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Full-time Nature School: Forest Learners Info Session and Q&A Recap

Recap from the spring open house held on Wednesday, May 27th, 2020, updated with information from the session held on February 17th, 2021. 

Soaring Eagle Nature School’s full-time nature program for 6 to 10-year-olds is going into its third year in 2021-22, which started out of parent interest when they noticed how much their kids thrived in a forest setting. As the current cohort of 7 to 9-year-olds continues on in 2021-22, a new cohort will begin with younger kids between 6 and 7. Each year, the kids will continue with their same cohort, and the curriculum adapts to the ages of the kids as they grow older. Soaring Eagle Nature School’s Founder, Jenna Rudolph, and the team held a virtual info session for interested families to find out more about the program and get answers from Jenna and parents of kids currently enrolled in the program. 

The program is four days per week with Mondays and Thursdays spent entirely in the forest at Rice Lake in North Vancouver, and Tuesdays and Wednesdays spent indoors and outdoors at Maplewood Flats, where more academic learning occurs with a certified teacher and a Nature House ‘classroom’. “Access to an indoor space allows us to bring our outdoor experiences into lessons inside. We make a journal note, write a story about what we saw, draw a picture, or do research on a cool frog or eggs we found”, Jenna says, “and we still have our morning game and snack and story on the indoor day.”

“This program is unique because we can take everything we learn in our nature programs and go deeper and include academics and core competencies. We take it all a step further and do and experience everything we are learning,” Jenna says. The foundational curriculum pieces covered in all of our programs are naturalist skills, bird and mammal ID, bird language, edible and medicinal plants, tracking, carving, and nature-based crafts.

As a previous Forest Learners program instructor, Jenna mentions how they combined woodworking, storytelling, math, and imaginative play when they made dice. “The kids used hand-drills to drill holes into blocks to match a dice, made black paint by combining charcoal and glue which they put on the surface, then sanded, and put on a natural finish with beeswax. Then, they used the dice to play math games with addition and subtraction and magical creatures. We created a whole story in the forest as if we were playing a board game in real-time.” There is a freedom to create extensions, adapt lessons based on what is most exciting to the kids, and encourage kids’ creativity. 

One parent shared that her daughter announced that she figured out that teachers have a secret: they are tricking them to learn in all the games. She realizes now that she is learning so much from the incredible games and loves that she gets to learn a new game every day. And the fact that it is part of the lesson of the day is pretty incredible”, the parent adds.

The benefits of a small class (maximum twelve kids with two instructors) are that kids are truly seen and accepted, have a solid attachment to instructors, and deep, caring relationships with others in the group, with space to develop emotional literacy (we lean into the Neufeld approach). As one parent shared, “There was a moment this evening where my son was having big emotions and was struggling. He said he needed to go outside and sat down, grounded himself and things were better after. He wasn’t doing that two years ago, but it’s modeled at the school setting to regulate and connect with what you are feeling. The fact that he can do it at home is great and shows his development of emotional intelligence, resilience, and resourcefulness.”

Jenna shares that the program is in partnership with Island Discovery Learning Centre (IDLC), a homeschooling organization, and that the optional day on Wednesday is exclusively for those enrolled with IDLC. Most parents take the homeschooling route because it is difficult to find a school that would allow them to attend just two days per week. When parents opt to homeschool, they can do the unschooling route with no ministry check-ins, funding, or curriculum, or Distributed Learning with funding, resources, teacher support, and required reporting. The fourth day with IDLC is free for those enrolled with the organization, but there may be additional costs for space rental or field trips.

Question & Answer 

Q: Do the different aged cohorts spend time together?

A: We would love for the kids to experience wider multi-age groups, but it depends on the spaces we have. There may be some opportunities for collaboration, but for the most part, they will do their own thing.

Q: How can French be covered in their learning plan?

A: Our certified teacher is currently working on getting a French teacher in. So yes, IDLC can organize a French-speaking section of the program. That also may be something you choose to do on Fridays independently.

Q: What happens when the child ages out of the program and has to go back to regular school? Isn’t that transition going to be tough?

A: We haven’t set a graduation date for when they officially leave the program. Currently, the kids move up and continue to grow together as a cohort. Some committed parents want this to continue through high school.

Q: Do we know who the teachers are next year for the younger pod?

A: At this time, we don’t have teachers set. I feel confident that IDLC will hire another great teacher for the Nature House days on Tuesday and Wednesday. And we do have input in that decision. We are starting the hiring process for the outdoor teachers. I have very high standards for who they are and want them to be the best fit possible. Once we know, we will let those who are registered know.

Q: Is the BC Certified teacher present one day per week or all four days?

A: Of the four days, the BC Certified teacher is with us twice per week on the Nature House days only. On the forest days on Monday and Thursday, we have two nature mentors. On one indoor day on Tuesday, there is overlap with one nature mentor and the BC Certified teacher to incorporate the nature lessons indoors and the academic learning outdoors. And on the optional day on Wednesday, the BC Certified teacher is on her own.

