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

Recap from the Spring Open House held on Wednesday, May 27th, 2020, with additional questions added from the Summer Open House held on Tuesday, August 11th, 2020. 

Soaring Eagle’s full-time nature school program for 7 to 9-year-olds is going into its second year in 2020-21, starting from parent interest the previous year. Soaring Eagle Nature School’s Founder, Jenna Rudolph, and team held a virtual open house for interested families to find out more about the program and get answers from Jenna and parents of kids currently enrolled in the program. 

“Because we have the opportunity to be with kids on a full-time basis, we take what we do in our regular programs and go beyond to include academics and core competencies. We take it all a step further and do and experience everything we are learning,” Jenna says. Parents agree that the lived, firsthand experience makes concepts stick. “My son will explain what he learned for 15 to 30 minutes, rather than stating, ‘We learned about gravity,'” a parent said, “It’s not just a concept. He can explain why gravity is helpful, why it’s not. Its all so hands-on, they actually measure foot tracks and pattern out the weather, and my son can then do those things on his own.” 

As one of the two current instructors, 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. 

The observed benefits of a small class (maximum 12 kids with 2 instructors) are that kids are truly seen and accepted where they are, they have a solid attachment to instructors, and deep, caring relationships with others in the group. As one parent put it, “With school being out right now, my younger son in kindergarten is not missing school and doesn’t want to go back, but my son in Forest Learners is constantly asking when he can go back to school, which says something about how awesome the program is.” 

The program is set up with Mondays and Thursdays entirely outside in the forests at Rice Lake in North Vancouver and Tuesdays partially indoors at a Nature House at Maplewood Flats, also in North Vancouver. “Access to an indoor space on Tuesday 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. We focus on academics for the morning piece, have lunch, and then spend the rest of the day outside.” 

Jenna shares that there will be an additional fourth day that is optional and done in conjunction with Island Discovery Learning Centre (IDLC), a homeschooling organization with teachers, a principal, and onsite learning. Most parents take the homeschooling route because it is difficult to find a school that would allow a child 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 will be a mix of field trips, academics, and forest days and will be free for those enrolled with the organization. (There may be additional costs for space rental or field trips.)

Question & Answer 

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. We also have creative options to share with parents to support their child, including using tracing paper to trace shapes that may seamlessly flow into wanting to trace letters and learning to put words together. 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 5 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 20 pages of writing now! On top of that, he’s flown through all his math completing both grade 1 and grade 2 curriculum.

Q: What COVID related measures will be in place for student safety, especially for the 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 will 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 the focused time we provide. We have had kids with ASD in the program and in 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 6 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 and they are 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: We are still hoping to have two days to meet the kids to make sure it is the best fit all around. Last year, we had a week and a half transition. The first week was half days with parents so everyone could 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, here we are moving from a school with tonnes 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 program is $6,250, and $500 of that is a nonrefundable deposit. We are able to refund the program fee as long as we fill the spot minus the weeks they attended and 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. The sibling discount is 10%.

Q: Where is the location of the indoor portion?

A: The Tuesday portion is 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: Concerning Covid regulations, is the indoor space large enough that the kids can be spaced out reasonably?

A: We did go back for the last two weeks of program in June and did use the indoor location. It is big enough that with 12 kids, each kid could have their own space and be 6 feet away from each other. When we went back, we had the doors and windows open completely and we sent kids outside to pee so we didn’t have to worry about shared surfaces. They are happy to do that anyway. There are also outdoor coverings that we used for lessons, painting, and crafting. 

Q: I see that the age parameters are 7 to 9, but that the core curriculum covers Grade 1 to 3. As a Grade 1, do they need to be 7 at the start of the academic year or can they turn 7 during the year?

A: Right now the kids enrolled are 7 and 8-year-olds. Last year, the program was for 6 to 8-year-olds and now all the kids are moving up so it is 7 to 9. Enrolling a younger child would require a further conversation to ensure the best fit.

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

A: This year, we have partnered with a homeschooling organization, Island Discovery Learning Centre (IDLC). They hold the fourth day with a certified teacher who has lots of experience with outdoor education and specializes in math and literacy. She will also collaborate with the other teachers so there is a connection between all the days. You don’t have to go through IDLC, but that way does give access to the optional fourth day.

Q: What is the location for the optional Wednesday portion?

A: It has not been set yet. We have 5 kids with IDLC and need 7 to confirm the teacher. From there, it is up to the families to decide where that day will be held. IDLC has a location in East Vancouver in a church building. There is also discussion about various parks or spending another day at Maplewood Flats. However, Maplewood Flats comes with an additional cost to parents.

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 find out what your hopes are 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: Is there a chance to talk to parents of kids in the program to get a sense of their experience?

A: Yes, I know they are open to chatting with other parents. Once we have a conversation, I’d be happy to put you in touch with those parents.

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 do 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 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 that were reading at a Grade 3 level and some that 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, having him miss weeks is a concern.

A: We were strict when we came back in June and same with our summer camps, where anyone showing symptoms or having had a fever weren’t allowed to participate and would get their money back so similarly if that remains our protocol, we wouldn’t charge for days missed due to kids being sick.

Q: Who will be the teachers this year?

A: I will create the curriculum and be there at the beginning of the year and as a guest instructor/substitute, but we have two Soaring Eagle instructors and one teacher hired by IDLC. They are all wonderful people and I’d be excited to have them as my teachers.

Julia adds: The Soaring Eagle instructors are solid, imaginative, approachable, and creative. They have the quality of being able  to hold a place of safety and authority while being approachable and friendly.


Next Steps

The next steps are to sign up for the wait list. Right now there are 5 spots available in the program. You can join the wait list online or email info@soaringeaglenature.com if you need help with the wait list.  We will contact you to have a conversation and before we say yes, we will have an in-person meeting/trial day for those on the wait list. From the trail day, if everything is seamless, we will take a deposit upon acceptance and set up a payment plan for monthly payments or three payments throughout the year.