude and quiet that can often escape them in the city. For a brief four days, the laws of nature replace what they’ve known — the blaring city traffic, the harsh fluorescent lights, the speed and urgency of modern living.

On the 165 acres of the camp, the shade of a 200-foot-tall tree replaces the harsh, straight lines of glass and metal office buildings.

Their laboratory is the charred stump of a tree, the weeds and plants along a hiking trail, the Three Tree Mystery –– three tall trees growing from the trunk of a fallen, but still-rooted larger tree.

Their instruments are not microscopes and calculators, but their eyes, their ears, their curiosity and the logic they use to test their hypotheses.

While doing this, they scribble their questions and observations onto a journal. At Camp Thunderbird, students use the scientific method — asking a scientific question, making an educated guess and testing to draw a conclusion — while they observe the natural resources surrounding them.

The activities at Camp Thunderbird have continuously been updated and monitored to assure they match the state-set Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALRs).

Their work at the outdoor school “is really science immersion,” said camp director Sue Wattier.

Students spend at least five hours daily testing soil and water, comparing animal pelts, analyzing tree mysteries, and more.

“Some kids just can’t sit still in a classroom,” Wattier said. “And here it’s very active.”

The fifth-graders’ guides and caretakers the four days they’re at the camp are their homeroom teachers and high school students who volunteer to be student leaders. The Thomas Jefferson, Federal Way and Decatur high school students learn to be leaders: They teach and guide the younger students through activities.

“They’re incredibly effective because fifth-graders look up to high school kids,” said Wattier.

Wattier has supervised outdoor education programs for 30 years, and she says the style suits students who don’t find the traditional classroom conducive to learning.

“It increases their self-esteem because they can feel so successful here,” Wattier said.

Ten-year-old Zachary Moriarty, a fifth-grader from Enterprise Elementary School, visited Camp Thunderbird the first week of March with other fifth-grade classes from that school and from Meredith Hill Elementary.

“The good thing is the cabins are heated. The bad thing is we only get to take a two-minute shower,” he said.

Among the several are a survival study, where student leaders teach what’s needed when going out into the wilderness: Food, a first-aid kit, matches for making a fire, among other items. And chalk — for marking trees.

“They taught us that by eating chalk you can get calcium. But it’s not very good to eat it all the time,” said Moriarty.

Hannah Lee, 11, also from Enterprise, finds learning at Camp Thunderbird is more enjoyable than sitting in a classroom. “You’re outdoors and everything’s so beautiful around here,” she said.

High school student leaders, sitting in a circle in a lodge, cheered and clapped as they listened to peers explain how Outdoor Experience changed them years before, and why they felt returned as guides and teachers.

Thomas Jefferson junior Katy Wilkinson remembers her first trip to Camp Thunderbird as a sixth-grader. She was homesick the first day, and her high school counselors comforted her.

Wilkinson said it’s the younger students who teache her, rather than the other way around. It’s a “once in a lifetime chance, and you have to take hold of it,” she said.

“This place is going to instill values in you,” said Federal Way High senior Shun Austin. “This camp helps build kids’ self-esteem about themselves, gives them a positive experience where they can grow. The leaders, counselors and staff all make your experience here one of those Kodak priceless moments.”

And Jefferson junior Stephanie Oberlander said, “When I came here as a sixth-grader, I was painfully, painfully shy. Camp was what really got me to crack my shell.”

Oberlander is also a student representative for the Federal Way Outdoor Education committee (FWOE), a community group working to raise money for sending elementary schoolers to camp.

District high school students get a half-credit for their volunteer work as student leaders and receive a certificate for community service that can help them with admission to competitive colleges.

Here, at a camp nestled near the Black Hills, close to the shores of Lake Summit, the barriers break down –– for the high school counselors and the fifth-graders.

The unwritten social rules of the classroom and hallways disappear and are replaced by respect, empathy and scientific inquisitiveness.

Clothes are simple and practical, eliminating cues of social status. And once the shyness melts, students laugh and confide in each other around the campfire and on bunk beds in their cabins. The teachers become surrogate parents, and the student leaders become mentors.

Enterprise teacher Toni Brown, in her second year of involvement with Camp Thunderbird, sees changes in her students after they return to the classroom. They’re deeper thinkers, she said, and more cooperative learners.

Moreover, other fifth-grade teachers from Enterprise and Meredith Hill added, students learn leadership as cabin leaders. They learn to respect and they practice good manners during meals.

Enterprise teacher Matthew Smalley said, “It’s so integral for students to go and meet with students they’ll go to middle school with.”

In addition, teachers share stories, observations and exchange teaching methods.

The Enterprise and Meredith Hill students started writing pen-pal letters to one another in December, so when they arrived at camp, they knew a student from the other school.

When they enter middle school next fall, they will have memories of hikes and hypotheses, and they’ll find old campfire friends who had once been strangers.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565,

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