Q: Is this a program that would be suitable for a family homeschooling with their own chosen curriculum? Are the days heavy on sit-down learning, writing, etc., or is it mostly play-based nature learning?

A: A lot is covered on Tuesdays, and the Tuesday portion is required. But you can be in IDLC and do your own homeschool curriculum. You get to decide how you want the learning to be distributed, and you can choose to do a Weekly Program with us to have only the outdoor portion.

Q: How is academic material deployed to different grades/ages within the same cohort?

A: The BC-certified teacher designs the program with each parent based on their child’s needs. From there, we create a plan with the kids that falls within the parent’s plan. We have started to do breakout groups to play math games and have groups that cover the different levels.

A parent adds: It’s been great to get the resources from IDLC to help with math. They have them learn about math in a very conceptual way instead of rule-based. It’s about problem-solving and deep understanding. Overall, I’ve been impressed with IDLC. I didn’t know how learning could be so different than what I’ve experienced. I’m mind blown by the options, support, and tools available. Plus, there are lots of benefits to being a part of the community.

Q: If the children will be leading their education and don’t want to write, how do we strengthen the areas they need to practice? How do you manage it when they always choose to do the other option?

A: We always provide options since we do not want to force them, but all options will align with what we are trying to work on. Being in small groups and the setting and environment we have, we see kids have a natural interest in trying out what their peers are doing. There’s an extent to freedom; we may say, ‘These are your options. You can look at a book quietly, we can read a book together, work on letters together, or some kids may want to write out sentences.’ We see where a child is and can use the one-on-one time available due to our small adult-to-child ratio to support them. There is also lots of support within the homeschool network with tutors and a teacher. Plus, you have the whole day on Friday to work on whatever you choose.  

A parent adds by email: I was very worried that without five days and a structured curriculum that my son would fall further behind his peers. My son started the year not knowing any of the letters of the alphabet, but he is now reading at a grade 1 level and writing sentences and stories comfortably. We got good advice from our Distributed Learning teacher when we were running into challenges. She suggested an Inventive writing book. This is like a diary the kids write in that has a few rules…no parents are allowed to tell you how to spell anything. You get to write about whatever you want. He has taken to it and has about twenty pages of writing now! On top of that, he’s flown through all his math, completing both the grade 1 and grade 2 curriculum.

Q: What COVID-related measures will be in place for student safety, especially for indoor classroom time? What about rainy days when children might be huddled under a tarp? 

A: We spend most of our indoor day outside, even when we have a classroom, Covid or not. The doors will stay open, the indoor space is large enough to set up different stations for each kid, the kids have their own stationery kits, so we don’t share a lot anyway, and we have hand sanitizers, masks, and gloves as needed. On rainy days outdoors, kids are dressed the way they need to so they don’t require being under a tarp, but we will take turns using the tarp or set up multiple tarps and spend time running around to stay warm instead of staying in one place. 

Q: Do your instructors have experience teaching children of different abilities (ASD or ADHD designation)? Is there an opportunity for an assistant to support children needing extra help? 

A: Our instructors are trained in working with a variety of kids with a variety of needs. We have training at the beginning of the year for ASD. We notice that kids with ADD  and ADHD seem to thrive outdoors and with focused time. We have had kids with ASD in our programs and Forest Learners. One positive aspect is the small group size, where we can really see and understand who each kid is, what they want to learn, and how they want to learn. We have had various aides come to program. So if we thought it was needed or a positive addition, there would be space for that. We also acknowledge that we want there to be a mutual fit and for the program to work for the kid, which may not be forest school or Soaring Eagle programming.

Q: Do kids find it difficult being outside six hours twice a week in the winter rain? 

A: No, it’s never been a problem. It’s all about gear and getting comfortable with the rain. When it is raining and we are indoors at Maplewood Flats, we will tell the kids we are going outside and to gear up. They don’t even flinch. They get their rain gear on and are ready to go. If a kid shows up not properly dressed, we say that they can’t come for the day because it is a safety concern. 

Q: What does the transition look like to help new kids get comfortable in the program? 

A: There will be an in-person meeting or trial day to make sure it is the best fit all around. To get comfortable with the program, last year we had a week and a half transition. The first week was half days with parents to get comfortable with each other and in the forest. Then, we went to half days with just the kids where they would jump in, and it seemed to work for them. If kids need more time, the parents can stay in the forest away from the group.   

Q: Can you speak to social life outside of school? One of my concerns about leaving the public school system is leaving the community of children that we live near. 

A: There is a social aspect to the program where kids do form strong bonds with each other because they are together all the time. Parents still have a community in their neighbourhood that doesn’t go away, and kids still see friends from their old school. Plus, IDLC is a whole other community they can be a part of.

A parent adds:  Depending on the kid’s age, we find it more important for kids to bond with adults and parents. There are friendship opportunities in sports, our community, and the Forest Learners that we haven’t felt a lack of friends or opportunities for friendships.

