During Wednesday’s powerful thunderstorms, Isabella Cambell hunkered down inside a tent on Thompson Island, with the shelter of the city’s mainland hardly a mile away.
It felt like a Disney ride, Cambell said, once the flap blew open and rain soaked her and her seventh-grade peers. But the group persevered on their weeklong expedition on the roughly 170-acre Boston Harbor island.
On sunnier, drier days, Cambell climbed the Alpine Tower — where she reached the 62-foot apex, thanks to friends encouraging her to go “farther and farther” – and catapulted off a giant swing.
“I feel really proud of myself,” said Cambell, who had luxuriated in her first real shower on Friday, after five days without modern plumbing. “It’s very exhausting, emotionally and physically.”
To Cambell — and hundreds of other Boston-area children who find adventures here — the Thompson Island Outward Bound Connections program creates a rare, yet exhilarating mixture of summer school and summer camp. Middle- and high school students catch an early morning ferry from the Seaport, play nature-themed games like “camouflage” once they dock, and use the island as an all-encompassing classroom.
“When the kids are in a place that feels safe and is outside, they open up intellectually and expand their thinking about their horizons,” Laurie Sherman, executive vice president of the program’s education center, said during a tour. “This is about helping kids see their own potential.”
This summer marks a decade-long partnership between Outward Bound and Boston Public Schools aimed at overcoming achievement and opportunity gaps. It has grown to accommodate 1,300 students year-round, although Sherman said she hopes to double that.
Beyond focusing on STEM education, the experience fosters social-emotional learning, a skill set that revolves around resilience, collaboration, and teamwork, Sherman said.
State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley hopped on the Thompson Island ferry Friday, marking his second voyage aboard since he helped to create the enrichment initiative. It’s a creative strategy, Riley said, that re-introduces play into what could become an otherwise monotonous academic environment.
“It’s really turned out to be special,” Riley said as the ferry chugged toward Thompson. “We’re looking for a deeper learning approach where students are truly engaged.”
Some Outward Bound Connections programs are more specialized than others, including the expedition Cambell completed. (Older age groups traverse Boston Harbor for a kayak-intensive excursion, before reuniting with their families on Thompson Island for a special “graduation” ceremony.)
Lounging on the ferry’s upper deck, 11-year-old Jarrid Freeman eagerly explained biodiversity — one of the science topics of the week — to fellow sixth-graders within earshot.
“A rock is abiotic because it would never live,” Freeman told them.
While disembarking from the boat around 10 a.m., Freeman recalled a long-tailed insect that he’d captured in a jar but couldn’t easily identity for his field guide. Freeman knew that the bug could jump, though it also had wings to fly, he mused curiously.
Kevin Patino, another sixth-grader, speculated about the bacteria on Thompson Island and the invasive species that could harm the trees.
“There’s low biodiversity if the trees are all the same,” Patino said in a serious tone before explaining an elaborate game of hide-and-seek he loves to play on the island.
On the eastern side of Thompson, a group of Green Ambassadors — a program for high school students that is run in partnership with the National Park Service — participated in an allegorical activity called “goal reach.”
The teenagers huddled in a circle that was marked by a thin rope. They were instructed to reach their notebooks — filled with literal goals — on the grassy perimeter, temporarily deemed imaginary lava.
The challenge: Do it while blindfolded, and don’t let your feet leave the circle. The solution: Help one another and improvise along the way.
Nilza Silva, a Green Ambassador, unsteadily stretched her palms outward and brushed the ground, her “goals” just feet away.
“Grab the stick!” a boy yelled, then remembered that his teammate couldn’t see. Yet seconds after he placed the makeshift tool in Silva’s hand, she found her notebook and whooped triumphantly.
It was a scene of pure relief and accomplishment — a moment of vivid learning that’s often replicated on Thompson Island, be it through a precarious seesaw or daunting ropes course that is impossible to conquer alone.
But the true measure of success, as Sherman explained it, is how students transfer their experiences into the classroom and other real-world settings.
Green Ambassador Naesaun Jones said he’s already internalized Outward Bound’s pillars of craftsmanship and compassion. When his younger brother was recently upset after losing at a video game, for example, 15-year-old Jones paused to evaluate the situation: Instead of laughing, Jones urged him to try again.
Whenever Jones struggles on the island, he knows it won’t be long until teammates are cheering him on — or vice versa.
“I’m learning new things about friendship,” said Jones, who’d just participated in a group discussion on passive aggression. “I have to be the shoulder to lean on.”