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Start 'Em Young 

Bend Forest School now open for kids' exploration

Start 'em out young and not only will your life be blessed, but that adorable child of yours will go on into life knowing what the joy of learning is about — and especially with Nature.

That's the goal of Rae Alberg and her team of instructors operating the Bend Forest School at — and all around — the Sunriver Nature Center, through a cooperative agreement with the Children's Forest of Central Oregon.

Liv, age 4, enjoys her first adventure via ants coming and going through a magnified looking glass. - COURTESY RAE ALBERG
  • Courtesy Rae Alberg
  • Liv, age 4, enjoys her first adventure via ants coming and going through a magnified looking glass.

She came up with the idea in 2018 after learning about the methods used for early childhood nature education in the German-based Waldkindergarten, which, according to the American Forest Kindergarten Association, include:

All-outdoor, all-weather  nature immersion

That means allowing the children to hold their faces upward in a rainstorm to feel the rain on their skin and enjoying nature's way of keeping her plants and animals happy.

Place-based education

What fun it is watching ants go about their business and watching lizards eat ants, and learning why birds do what they do at a base camp, and observe changes happening over time.

Interest-led/child-driven learning/Flow learning

There is nothing more fun than allowing a child to experience any one of Nature's sensations: holding a worm in one's hand; following a butterfly as it flits from one flower to another; watching a Rough-legged hawk, down from the frigid Arctic Circle in winter, hunting voles in the snow-bound meadows along the banks of the Deschutes River.

Emergent Curriculum

When Alberg's students arrive at Sunriver, they are greeted by instructors who take them directly to their outdoor classrooms. There are no desks, no chairs, no chalkboards, and no books. The forest and its treasurers are their windows and their walls.

Inquiry-based teaching

There is no such thing as a "dumb question" for a child curious about the beetle he or she is watching, or what the bone is he or she has found on the trail. Answering a child's question about why there are butterflies walking all over coyote scat is a wonderful example of inquiry-based teaching.

Small student to teacher ratio of 5:1

The student to instructor is about 10 kids to two instructors, and that ratio keeps the adults real busy.

Exposure to moderate risk

In the World of Nature, for a child under the supervision of a qualified instructor, "moderate risk" can mean anything from being bitten by an ant to being pooped on by a baby robin, which are all learning experiences with moderate risk.

There is no questioning the concept that the World of Nature has a constant supply of teaching materials designed to satisfy — and enhance — the curiosity of children.

In that light, I'm reminded of my oldest son, Dean, who from the day he was born (literally) was introduced to the magnificent diversity of teaching material that Nature has supplied this wonderful earth of ours...and his beginning into the education about snakes was one of them.

When he was a youngster, back in the late-'60s, he and his mom and baby brother, Ross, would accompany me on my duties watching over the many camps operated by the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, where I was employed as the staff naturalist. Hancock was one of them.

Camp Hancock has a wonderful supply of reptiles, among them dangerous rattlesnakes and non-dangerous, but very quick biters, gopher snakes.

Young Dean's curiosity regarding snakes was in its infancy, thus he had no respect for what kind of snake he wanted to pick up and inspect at an eye-to-eye level.

On a trip to Camp Hancock, Dean was riding in his seat I engineered, strapped to the top of the engine compartment of our Ford Econovan when he spotted a large and very alert gopher snake crossing the road in front of us.

"Can I catch him, dad?" he asked, squirming in the seat.

"Are you sure you want to do that?" I asked him, adding, "He may bite you."

"You wouldn't..." his mom said.

"Oh, yeah, dad"! he replied. So, I stopped the van, got him out of his seat, placed him on the ground and said, "Go get him, Frank Buck!"

And he did. I can still see him running back to the van, the snake firmly gripping his hand and the tears of joy and pain running down his face as he exclaimed, "I got him dad, and he bites, too!"

And that was the beginning of turning curiosity into education for my son, Dean. A moment of "exposure to moderate risk," if you will.

Those interested in looking into Rae Alberg's Bend Forest School can visit bendforestschool.com.

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