Another parent adds: We spend time with friends who have kids, and the flexibility of programs gives opportunities to sign up for more classes that can expose them to diverse kids. I do remember feeling like we are moving from a school with tons of community (Waldorf) and lots of parents to one that only has a tiny cohort. Will we be close as a parent group? Will the loss of Waldorf be significant? The reality is that it is a change, and we miss aspects of the community from Waldorf, but the benefits to our son are too easy to see that it is worth it. 

Q: Are you able to share an example of a kid that wasn’t right for the program? And is there a refund/withdrawal process? 

A: There has been a case where a kid has more needs that could be found elsewhere. The cost of the program is $6,250, and $500 of that is a nonrefundable deposit. We can refund the program fee as long as we fill the spot minus the weeks they attended and the weeks that the spot was not filled. 

Q: Do you offer sports?

A: Not officially. We play lots of running games and games that increase body awareness. Many kids will be in the forest all day and then play hockey for three hours after, and it works for them. 

Q: What do people do for before/after school care?

A: Parents have arranged that among themselves. We do not offer anything officially, and our start and end times are firm. Parents often hang out after program, and their kids will run around together for another hour. They somehow have the energy!

Q: When is the first installment due after the $500 deposit? And is there a sibling discount?

A: We will take a deposit upon acceptance. After the deposit, the payments begin in August. The sibling discount is 10% for the second child enrolled.

Q: Where is the location of the indoor portion?

A: Tuesdays and Wednesdays are at Maplewood Flats, which is along Dollarton Highway. It is inside a bird sanctuary by the ocean. It’s not your typical classroom because there’s lots of wood and natural light, windows, and movable walls. We have the doors open all day and are steps away from the forest and ocean.

Q: Is this considered a private school, or are the children considered homeschoolers?

A: For this program, we are partnered with a homeschooling organization, Island Discovery Learning Centre (IDLC). Together we hire the BC Certified teacher who has experience with outdoor education. You don’t have to go through IDLC, but it gives access to the optional fourth day. Most parents take the homeschooling route because it is difficult to find a school that would allow children to attend just two days per week. When parents opt to homeschool, they can do the unschooling route with no ministry check-ins, funding, or curriculum, or distributed learning with funding, resources, teacher support, and required reporting.

Q: What kind of stamina does a kid need? How far are you traveling?

A: In the Rice Lake area, we start in the meadow and walk to a spot by the lake and then back throughout the day. We rarely would walk all the way around the lake. It is more about being comfortable outside all day rather than having stamina. We’d also only go as far as the kids are comfortable going, and if we knew some kids couldn’t get very far, we wouldn’t do that.

Q: How are you assessing them?

A: Last year, we went through several stations with the kids seeing if they were familiar with sight words, sounding out different letters, and seeing their comfort with hearing words, reading and writing. It’s not an invasive process and felt like a fun rotation. We also have parent-teacher meetings where we get to talk about their learning goals and discuss where you see them in terms of their reading, writing, and math.

Q: Can you say a little about what makes a kid a good fit for the program? Is there an interview or assessment?

A: A good fit is a kid who will be okay being outside 3 days per week, can adapt to a new environment and will enjoy the experience of learning outdoors. We also want the kids to be a part of a cohort that will continue together each year. We will not interview the children but will have a conversation with the parents to determine your hopes for your child’s learning.

Q: Is there something in place for sharing the driving?

A: There were families last year who arranged to carpool, and I can connect the parents again this year. This year there are families in North Vancouver, West Vancouver, and East Vancouver, so there are opportunities.

Q: Are you doing anything with technology/screens/coding?

A: No, but if that is something you’d like to focus on, I know some of the kids take STEM classes outside of our program, which can be done on Friday. We have guest speakers, and the Wednesday portion can include field trips if the parents are interested in that.

Q: In terms of Covid, will you follow other BC school closures?

A: We are not connected with the ministry, so if closures were happening, only the IDLC portion would have to cancel in-person sessions, but we could still do Zoom sessions. We are a separate entity from the ministry but are at the behest of the Parks Board, so in the heat of Covid, we were not allowed to take groups of kids into the parks at that time. They’ve changed their protocols now, and we have been running summer camps.

Q: Because of the age range and different grade levels, if a kid is advanced in reading, would it feel like things are too slow or like she is held back?

A: There were kids last year who were reading at a Grade 3 level, and some were just getting familiar with letters. We focus different lesson plans on each of the kids. Some kids will be tracing out letters while others are writing out sentences. We also tend to have many passion-based projects happening on the side. The two classroom teachers also make it, so everyone is getting what they need.

Q: With the school board recommending anyone symptomatic to stay at home during cold and flu season, I imagine many kids in public school having to stay home. What will the approach be about a cold? And if paying for the school, missing weeks is a concern.

A: For anyone showing symptoms, they aren’t allowed to participate and we wouldn’t charge for days missed due to kids being sick.

Next Steps

To register your interest, fill out the form HERE. We will contact you based on your preferences to have a conversation about what you are looking for in your child’s education program, and determine together if we are the right fit. Then, your child can join an in-person meeting or trial day, and if everything is seamless, we will take a deposit upon acceptance.

If you have any questions, please contact us at info@soaringeaglenatureschool.org!