Challenge Island creates “bubbles”

The Challenge Island program at Timber Ridge Elementary in East Cobb sent kids on educational treasure hunts with STEAM themes.
The Challenge Island program at Timber Ridge Elementary in East Cobb sent kids on educational treasure hunts with STEAM themes.

Sharon Estroff spent years as a second grade teacher at The Epstein School in Sandy Springs. But after her fourth child, she realized being an award-winning educator didn’t translate well at home.

“I couldn’t get it together for my own kids,” she said. “I needed to do something else, but all I could do was teach.”

The East Cobb mom left full-time teaching but found a way to stay involved with students and learning. She took a program she’d designed at Epstein and turned it into Challenge Island, an after-school course focused on STEAM and soft skills concepts.

Borrowing loosely from the “Survivor” TV show, Estroff launched the idea at Marietta’s Timber Ridge Elementary, where she organized kids into “tribes,” laid out a number of challenges and offered a treasure chest as a reward.

It was such a hit that in 2003, she began offering it to other schools; it’s now in 6,000 schools around the U.S. and in four countries.

Then came COVID-19.

“COVID has impacted every business,” said Estroff. “But for us, the whole idea is teaching kids to think outside the box, to bend, to be resilient, and those lessons turned into something very relevant for us.”

Within 48 hours of schools’ closing in March, Estroff launched Home Island, a virtual program with the same design. In one of the first Zoom sessions, 158 youngsters set out on treasure hunts to find objects around their homes. While virtual programming continues this fall, Estroff has also created another concept called “Social Bubble.”

“Parents can start a group of up to 10 kids – kids that family trusts and can be careful with together,” she said. “It could be in a neighborhood clubhouse or a backyard, and if parents want us to go to one or two hours, we will.”

The idea is gaining momentum among parents like Betsy Thompson, who has youngsters in first and second grades at Timber Ridge. Last year, her oldest participated in Challenge Island at the school for an hour each week.

“She’s not into being in a crowd or public speaking, but she had no trouble talking about an RV they built; she got up and explained it, even though she didn’t even know what an RV was before,” said Thompson. “It’s an immersive program where they build things, use imagination, work in teams, and, because there are no screens, they get to explore a different side of their brains than they’re using all day. It’s done with purpose.”

While the possibility of returning to in-person programming seems unlikely for some time, Thompson is working with Estroff to organize a neighborhood bubble.

“We’ll be able to do it just like at school but in a safe space in the neighborhood, said Thompson. “It’s a very smart idea for parents who want their kids off the screens.”

Estroff plans to extend the bubble concept with pop-ups where parents can bring students for supervised learning time.

“Kids can go to a safe place, and we can provide limited support,” she said. “Just because we don’t have specific materials like a robotics kit, we can still keep the curriculum true to form. And we want to keep these kids going.”

Information about Challenge Island is online at challenge-island.com.

SEND US YOUR STORIES. Each week we look at programs, projects and successful endeavors at area schools, from pre-K to grad school. To suggest a story, contact H.M. Cauley at hm_cauley@yahoo.com or 770-744-3042.

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