For Sharon Duke Estroff, being a writer, educator and parent wasn’t quite enough.
While teaching at the Epstein School during the 1990s, Estroff thought her students were not getting what they needed, so she developed the Challenge Island education program, which is now a rapidly growing franchise operation. She launched the educational enrichment program as a home-based business 14 years ago.
“It was a product of everything I had learned as a parenting journalist, as a teacher and as a mother of four,” she said. “I really felt the kids needed some kind of break from all the technology, so all these different philosophies went into creating this program.”
Challenge Island provides “collaborative, challenge-based experiences for ages 4 to 14 in the form of after-school classes, in-school workshops, camps, parties, homeschooling events, team building and multi-generational family adventures” and is at the forefront of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) education, according to its website.
“All of the STEAM that’s going on in the schools incorporates digital stuff, and while I think that’s good, the kids really need to be able to make something of, say, a cardboard box — make nothing into something,” Estroff said. “So much of their socializing is taking place in the digital space. This program reclaims the original definition of technology as a solution to a problem, and it gives them the ability to do this in a group, in a social environment. You need to be a thinker, get along with others and express your ideas persuasively.”
“I majored in psychology, but I decided I wanted to work with the children rather than just observe them on the other side of a two-way mirror,” said Estroff, whose father is Emory clinical psychologist Marshall Duke. “I wanted to be in the room with kids, actually helping them do the puzzles.”
Having written the book “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” Estroff said her program addresses the need for young students to collaborate and be creative as a unit, rather than individually, without relying on digital activity.
“Kids don’t have enough opportunity to interact because they’re always on the phone,” she said. “There are bottomless concerns from parents about the dangers of media and the way kids are using them. There’s no adult in the room to put boundaries. It’s kind of a free-for-all.”
With Challenge Island’s tribal concept, “there’s something about being included,” Estroff said. “You trust (one another). You’re part of something. You’re not working with someone just because you happen to be sitting next to them. Things that are intangible are addressed. Everyone is in it and carries their weight, making a difference together.”
The program now has 65 franchisees in the United States and has spread to Egypt and the Philippines. Estroff hopes to at least double that number within a year.
She operates the program at schools in East Cobb and Sandy Springs, and seven others operate franchises in Georgia.
“What I thought was missing has really struck a chord with a lot of schools, educators, different organizations, Boys & Girls Clubs. Those who care about kids recognize what we’re doing,” she said. “This is so crucial to modern kids who need to thrive in this global economy, communicate with other people, and be responsible in their thinking.”