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

Recap from the Virtual Open House held on Wednesday, May 27th, 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 out of parent interest the previous year. Soaring Eagle Nature School’s Founder, Jenna Rudolph, and team held a virtual open house for interested families so they could 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 that 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 the holes into the blocks to match a dice, made black paint by combining charcoal and glue which they put on the surface, then sanded, put on a natural finish with beeswax, and once they were done, played math games with addition and subtraction and magical creatures. We used them in the forest creating a whole story, as if we were playing a board game in real time.” There is freedom to create extensions, adapt lessons based on what is most exciting at the time to the kids, and encourage kid’s 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 asking constantly when he can go back to school, which really says something about how awesome the program is.” 

 The program is set up with Mondays and Thursdays completely 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 for 2020-21. The day will be done in conjunction with Island Discovery Learning Centre (IDLC), a homeschooling organization with teachers, principat, and onsite learning. The homeschooling route is taken by most parents enrolled in the program due to it being difficult to find a school that would allow a child to only attend 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 essentially free for those enrolled with their organization. (There may be additional costs for space rental or field trips etc.)

Question & Answer 

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

A We always provide options since we do not want to force them, but all options will be in line with what we are trying to work on. Being in small groups with the setting and environment we have, we see kids have a natural interest to try out what their peers are doing. We also come up with creative ways of doing things that we can 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 at and can use the one-on-one time that is 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 really well and has like 20 pages of writing now! On top of that he’s flown through all his math completing both gr 1 and gr 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 stationary 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 and 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 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 to 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 do 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 Is there any chance of doing a trial week in June?

 A It is ideal in many ways to have a trial week in June, since we will be returning to program , but since the group hasn’t seen each other in a while and we will be starting our new Covid-19 protocols, it doesn’t feel like the right time to bring in new kids to visit. We can plan for something in late June/early July so people can start to make decisions as soon as possible.

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 one 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%.

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.  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 starting in August or three payments throughout the year (August, December, March.)